As part of the Easter at King’s festival in Cambridge this year, we had a wonderful performance based on extracts from the diaries and letters of the young Jewish woman,  Etty Hillesum, interspersed with narration and music from the gypsy band, ZRI. We called it ‘Blazing Harmonies’ – a phrase coined by Etty herself.

It was an extremely powerful experience, and I am delighted to say that you can now listen to the whole thing on line, here.

Embracing and Questioning

I had the idea for Blazing Harmonies when I first read Etty’s dairies in order to preach about her as part of our ‘Women of Spirit’ series of sermons a few years ago. They only span a couple of years ( 1941-3 ) but extend to eleven notebooks. The English translation runs to around 700 pages. Editing it down for Blazing Harmonies was quite a task and obviously much was missed out.

However, as an introduction to Etty as a person of engaging, honest and positive spirituality it seems to work. It’s clear that Etty is a deeply reflective person, often at odds with herself, and that her core drive is to both embrace and to question everything, including her both own perplexity and the suffering that inevitably unfolds for her, her family and her people under Nazi occupation.


One of the reasons Blazing Harmonies came across so powerfully in the Chapel was because of the skill of the performers, not least the actor Rosie Hilal who read from the diaries.  She had never heard of Etty before I contacted her to ask her to consider the role, but quickly found Etty to be a fascinating character with a compellingly interesting approach to life. Rosie and I spent a day working on the script together which certainly enriched my own understand of and feel for Etty’s writing.

Rosie Hilal’s website

Time spent with Jon Banks of ZRI was also very important in the preparation. We met a few times and, as I explained the idea and introduced him to Etty, he played me recordings of ZRI’s music that he felt might work.  I found Jon’s approach, and the approach of the other musicians in the band, deeply sympathetic.  The shared energy and respect within ZRI was an extremely enjoyable and inspiring part of the preparations, and an integral aspect of the whole evening; informing the audience’s response to the words read, the place and the occasion.

ZRI’s website

The narrator was Donald Macleod, presenter of ‘Composer of the Week’ on BBC Radio 3. Donald’s instantly recognisable voice added precision and colour to the words I had written to help the story along; not an easy task given the huge gaps that were obviously left. Donald also entered into the spirit of it, not only improving on the detail of my script but also, and quite rightly, blending well-known phrases from the Authorised Version with the more contemporary version I had used in reading 1 Corinthians 13 – to which Etty refers in a letter written to ‘two sisters in the Hague’ in December 1942

Looking Ahead

I plan to take Blazing Harmonies further. Invitations have come in to present it in Holland, and I certainly want to develop the script, and risk a slightly longer presentation.

For now, I hope that you enjoy the webcast and get drawn into reading Etty’s dairies yourself, and thinking, with her, through some of life’s deepest questions and perplexities. She inhabited a specific historical moment in a very particular way; but her courage, candour, questing and ultimate calm will shine out as long as people encounter her words.

Webcast of Blazing Harmonies

The Etty Hillesum Research Centre



Sustainable Joy

An Easter sermon preached in King’s College Chapel.

One of the many great things about the peculiar liturgical life of this Chapel is that we have as many people attending worship on Good Friday as on Easter Day. After all, the two days proclaim the same gospel, the same God, the same Jesus. The one focuses on the cross and the other on the empty tomb. The one is associated with lamentation and sadness and guilt; the other with joy and gladness and victory; on one we hear of betrayal and brutality, death and burial, on the other we hear of early morning messages, running races between the disciples, an absence where one would expect a presence, and misunderstandings in the garden and on the road to Emmaus.

There is less ambiguity on Good Friday. The story is told differently by the different evangelists, but there is no doubt how it will end. The man on the cross is going to die and be buried. The male disciples – with the exception of John – will forsake their friend. Desertion, desolation and dereliction: these are the words of the day. And it’s clear what these things feel like, what they mean, and where they are headed.

Jesus dies and descends into hell. Hell is not, as is so often quipped, ‘other people’. Hell is the absence of anyone who cares about you, and the absence in your own heart of any care or concern, never mind love, for anyone else. It’s not something to which you are consigned. It’s where you end up if you opt against love and truth and justice in your everyday decisions. Jesus goes there to reach out in love to those who are not loved and cannot love. It is the extreme edge of his mission. It is in hell that the resurrection begins.

So: ‘If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above … [and] … put to death whatever in you is earthly’. That is to say – if you believe in the resurrection, and have glimpsed, or been touched by, the presence of the living and loving God, then you need to reorient yourself, and ‘kill off’ the toxic attitudes, desires and habits that take your life in the direction of isolation and hell.

