Here is a brief excerpt from my book just published today, Barefoot Ways – Praying through Advent, Christmas Easter and Epiphany. SPCK

CHRISTMAS EVE

Christmas Eve is a strange day. Unique in atmosphere and meaning, it doesn’t belong in the 12 days of Christmas. Yet it is not properly part of Advent either. Perhaps it needs to be divided: the morning given to Advent – for final preparations, the last minute shopping or some wrapping, and the afternoon and evening to Christmas itself.

During the twentieth century the idea developed that Christmas begins at 3.00pm on Christmas Eve. All over the world, radio sets were tuned to the BBC, often via local radio stations or the World Service. And from a silent chapel in Cambridge comes the trembling voice of a boy treble “Once in Royal …”

Inside the chapel a thousand people are standing in quivering silence. They are uniquely aware of time, it is time at last, after all that queueing; and supremely aware of space – the sound is going out to all lands. People know that for the rest of their lives, wherever they might be, when they tune into this particular broadcast they will recall having been there. And when they tell others they will share stories of the remote spots in which they have heard this service, and the days of dark sadness which it has illuminated. My own memories include hearing the first part of the service on a car radio while driving to do some hospital visiting in a stoke ward when I was a curate, and then hearing the last part on the way home. The sadly incapacitated and soon-to-die stroke victims I visited being enfolded, as it were, in the generous spirituality of that great and mysterious service. And so it is that the throng in the chapel will cast their minds to those listening across the world in places remoter, hotter and colder than we can normally manage to imagine.

What matters about Christmas Eve, of course, is the ‘Eve’; the time when light at last falls away and the darkness arrives. The cloak of darkness being precisely where the Christ child will be born, not for reasons of secrecy or protection, but because the true light is gracefully drawn not to places which are pleasantly illuminated, but to the deepest darkness.

The Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, is remarkable in many ways, not least for its famous and distinctive acoustic properties – its sound is unique. But for the few who attend this service in the chapel itself the play of light is even more affecting and significant.

The stained glass windows of the chapel are huge, and if the day is sunny the chapel will be bright and beautiful at 3.00pm. An hour or so later the windows will be dark. Natural light will have departed. The flickering candles around the choir will appear much brighter, and they will form a pool of light which might pass for a huge cradle. And it from here that the final resounding lesson (John 1.1-13) is read, from which the title of the next meditation is a quotation.

December 24 (Christmas Eve) ‘And the Darkness Comprehended it Not’

As the sun slips the horizon

it barely transcended:

degree by degree,

inch by inch.

As the darkness rises

to black the great windows:

colour by colour,

pane by pane.

As the hoarfrost gathers

to glisten creation:

blade by blade,

twig by twig.

Let my prayer rise before you

as tranquil as incense:

cloud by cloud,

plume by plume.

Let my hands be uplifted

as gift and acceptance:

finger by  finger,

palm by  palm.

And let this night fall

with seismic thud

to be vanquished and healed

by the flint-flash of God.

Today SPCK have published my second book of prayers and meditations – Barefoot Ways. I gather it’s already in the shops and know its available from the SPCK website, Church House Bookshop, Amazon and so on.

I paste below the introduction to the book – and will follow this blog up immediately with the introduction and meditation for Christmas Eve.  Here is the introduction to the book:

In the northern hemisphere, December and January are the darkest months of the year. Yet they host four Christian festivals of light: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany and Candlemas. Like all good festivals, these are not over in a day, but are short seasons which, in the case of Advent and Epiphany, can helpfully be subdivided.

In this collection offer a meditation, poem or prayer for each day of the two month period. The style of the pieces reflects the poem-prayers gathered in ‘Barefoot Prayers: A Mediation a Day for Lent and Easter’[1]. That collection was subdivided into even weeks. The Advent-Candlemas cycle doesn’t map onto the calendar in the same way, and so the subdivisions are necessarily uneven.

