Archive for the ‘Cambridge Sermons’ Category

My sermon today began with a reflection about why it was that, when he wrote the Bidding Prayer for Festival of Nine Lesson and Carols in 1918, the Dean of King’s insisted that it was important to make the chapel ‘glad’.  It goes into engage the reality of bereavement and to describe aspects of our contemporary darkness, in terms.

‘And let us make this Chapel, dedicated to his pure and holy mother, glad with our carols of praise’.

Words, of course, from the Bidding Prayer that Dean Eric Milner-White wrote for the Festival of Nine Lessons back in 1918 and which were heard across the world by millions of people yesterday afternoon. Milner-White could never have anticipated the broadcasting sensation that our service was to become, or the reach, fame and iconic status that would be thrust upon this particular and peculiar College chapel. When he wrote those words he wasn’t thinking that they would sound good in the United States or impressive in India or that they might cheer someone up in Africa. He was thinking about this Chapel and the need that there was at that time for people of the College, University and City to make an effort, a serious and concerted effort, to be ‘glad’.

The shadow of loss had fallen heavily on this College in those days. Those who gathered here in 1918 would have been the bereaved friends of many whose lives had come to a violent end. If there was a predominant emotional tone it would have been grief rather than gladness. The Chapel would have seen many a tear fall and heard many a not-quite-stifled sob. And yet the young Dean declared that it was time to make the Chapel glad.

But how?

The answer was simple, straightforward and almost too obvious. The way to banish sadness and gloom is, ‘to tell the tale of the loving purposes of God – from the first days of our sin unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child’. For Milner-White, and for all those who, like him, have been faithful to the love of God made known in Jesus Christ, the story, the tale, the great narrative of God becoming human to save humanity from itself is the ultimate source of gladness.

‘Gladness’ is a slightly archaic word to us today but if you were to turn to a thesaurus you would find it tucked up with words like ‘joy’ and ‘delight’ and ‘happiness’. Take those words a step further and you would find yourself in the company of ‘fulfilment’ and ‘flourishing’, and possibly even ‘wholeness’ – that form of health that is holistic and complete and somehow absorbs within itself any particular ailment that is causing pain to the body or distress to the mind.

For what we are talking about here is not the passing pleasure of a good sing, though it includes that, nor the fleeting moment of brilliant happiness that is extinguished when the booze runs out. What we are talking about is gladness that is fitting and transformative after a world war; the joy that makes sense even in the aftermath of bereavement.

The violent and tragic death of Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones at the Fishmongers’ Hall less than three weeks ago shocked the nation, and has precipitated a university-wide wave of emotion that includes grief, anger and pride: grief at the needless deaths; anger at both the suffering of the bereaved and the quickly grasped opportunity to exploit the loss for political ends, and pride in the nobility and forward-looking-ness and sheer undaunted hope that the Learning Together project embodied.

And in this College and Chapel we are still reeling, as Daniel Hyde put it last week at the Barbican, from the death of Sir Stephen Cleobury just over a month ago. Stephen’s dedication to his vision of excellence and to the education of our choristers, choral scholars and organ scholars was legendary – but the legend in this case was true. No one ever worked more tirelessly than he did to fulfil Milner-White’s instruction and ‘make this Chapel glad with our carols of praise’.

Over the course of his final five terms here Stephen set us another example, however, not one of musical aspiration or achievement but of how to cope with adversity. It was a generous and timely lesson and one that I know that the men and boys of our Choir took to heart. So let me take this moment not only to remember Stephen but to give public thanks and praise to the members of our Choir, young as they all are, for their extraordinary dignity and resilience during the uniquely challenging time of the last twelve months.

Our reading from the prophecies of Isaiah told us that ‘the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light’, that it was those ‘who lived in a place of deep darkness on whom the light has shined’. And in that great passage that introduces John’s gospel, we hear that ‘the light shineth in the darkness and the darkness comprehended it not’.

We read these same words year in and year out, but over this last year we have learnt a little more about the depth of the darkness. We have observed the resurgence of racism, the coarsening of politics, the trashing of truth, the fragmentation of communities and the increasing fragility of our institutions. We have become distressed by patterns of weather that confuse the rhythms of the plants and animals. And we have lazily blamed others for the all-too obvious shortcomings of our civic, social and political life.

But with every turn of the year it becomes even clearer that the darkness ‘out there’ is also a darkness ‘in here’. The metal health crisis among young people cries out not only for more resources for care and support but for a realistic and sympathetic understanding of the pressures that they face. For this has become a world in where we gorge ourselves stupid with fruit from the tree of knowledge known as our mobile device, and where it seems that absolutely everything is on shuffle-play. It is a world where the capacity to think has been replaced by the skill to do well in exams and where the demons that control our zeitgeist have convinced us that you can commit any sin you like but what you must never, ever, do is have faith that God is love and that God is more than a match for any human-generated pain or crisis or catastrophe.