The resurrection of Jesus is a gateway to a better way of living; one that is new, fresh, fulfilling and positive, and which leads us away from hell and towards the fellowship of the kingdom of heaven.

Positive though this is, it does involve some serious giving-up. We tend to associate giving-up with Lent, but our little Lenten disciplines, whether they involved refraining from chocolate or strong drink, are really just the warm-up exercises for serious Christian living; for living out the gospel of eternal, saving and transformational love that we proclaim and celebrate today.

Easter is above all else an occasion of celebration, joy and delight. But none of those words make sense unless they are grounded in ideas and realities like ‘love’ and ‘communion’, ‘justice’ and ‘peace’. It is possible (we all know this) to celebrate selfishly; to have happy feelings unkindly, and to delight cruelly in the failings of others.

The apostle Paul saw and heard of plenty of this sort of Christian immaturity in the communities that he ministered to; and this is why he wrote to them saying that they should knock it off. As he says to the Corinthians, ‘you say you are celebrating the Lord’s Supper, but I hear that those who can afford it are simply over-eating and getting drunk. That might feel like joy to you, but it doesn’t look like joy to me.’  We need to be advised in similar ways today. To be challenged not to be content with things that make a few of us happy for a while, but to seek true and lasting joy for all. Sustainable joy, one might say.

I think it was Jean Vanier who said that one of the tasks of the church today is to teach the world how to celebrate.  He, like Henri Nouwen, learnt this lesson not from the privileged, healthy and successful, but by sharing his life with disadvantaged and profoundly needy people. It was here that both found true spiritual joy bubbling up irrepressibly.

The resurrection of Jesus is nothing if it is not irrepressible.  And Easter joy is nothing if it is not sustainable.

We are not talking here about someone’s theory of life. We are not talking about good news for the few. We are talking here about something earth-shattering and mind-blowing for all. A belief that, despite the way it seems when we look around us, love is stronger than death; love is stronger than hatred; and love is a far more profound force than malice. The core Christian belief is that evil, horrendous though its consequences can be, is actually defeated by the love of God that was revealed in Christ, from the first cries of the infant in the stable, to the dying words of the man on the cross.  Those last few words were positively laden with both humanity and theology. Horror and death are embraced, but the eternal power of love presses on and shines out to the end.  At the very end Jesus cries out:  ‘it is finished’ ‘completed’, ‘accomplished’. The achievement of the crucified Christ is to have lived on the receiving end of sin without succumbing to it; the triumph is in relentlessly replying to abuse with transformative love and hope.

This is the true triumph of Easter, and the true heart of the gospel. It’s most properly and convincingly proclaimed in a way of life in which its love that does the talking, the doing and, above all else, the willing. Christianity is, of course, a religion for people of all ages, because people of all ages can love. But it’s also a religion of learning, growth and development.

Christian maturity involves the warm and passionate embrace of life in its fullness, diversity and glory; it involves a desire and a longing to reflect the loving purposes of God; it involves moral clarity, but it eschews judging others; it is constantly looking for moments of delight, but is only interested in the sort of joy that is sustainable because it is based in truth and community and generosity of spirit.

It is this maturity to which the resurrection of Christ calls us, and for which the life of worship and sacraments, praise and prayer, equips us. It is an open-ended maturity, lived out differently by each individual person.

This is perhaps why the stories of Easter Day are mysterious and strange, ambiguous and open. Good Friday is simple by comparison. It was an end. But if Good Friday was a full-stop, Easter Day is the next capital letter. It’s the beginning of a word; the beginning of a sentence; the beginning of a story that it’s up to you and God to write together.

I hope and pray that this Easter Day may be the beginning of the story of the rest of your life, and that that story and that life will be one of deep, delightful and sustainable joy. And that, whatever circumstances you find yourself in, you become aware of, and respond to, the irrepressible power of God: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.



The first day of the installation (see previous blog) concluded with Compline – at which I gave this brief address:

The service of Compline is intended to close the day peacefully. It is a service of completion, closure. As it begins, we ask that God may grant us a quiet night and perfect end.  The ‘perfect end’ is a reference to death. It is the prayer that our death may be peaceful and timely and well-prepared.

It might be thought, then that there is some irony in concluding this disturbing evening with such a service. For the people who have been on our minds, the untold numbers of Syrian refugees, in particular those who have taken to the seas, have very little hope of either quiet nights or perfect ends.

Not for these refuges the sorts of worries that keep us awake at night – the stresses and anxieties that haunt us in our comforts; for them the actual real and pressing dangers and deprivations that are known by the homeless everywhere, but with all the added uncertainties that come from using the most vulnerable modes of travel that we can imagine.