Advent is divided into three periods. The introductory few days explore the fundamental Christian idea that God calls out to ordinary people who are part of the real world, and who sooner or later come to realise that they are sinners in need of a friend. The second sub-division explores the spirituality of time. There are good theological reasons for this – the Advent season reminds us that time belongs to God, but there are practical reasons too. For many of us this can be such a busy time that the things that take time and require patience can all too easily be squeezed out in the rush. There then follows a sub-seasons of eight days based on an ancient liturgical practice, which I explain in the introduction to that section.

Christmas is just around the corner, but before it comes Christmas Eve. In have taken the view that this is a unique day, and so give it a whole subsection of its own. The twelve days of Christmas follow – and what days they are, moving quickly on for the humble joy of the word made flesh to the remembrance of the martyrdom of Stephen the deacon and the massacre of all the young boys in the Bethlehem district at the hands of the murderous Herod. The celebration of the turn of the year has become such an important secular festival that it is, I feel more important to explore its spirituality than to refer to the ecclesiastical calendar on those days.

Epiphany is a longer, less intense season than Christmas, and one which gives more scope to the creative imagination to make a new map. So I have divided it into three sub-seasons, the first focus is on ‘Seeing’ – an obvious Epiphany theme, but then suggest the theme of ‘Caring’ followed by ‘Flourishing’. My intention here is to offer a simple narrative shape to a form of Christian development which begins with seeing, leads on to caring and ends in flourishing.

Candlemas brings the collection to a close, but that beautiful celebration is also disturbing. And so just as we end any naïve optimism an=bout pleasantly flourishing is removed and we are left, not enjoying the wonder of a church filled with candles but nursing the wound in our hearts caused by old Simeon’s words to the young mother, Mary. And so it is that we come not to closure, but to a reorientation to the mysteries that will unfold at Easter.

[1] SPCK 2013

One of our hundreds of visitors came up to me today in College and asked (I was wearing a clerical collar) whether I had anything to do with what would be happening later in the cathedral (sic) and would the service be musical.  The short answer to both questions was ‘yes’.

Every year the choirs of King’s and John’s get together for the ‘joint evensong’ and every year it is a special occasion. But this year was an ultra-occasion as we are commemorating the 500th anniversary of the completion of the stonework of King’s Chapel. As it happens, both choirs were on tremendous form and the whole was certainly greater than the sum of the parts.  

There was a lot of Herbert Howells – the ‘Collegium Regale’ setting of the evening canticles, and the Te Deum, which was  the liturgical icing on the celebratory cake, as well as the organ voluntary.  ‘Coll Reg’ is perhaps the most beloved of modern settings.  Choirs just love to sing it and congregations are swept along by it – or rather up and up by it. It was written for King’s (obvs) and is the perfect music in the Chapel’s unique acoustic.  It struck me today that it’s hard not to luxuriate into what Howells does with the word ‘glory’ whenever it appears.

The Provost of King’s read the first lesson and the Master of John’s the second. The retiring Chaplain of King’s, Richard LLoyd Morgan, sang the Radcliffe responses; Philip Radcliffe having been a fellow of King’s until his untimely death in a motor accident in France. Richard was a professional opera singer before being called to the ministry and his singing is uniquely powerful – not least in the closing responses at the very end of the service.

It was down to me to find some prayers – and I chose the famous one of Benjamin Whichote, Cambridge Platonist and Provost of King’s in the seventeenth century, and one about truth by Brooke Fosse Westcott. Westcott is most famous for having been ‘the miner’s bishop’ in Durham but was also the first ever Professorial Fellow of King’s (choosing to come to us rather than take up an offer from St John’s as it happens – not that I mentioned that on this happy occasion.)

The Chapel was heaving with people and extremely warm. I was astonished that no one fainted, and hugely impressed by the way the great team of chapel staff coped with the scale of the occasion.

The anthem was Parry’s ‘I was glad’ – a magnificent show-stopper that expressed the sentiment of every person packed into that glorious space.  We were all so glad to be there.

And you might be glad to know that you can hear the service in BBC Radio 3 on Wednesday 8th July at 15.30hrs BST.  Enjoy!

Details of the service.