A mean, proud and cruel god called ‘cynicism’ strides the face of the earth today, spreading the anti-gospel of insecurity while peddling false hope, encouraging petty resentment while inciting everyday hatred, and all the while inviting people to embrace the kingdom of self-centred darkness.

And yet it is to this world that the God of love reaches out; not with words of advice, not with thunderbolts of condemnation, not with hostility or anger but with a gift that is intended to evoke from us those qualities that are themselves most God-like – love, compassion, care, hope and a deep desire to serve others.

The gift that God gives to us is ‘God’s presence and his very self and essence all-divine’ as St John Henry Newman put it, but it is made known to us as ‘the Babe lying in a manger’, that is none other than the word made flesh, who is full of grace and truth.

Let us cast off the works of darkness. Let us refrain from worshipping false gods. Let us rather worship the God of love, making ourselves glad as we adore the vulnerability of the child in the manager and the endlessly creative and saving generosity of the eternal God of love.

O come let us adore him, for Christ is the Lord.

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This morning I preached about Jacob wrestling with an angel  – a  story from the opening book of the Bible (Genesis 32.22-31).  The first part of the sermon is really about the Psalms, but it does all hang together.  Regarding the Psalms, this is the most important paragraph.

The psalms have guts, emotional and spiritual guts, and if every now and then there are redolent with ‘blood and guts’ that is because life itself was often bloody; and if there are protests in the psalms it is because life was unfair, and if there are laments it’s because life was sometimes deeply unhappy. And for many people life is bloody, unfair and unhappy today. The book of psalms is not a book that would be out of place on a battlefield or in a psychiatric prison or a hospice or a refugee camp. Certainly we hear them sung here every day at our services but that doesn’t mean that they were crafted to entertain us at Evensong. We recite them because our tradition recognises the truth that pearls of wisdom are not found wrapped up in cellophane and sold in supermarkets but have to be prised out of oysters that themselves have to gathered by divers who risk their lungs and their lives with perilous plunges to unfathomable depths. The psalms remind us that holy truths are dangerous to get and priceless to own.

Here is the whole sermon:

In his powerful yet short book, ‘Praying the Psalms’ Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk who spoke so eloquently and loquaciously of spirituality to the baby-boomer generation, asks why the church is so very keen on the recitation of the psalms.  ‘Is it,’ he asks, ‘because they are ancient, venerable poems?’ Does our commitment to them ‘come out of conservative refusal to change?’  He also considers some other options but then says that the Church does indeed like what it is old but not because it is old but because it is ‘young’.  His point is that ancient texts such as the psalms matter to us because they are unrefined, unvarnished, and unpolished. They represent humanity’s relationship with God in a pre-theological, not yet over-thought, hyper-wordy and super-self-conscious form that is more typical of more recently written words that try to express something of spirituality. They are of value because they are primitive and raw; like the love letters that people used to write, they come from an early stage in the relationship. When the psalms were written God and humanity didn’t know each other very well – it was an era of courtship that saw the expression of lofty ideals but was defined by passionate feelings.

Moreover the psalms are words of exploration, experimentation and discovery. The poets who wrote the psalms did not sit down with either the end of their psalm in mind or a formula to hand. This is one reason why the psalms are not at all Mills and Boon and why even in their most emotional they do not descend into doggerel or sentimentality. This is also why the psalms are often far more robust, abrupt and uncompromising in what they want to say and how they say it than are hymns or contemporary worship songs.

The psalms have guts, emotional and spiritual guts, and if every now and then there are redolent with ‘blood and guts’ that is because life itself was often bloody; and if there are protests in the psalms it is because life was unfair and if there are laments it’s because life was sometimes deeply unhappy. And for many people life is bloody, unfair and unhappy today. The book of psalms is not a book that would be out of place on a battlefield or in a psychiatric prison or a hospice or a refugee camp. Certainly we hear them sung here every day at our services but that doesn’t mean that they were crafted to entertain us at Evensong. We recite them because our tradition recognises the truth that pearls of wisdom are not found wrapped up in cellophane and sold in supermarkets but have to be prised out of oysters that themselves have to gathered by divers who risk their lungs and their lives with perilous plunges to unfathomable depths. The psalms remind us that holy truths are dangerous to get and priceless to own. As Merton puts it,

‘In the Psalms we drink divine praise at its pure and stainless source, in all its primitive sincerity and perfection. We return to the youthful strength and directness with which the ancient psalmists voiced their adoration of the God of Israel. Their adoration was intensified by the ineffable accents of a new discovery: for the Psalms are songs of men (sic) who knew who God was.’