If Issam’s little boats touch out hears, it may be because of what they reveal of the fragility of the human beings, our brothers and sisters, who are represented by burnt matchsticks, and the feebleness of the mud-guard boats that promise to take them to a new future.

Syrians are not naturally inclined to take to the water. And we should remember that those who do are on the second or third phase of their refugee journey.  We might wonder with what thoughts and expectations they embark.  Some take a lemon to stave off the seasickness, some will wrap their certificates of professional qualification with their passport in two or three plastic bags, some will carry a torch or laser pen in the hope that should their boat fail to make it – as many do not – they might attract attention and be rescued before otherwise inevitable death by drowning, others may carry a toy, something to hold or cuddle or to be otherwise distracted by. For many refugees are young children.

We can be confident that many, if not all, will know depths of fear that we can hardly begin to imagine.  Who would have thought that the Arab Spring would have led on to such suffering when it began to unfold seven years ago?  Who knows what will have become of the Syrian people and nation in seven years’ time?  We can be sure, however, that while many in Syria will yet have no choice but to face death at home, others will, as human being facing danger and destruction have always done, begin to make their way to a hoped-for safe haven beyond the mountains or on a distant shore.  There is a deep determined hope in such travelling that should fill us with admiration just as the danger and suffering fill us with sympathetic fear and compassion.

Our service will shortly begin. We will pray for a quiet night and a perfect end. But let us not only pray for ourselves, but for all those who have been so powerfully brought to mind this evening. And let us pray with the same determined hopefulness that inspires refugees, and the same gritty resignation to the fact that suffering will be real and hard and terminal for many of those who decide to leave home and seek peace elsewhere – that there might indeed be a new dawn, a new day, and new future in which hopes for quiet nights and perfect ends are not ironic, but realistic.



Dark Water, Burning World, is an installation currently in King’s College Chapel of 1,000 miniature boats made from recycled bicycle mudguards, jam-packed with upright spent matches in which Syrian artist, Issam Kourbaj, evokes the plight of his fellow Syrians.
As I said before the exhibition was installed, Kourbaj’s artwork is exhibited at King’s College Chapel in response to the Syrian tragedy and crisis. As we look forward to the installation and experiencing its impact on our hearts and minds our prayers remain with those who continue to suffer in Syria as well as those who have fled.
 Issam commented that, ‘In Dark Water, Burning World I explore the visible and invisible scars of loss borne by the scorched, escaping Syrians, forced to flee their homeland. I have delved deep into our proud Syrian history for inspiration – finding it in the 5th century BC Syrian sea vessels in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.’
This evening we had a wonderful concert of Music, Poetry and Sound-effects, with choral music, upon the themes of Exile and Flight, sung by King’s Voices, conducted by Ben Parry, and for the first time ever heard at King’s Chapel, Syrian Chant sung by Lina Al Shahin, interleaved with Poetry, including Ruth Padel’s Lesbos, 2015. The concert began with live sound-effects of winds blowing across the sea designed by Hugh Hunt.
The installation will remain in Chapel until March 15th, which is the 7th anniversary of the Syrian uprising. In the morning the artist will publicly de-install Dark Water, Burning World, which will then be replaced by seven candles at the Chapel altar.

A sermon preached on Mothering Sunday in King’s College Chapel, which, as well as offering some culinary opinions introduces the work of psychologist Alison Gopnik, and the visionary theologian Mother Julian of Norwich.

For Americans, motherhood and apple pie are things that are so simply and incontrovertibly good that can be no controversy about them; that there is, quite simply,  nothing to discuss.  But this is a mistake. In fact it is the very mistake that Mothering Sunday is intended to rectify: the mistake of taking motherhood for granted.

It is inevitable, perhaps, we do this.  To put it bluntly and biologically – ‘no mother, no you’. But motherhood isn’t only about giving birth or providing the first nutrition that a baby needs; it’s about the wider package of nurture, care and love that allows human beings to grow, develop and come to fulfilment.  In many happy cases these further qualities are provided by the birth mother; but it doesn’t always work out like that.  Some people do better for being brought up by someone else and over the years a bond if formed that is as deep as durable as any biological connection, while others continue to feel deprivation or rejection for the rest of their lives.

Motherhood, then, isn’t quite so simple. But then neither is apple pie. Apple pie can take various forms, and different cooks favour different recipes; and one might debate whether or not a crumble is a kind of pie and, if not, whether crumble is better than pie. As it happens this is the position I take, especially if blackberries are added to the apple, and a few ground nuts and oats to the crumble.