Introit: King Henry VI’s Prayer (Ley)
Responses: Radcliffe
Psalms 42, 43 (S. Wesley, Anon)
First Lesson: 1 Samuel 2. vv 12-26
Canticles: Collegium Regale (Howells)
Second Lesson: Luke 20 vv 1-8
Anthem: I was glad (Parry)
Hymn: Glorious things of thee are spoken (Abbot’s Leigh)
Te Deum: Collegium Regale (Howells)
Organ Voluntary: Psalm Prelude Set 2 No 3 (Howells)

Directors of Music: Stephen Cleobury and Andrew Nethsingha
Organ Scholars: Tom Etheridge, Richard Gowers, Edward Picton-Turbervill and Joseph Wicks.

‘It is in the context of the Chapel that many outside the University experience the humane and liberal values for which the College stands’. These words come from what for me at least is a very important document – the papers written eighteen months ago to explain the College and its Chapel to candidates for the post of Dean.

Anyone who has lived and studied in the College for three or more years in entitled to have a view as to whether or not the College deserves its reputation for liberalism and tolerance. My hope is that you will feel that you have been treated with fairness, kindness and generosity, and that you have been well supported as you have had to deal with the many pressures and stresses, objective and subjective, that are an inevitable part of Cambridge life today. (No, it wasn’t just you who was going through all that.)

‘Humane and liberal values’. If these words possibly have a slightly quaint ring to people today, it is because such values have not become so widely accepted in our society that many are looking for more challenging ones. That quest for values can go in one of two directions – either towards values that are stricter and more exclusive, or those which are broader and yet more inclusive. This is perhaps one of the dynamics we see being played out in public, professional and personal life today; it is certainly an issue that will, over the coming decade, tease the minds and tug on the heart-strings of the young people graduating this week.

As you leave the College I want to suggest to you that the liberal and human aspirations of this place are grounded not in the ideological preference of a few influential fellows in the second half of the twentieth century, though those days of heady and liberalising vision did and do matter, but in events of much longer ago.

Way back in the fifteenth century Henry VI literally imagined this place – this very place – on this amazing scale, and for purposes of education, community and religion. Henry was a hopeless King if the criteria for success are winning battles and maintaining dominance over rivals. And yet here we are – inhabiting his legacy and being inspired by his inspiration – and learning, learning, learning – all the time learning.

And in the middle of the fractious seventeenth century, it was a Provost of King’s, Benjamin Whichcote, who opposed the doctrinaire and oppressive religion of his day – scholastic Calvinism – and offered an example of kindness, gentleness, and generosity that began to turn the tide and lead to a religious and spiritual sensibility that was life affirming and empowering, rather than domineering and diminishing.

It would be wrong to suggest that you could tell the story of our College simply as the triumph of humane values over inhumane ones. Or to suggest that we have done so well that we can now relax and enjoy our own excellencies and perfections. Nothing could be further for the truth. But if the College has infected you with the good bacteria of liberal humanism it will have done you and the world a favour.

You – because while being a liberal humanitarian doesn’t necessarily make for an easy or happy life, it does make for a worthwhile one; a life in which, if I can put it this way, the causes of anguish, concern and suffering are the right ones. For the point is not whether we find life difficult or not, but why we find it difficult. If we do so because we are motivated by kindness and the empowering of others our suffering will be okay.

And the world – because all of you will be of exceptional influence, and some of you will be of very great influence indeed both on other individuals and on whole communities, maybe whole cultures. And it is good when the most influential people are the most humane and kind people: if only that were more often the case.

So in the future, whenever you catch a glimpse of this place, or hear Cambridge or King’s mentioned in the media, by all means allow yourself a moment of nostalgia, and think about your friends and teachers here. But I also invite you to call to mind those liberal and humane values that lie behind a King’s education, and ask yourself whether they are still core to who you are, still a defining part of your identity. For it is by being true to the legacy of the likes of our Founder and Provost Whichote, and many other of our forebears, women and men, that we will be, each in our own idiosyncratic, individual and inimitable ways, people who care about both truth and kindness, both justice and generosity, and who do the very rare thing of judging success not in terms of short term victory but long term influence for good.

Dear Papa Francesco,

Thank you for the letter you sent us all. Even if just a few of your intended recipients reply you will be inundated, so I will keep this relatively brief.

It really was a great delight to read your letter. The way you start in poetry and go on to embrace politics and end in prayer struck me as a perfect example of what we should hope for from our spiritual leaders. My own view has long been that Christianity goes most badly wrong when three related things happen. First, when people get preoccupied not with the practical contingencies of bodily life but with issues of control of others. As a person with huge leadership responsibilities you must know what it is like to feel so anxious about things that you wish you could just get more power and take complete control. But I also think that your position is one in which that is such an absurd prospect, and such an obviously dubious one given some of the things that have happened in the past, that you appreciate that true leadership comes not from supercharged control-freakery but from deep influence and sustained partnership.

The second thing that corrupts Christianity is the loss of the aspiration for humility and simplicity. Of course no one can achieve these virtues, but they are certainly evangelical values, definitely part of the Christ-like package. I think you have shown us that you believe this both in the way you have approached your role and in your choice of name. Christianity which isn’t in some sort of way Franciscan is at best a paradoxical project, and is often perceived as mere hypocrisy – perhaps because it is.

The third reason that Christianity goes wrong is that its adherent and leaders concern themselves with the abstract formulation of propositions more than with the practical contingencies of life.  I wonder whether this is one of the reasons why people like you insist on the importance of the poor. There is something about the condition of poverty which disinclines people to worry about the kinds of dispute that can never be resolved.  And you are right – we must listen both to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. You have convinced me that they are the same cry.

I love the way in which your letter draws so many issues to the surface.  As I started to read it I was expecting something more focussed on the description of our environmental crisis and the need for a political response.  What you gave us was much more interesting as it was so thoroughly about relationships – not in an abstract way, but in a concrete and yet universal and multi-dimensional way.

Your letter is a genuine challenge to us to connect, think, relate and live differently. Not only do you challenge the way we too often see things and make decisions – through the lenses of the ‘technocratic paradigm’ – but you also invite us to delight in the simple things, to relax and enjoy what is, and to re-imagine happiness; indeed, to discover joy.

I said a few things along these lines in book I wrote a few years ago called ‘Barefoot Disciple’. In fact the last chapter was called ‘Bodily Spirituality’. I now realise that I was just scratching the surface of these issues. Anyway, if you don’t mind I am now going to think of you as the Barefoot Pope.

One of the most common questions that I get asked after services I conduct at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, is why, in an Anglican Chapel we say, in the creed, that we believe in the ‘catholic’ church. I always answer that this is because we believe in the universality of the church; that it potentially embraces all and that there is unity deeper than our historic divisions.

If I may say so your letter reads to me like one from the leader of a catholic church in this sense. No capital letter, no ‘Roman’ to qualify it: the universal church of all who are both dissatisfied and distressed with the way we live today and its consequences, and yet not inclined to drift into despair or despondency, as if God doesn’t care, or doesn’t exist, or can’t ultimately redeem.

The letter is firm but generous-hearted, and spot-on in its critique of the absurdity of the free market destruction of both values and environments through the elevation of greed to the status of a virtuous necessity. And it reaches out far beyond the dominion of your many dioceses and parishes, schools and institutions to the heart, mind, conscience, politics, ethics, and spirituality of all people. I do hope that by writing to you like this I will encourage a few others to read it for themselves.