Apple pie then can be improved upon. But what about motherhood in general? And what about the motherhood that we have experienced or offered ourselves?

We probably won’t want to judge the details, but content ourselves with saying that motherhood is about loving and that the main thing is that a mother loves her child.

And yet loving – while the thing we are all most commanded to do, and the quality that we most readily attribute to both God and mothers, is not always easy or straightforward.  Once you start to think about it mothering becomes quite complicated. For one thing there are so many decisions to be made.

How democratic should domestic decision making be? To what extent should the desires of children be indulged, and to what extent should they be curbed or shaped? How does a loving parent deal with untruthfulness in a child, or the development of anti-social habits?  There are a million and more issues that parents need to agonize about if they want not only to be emotionally loving but wisely loving to their children. (How protective? How encouraging? How realistic? How censorious? How directive?)

These questions of parenting have never been more hotly contended or indeed researched.  A visiting fellow here last year, Alison Gopnik, is a major authority in this area. In her book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, she uses these two different practices as metaphors for parenting. In the one case you have a piece of wood that you fashion into what you want it to be by direct effort on the material; in the other you have something organic, alive and growing that it’s your job to tend and care and bring to flourishing in the way that owes much to your interventions but is always going to be way beyond your power to control and which may well end up delighting you with surprises.  Gopnik’s argument is that parents these days tend to think of their task as carpentry, when it would be better for all concerned if they thought of themselves as gardeners. Why? Because you can’t and you shouldn’t try to create a certain kind of adult out of your child; rather you should do what you can to allow your child to flourish in ways beyond both your imaging and your control.

I have a lot of respect and sympathy for Gopnik’s angle on this, and am especially intrigued by her examples, partly because they are so biblical. Adam, the father of all, was a gardener, Joseph, Jesus’ step-father, was a carpenter, and after his resurrection Jesus was himself mistaken for a gardener.

Also intriguing is that the idea of the gardener is intricately caught up in Julian of Norwich’s theological imagery.  In her pivotal story of ‘the Lord and the Servant’ she sees the servant as a both Adam and Christ, and imagines him as a gardener.

Julian, who lived in the fourteenth century and was the first woman to write a book in English, also spoke of God as both our father and our mother.

In our making God almighty is our loving father by nature; and God all wisdom is our loving mother by nature, together with the love and goodness of the Holy Spirit. (Julian, Revelations, Chapter 58)

But Julian particularly identifies the motherhood of God with the second person of the Trinity – Jesus Christ.

So Jesus Christ who does good in return for evil is our true mother; we have our being from him where the ground of motherhood begins, with all the precious safekeeping of love which endlessly follows. (Julian, Revelations, Chapter 59)

If you are looking for something defining and divine in motherhood it might be in this little phrase: ‘doing good in return for evil’, for among the many qualities of a good mother is the capacity to deal well with a child who has done badly or wrong – whether by neglect or with deliberation and malice.

The commercial world has turned what used to be called ‘Mothering Sunday’ into ‘Mother’s Day’. You can see why it would. There is a huge market in gifts and cards for ‘mum’.  But the reality is that while we need and value and love our mother,  motherhood is not a role that is always vested in one particular individual. The truth of the matter is that we need many people to be, as it were, mothers for us; supporting us when we are vulnerable, being generous and forgiving with us when we don’t deserve it, and showing us that aspect of God which the Bible calls ‘loving-kindness’.

All this is true, but Mother Julian wants us to go further than this in our theology, that is, in our understanding of how this all connects to God.

As truly as God is our father, so truly is God our mother; and he revealed that in everything, and especially in those sweet words where he says: ‘It is I’, that is to say: ‘It is I: the power and the goodness of fatherhood.  It is I: the wisdom and the kindness of motherhood.  It is I: the light and the grace which is all blessed love.  It is I: the Trinity.  It is I: the unity.  I am the supreme goodness of all manner of things.  It is I who makes you to love.  It is I who makes you to long.  It is I: the endless fulfilment of all true desires. (Julian, Revelations, Chapter 59)

Understood richly, motherhood points to the loving-kindness of God which seeks the fulfilment and flourishing of each and every one of God’s children. This is the insight which Julian had so vividly in the fourteenth century and which patriarchal, disciplinary and punitive theology has so often forgotten. This is why it is right on this day to thank God for the love that has formed us over the years, to renew our commitment to offering nurturing love to others, and to meditate on Julian’s revelation that ‘just as truly as God is our father, so truly is God our mother’.

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