With my thanks – and prayers for your ministry,

Stephen

This is a sermon I preached at New College, Oxford on Sunday 7th June 2015. It’s based on Mark 3.20-end

It’s clear from our short second lesson that people liked gossiping about Jesus – in that nasty, name-calling way that is common across our culture, whether you are in a primary school playground, a corner shop or even, dare I say it, in the SCR of a great College. Some said he was out of his mind – bonkers. Others said that he was possessed – He has Beelzebul – this being, like Satan and Lucifer, one of the fallen angels.
A decade or more ago I spent some sabbatical time in South Africa. Part of this involved getting to know people who lived in the poorest part of the Cape Flats in Cape Town. The Adventists has set up a little tin chapel in the sandy wastes of Vrygrond and I was their guest preacher at the mid-week prayer and praise evening. The little chapel really was a shack among the shacks, and the singing was the least restrained I have ever come across. A man was playing a guitar to give it some sort of order but he was almost entirely drowned out by the completely fortississimo singing. As an aside I was told by the pastor that the guitar player was a useful man to have around as he had the ability to see ‘Tokolosh’ – little demons sent by witchdoctors to cause trouble in the church. I don’t know whether you have anyone on the staff here who can see demons. But if you did – what would they see in and around New College? What are the demons that lurk here? And if there are none – what it is that causes the problems, the tensions the difficulties, the rows, the unkindesses that I assume are a feature of your life as they are of most other communities and colleges?
But it wasn’t Mr Mass the Tokolosh-seeing guitar player, that I primarily wanted to tell you about, however, but a woman who sought to ask me a question after my address. She spoke in emotional in distracted Afrikaans, and did, to be honest, go on a bit. Clearly the other people there found this rather embarrassing. And as their patience began to run out so one or two caught my eye and started to make an internationally recognised sign which mean , ‘not to worry, the speaker is mad’. To his credit, the pastor totally ignored this and let her continue until she finished. Clearly the woman was disturbed. But it transpired that that was because her son had just been transferred from a local prison to a much more distant one.
It seems to be a common tendency among human beings to try to silence those they find difficult or awkward or uncomfortable. There are so many things we don’t want to know – many of them things that are actually true. But not wanting to know something doesn’t make it unimportant, and more than that, calling people names doesn’t mean that the name or the label is in any way appropriate. I know I have given a stark example, but the habit of finding an excuse to ignore someone by labelling them is endemic, and most of us will have been at various times on the giving and receiving end of this reprehensible and ultimately self-defeating behaviour.
Jesus lived a long time before the era of professional sport, and the corruption thereof. I am not thinking of FIFA type corruption here, but of match-fixing, and I mention it only because this is the only occasion in which people are ever, as far as I can think, wilfully self-defeating. We are unwittingly self-defeating all the time. But that’s another matter – although it is the sort of reality that makes you wonder whether there really is something in this idea of demons. People used to speak about the demon drink, and I wonder whether we shouldn’t think today of the demon Class A drugs, the demon inequality and the demon debt in this sort of way. Or if you are more liberal you could talk of the demon censorship, the demon criminalisation, the demon prohibition. All of which are ways in which people try to make the world a better place that, while well-meaning, are based on a poor understanding of human nature.
To use the word ‘demon’ like this would not be to invoke the metaphysics of days gone by but to engage knowingly in metaphorical word-play precisely in order to begin to suggest different connections, different ways of thinking about these things, to force us to review our understanding about what’s wrong with them and what might or might not be done about them.
Jesus’ response to those who claim that he is Satan’s operative is first to challenge their thinking by highlighting its absurdity, but then he has something else to add, and it’s a real show-stopper of a thought. This is it: you can be forgiven just about anything but you can’t be forgiven if you blaspheme the Holy Spirit.
What can he have meant? Does he mean that we have to watch our ‘ps and qs’ especially closely when we are talking about the third person of the Trinity? I don’t think it can be that. Jesus was such a one for emphasising that this not the letter of the law but the spirit that matters, he must surely have intended that insight to be integral to the blunt meaning of this sharp saying.
What I think he meant was something like this. If you want to receive forgiveness, pardon, mercy and therefore peace, from God you have to be part of the flow of God’s spirit yourself. If you look at it this way you realise that this doctrine of the unforgivable sin is all of a piece with what he says elsewhere: that it is only those who forgive who can be forgiven, and at the same time, only those who have been forgiven who can forgive. To put this more generally, human beings are not just the recipients of grace; they are to me minsters and means of grace. Or as the children’s song has it – ‘love is something if you give it away’.
All this stuff, this forgiving, is part of the generous reaching out, journeying out, flowing out of the breath, wind and fire of God’s spirit, which comes from the heart of God and remains, as we know, of the essence of God. And it is this extraverted, generous, prodigal life of God that is behind the two great theological realities – creation and salvation.
Blaspheming the Holy Spirit is contradicting this story of generous love in word, attitude or deed. It is a very odd thing to contradict such a wonderful and inclusive story. But it is also very common. It makes you wonder whether there really are demons at work undermining God’s love and persuading people that life’s really not like that at all.
But if there are really destructive demons about, the point of Jesus words about blaspheming the Holy Spirit is to make us re-evaluate which are the worst. So the demon drink is properly down-graded, also the demons of anxiety and depression and stress, for while they make life miserable they do not take people to a place where redemption is impossible. Rather they can often show them their need of God, as can illness and poverty. Reflecting on what Jesus said we come to see that the really deadly demons are things like cynicism, relentless criticism, and effortless superiority (arrogance or conceit) that cut us off from others. And then there’s parallel set of miserable demons like chronic self-disappointment, the feeling that everyone else is better than me or that I don’t deserve to be loved by anyone, not even God, and that I can never forgive-myself.
Such are the demons that keep many of us away from the forgiving, healing and empowering love of God today. And this is the real blasphemy against the Holy Spirit – gross arrogance towards others and extreme abjectness with regard to ourselves.
And it was to cast out such demons that Jesus came and lived among us. And it is to the work of casting them out that ministers of the gospel, official and unofficial, lay and ordained, should give great priority. Doing so will inevitably result in unpleasantness. People quickly seek to put labels on those who address these matters, for there are many other demons that back up and support the most toxic ones.
But the labels are of no moment. What matters is whether or not we believe in our hearts that there is better way, and that we live our lives in such a way as makes it evident that we believe in the endless flow of the loving, forgiving and renewing grace of God. For when we believe this we find that it’s not impossible for the demons to be cast out. But if we don’t believe it, we are stuck. Dead stuck.

This is an edited version of a sermon I preached at St John’s, Bury St Edmunds for Copus Christi.

I don’t want to explore Eucharistic theology this evening, but rather to talk about an attitude, a value, a virtue even which is I think one of the rarely mentioned things that might draw together a rather eclectic congregation like this one.

The virtue of which I speak, is one about which I have read very little. Indeed I have only read one chapter about it and one book. The chapter is in a book called ‘Moral Clarity’ by the philosopher Susan Neiman and in the notes she tells me, and I have no reason to doubt her, that there is only one full-length book on this subject. I was impressed by the chapter and so got the book. It is called ‘Reverence – Renewing a Forgotten Virtue’ and it is by Paul Woodruff who is a professor on the humanities in Austin, Texas.

It may disappoint you to know that Woodruff doesn’t believe that there is an intrinsic connection between religion and reverence. It may disappoint you, but if you think a bit more about it you will realize that this is no cause for surprise. It is possible to be religious, pious, full of faith, spiritual even without reverence. And we know that being a member of a religion doesn’t necessarily make people well mannered, or dignified; it certainly doesn’t necessarily incline them to behave respectfully towards others.

One helpful clarification that Woodruff makes is that reverence isn’t the same thing as respect. Reverence lies being what one might call appropriate respect. If confronted by a bully or a tyrant or a manipulative sycophant you should not respond with respect. You should, however, retain a degree of reverence for them and this should inform the way in which you deal with them and the situation. If so called ‘assertiveness training’ were a bit more thought-through than it is, then you might expect your training day to explore what the virtue of reverence might look like when people are trying to push you around. It will not take the form of acquiescence, but neither will it take the form of violence, or recrimination or anything else that would diminish the people involved.

Having said that, it would be wrong to say that there are no connections between respect and reverence – but reverence is the deeper, more important matter. There isn’t an occasion that does not call for reverence; which is a tough call to those of us who realize that all too often our attitude and behavior is shamefully oafish, and that our sense of humour is crude and even cruel. I wonder whether I am alone in increasingly find what passes for humour as both predictable and unnecessary. Great humour is that it is based on surprise and incongruity and is either self-deprecating or victimless. That’s what comedy will be like in heaven; it has to be, for that will be comedy in which all can laugh and none need feel exposed or embarrassed or roughed up by it.

Reverence the virtue also offers a critique of the way in which we do criticism. I am on record as saying that I am concerned about the lopsidedness of our education system, especially at its higher levels, which outs so much stress on the development of critical faculties. I know that these matter and can, on the whole, hold my own when it comes to being critical. But I also want people, myself included, to have and to exercise constructive faculties and to do both crucial and constructive thinking in a way that is respectful and reverent and therefore appropriate to the humanity of the situation, and indeed, one might say, the implicit spirituality of the situation.

Woodruff spends quite a bit of time talking about reverence in ancient Chinese culture, Confucianism if you want to label it, and it is in this context that he talks about ritual. And here is a point I have been building up to. It’s not what you do but how you do it that matters. Ritual in general, and ceremonial in particular, are really, really different depending not on whether they are done right but on whether they are done reverently.

I know myself well enough to be able to say that I have a fairly tidy mind and I tend to think that structure and systems should be tidy and that so too should living spaces, and that places of worship should definitely be well ordered, tidy clean and so on. When I returned for a funeral in my former parish some of the parishioners were immediately concerned lest I notice that in the interregnum they had reverted to using not inconsiderable parts of the church as a junk store. The point, I hope, was not that they thought I was fussy, but that they agreed with me that this mattered but had just not had the energy to stop the junk accumulating.

Reverence, or lack of reverence, impact son everything we do, but let me emphasize again that is not about the surface detail. It’s a virtuous attitude which will never display itself but which is always apparent. Humility – another rarely mentioned but often-misunderstood virtue – is a close relation of reverence. This is why the Greeks thought that hubris was such a bad thing. We think if it as overweening pride, but the idea goes back to mutilating the bodies of those defeated in battle. Reverence says, ‘No, don’t do that.’

A couple of weeks ago I was present at a very moving and reverential ceremony at the medical school at Cambridge University. It was in the dissecting room – Cambridge is one of the few University left where the medics dissect real bodies rather than models. All the dissecting finished, the bodies were in coffins neatly arranged on the floor and all the 300 first year students gathered with them. This was the occasion on which they learnt the name and something of the life-story of the person they had dissected – whom they thanked on this occasion as their first and most silent teacher. In October these same students will come to King’s Chapel with the families of the donors for a thanksgiving service. All this is, I believe, truly wonderful, something that feeds into the hidden curriculum of reverence. A truly encouraging beacon in a world which is it seems increasingly brutal and dismissive of such considerations.

If there is one core reason why I feel that Anglican catholic liturgy is a gift both to the church and the world it is because of its potential as a theatre and as a school of reverence. I don’t believe that Anglican Catholicism has a particularly distinctive approach to doctrine, nor do I believe that it has an especially direct connection with social justice or community cohesion. However the emphasis on ceremonial, on a non-hectoring more contemplative approach to prayer, a respect of the need that people have for silence and space and beauty and to be involved practically and physically, all this is, to me, vitally important, and again not for the detail, but for the opportunity to do something that shows and encourages reverence.

I like Woodruff’s book but ultimately disagree with the basis on which it is written. For me reverence is not only a virtue it is an attitude that has spiritual depth –that is to say is rooted not in pleasure, or good taste, or better results but in the heart and being of the incarnate God. A theology of reverence is for me absolutely grounded in incarnation, but more than this a theology of incarnation necessarily issue is the ethics and practice of reverence.

So as we proceed in liturgy and life let us, whatever our particular doctrinal convictions or ecclesiastical preferences, seek to be people animated and shaped by the virtue of reverence, and thereby be ever more deeply grounded in the God of love made known in Jesus Christ and shared, we know not how, as we celebrate Eucharist together.

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