What Merton says here about the psalms can help us not only with understanding those extraordinary poems, but also when we read the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, not least the first among them, the book of Genesis from which our first lesson today was taken.

Here we find the patriarch, the old man, Jacob. A scoundrel if ever there was one, who tricked his brother Esau out of his inheritance and went on to rule the family roost. He was for many years a nomadic farmer, and fathered a long string of children by wives and slaves. Despite the fact that Jacob was famously a ‘smooth’ man (Genesis 27.11) the word ‘rough’ doesn’t come close when thinking about the habits or manners of a man like Jacob. Never mind the ethics. He was hated by his brother Esau (Genesis 27.41) and doubtless feared by many.  But like his youngest son Joseph Jacob was a dreamer. His first dream was at a place he called ‘Bethel’. It was here that he dreamt of, ‘a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.’ When he awoke Jacob said,

Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.

The stories of Jacob and his dysfunctional family are part of this early exploration of what it means for a human being to live in some sort of relationship with God. The story that was our first lesson today represents another phase in that relationship. Again it happens at night when the world is dark and mysterious and the human mind is not controlled by the boundaries that usually constrain our imaginations. It is a far less peaceful encounter than the one at Bethel. It is basically a fight – some kind of spiritual wrestling match.

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.

It was a wounding fight and left Jacob with a limp; his inability to walk properly being a reminder of this encounter with the divine. But it was Jacob who was the better wrestler and it is the angelic visitor who asks to be released. But the tough old patriarch would not let the angel go just like that and asked for blessing.

It turns out that Jacob’s blessing was to have his name changed, a name change that recognized precisely his power and persistence as a fighter. Jacob responds to the experience as he did at Bethel by renaming the place. He called it ‘Peniel’. The final line perhaps reads as something of an anti-climax. Jacob says, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ To summarise such a nocturnal scrap as seeing someone ‘face to face’ is to understate the physicality, intimacy and vulnerability of the encounter. But the point is basic. A human being faced God straight on, and yet lived to tell the tale, indeed to walk away, albeit with a limp.

In more modern times it’s unlikely that people would describe their spiritual experiences in any of these terms. The Wesleyan idea of having your heart strangely warmed is much closer to what people expect out of a divine encounter.  But the ancient scriptures are not polite or inwardly spiritual so much as raw and rough and basic and exploratory. Reading them we should be prompted to think that some of our more difficult, sustained and damaging life-struggles were in fact struggles with angels and that our encounters with God are evident not in the way we run, skip, jump or dance, but in the way we limp towards the future, wounded and yet strangely blessed by our encounters with God.



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Every now and then I preach a sermon about forgiveness. It’s something I do with trepidation because I know as a person how sensitive an issue it is, and also because my studies in theology and psychology have convinced me that it is really difficult to think about forgiveness clearly.  So talk about it coherently and concisely in public is a real challenge, and yes, trepidation is appropriate.

But after all these years of thinking, writing and talking about forgiveness I feel that I am getting towards being able to say something sensible about the relationship between divine forgiveness and human forgiveness.  Anyway, that’s what I try to do in the sermon that follows, which I gave in the Chapel at King’s College Cambridge earlier today.

I offered it there, and share it here, because there is an urgent need to talk publicly about forgiveness, remembering that people who have suffered, and still continue to suffer, abuse or betrayal at the hands of others may be listening or reading.

The key point in the sermon is perhaps this: ‘you are not God, so don’t expect yourself to forgive like God’.

And here ‘s the whole thing.

Christianity is a religion of forgiveness. Jesus preached forgiveness, he regularly forgave others, and the church has taught from the earliest times that Christ died to save us from our sins.

Others may question whether or not forgiveness is a good principle for living, but for Christians, forgiveness seems to be the name of the game.  There isn’t a service that goes by here without mention of forgiveness. Usually it’s God’s forgiveness of us. We say we believe in it the Creed and we seek it as we say the prayer of Confession. Some people might question the sense or the psychological health of all this; but one fairly obvious truth is that forgiving someone something doesn’t necessarily stop them doing it again. So repetition is inevitably part of the forgiveness process.

At the human level, you can be sure that if you have forgiven someone once it’s likely that you might have to forgive them again and again quite a few times. Peter once asked Jesus how often he should forgive. ‘As many as seven times?’ he speculated. ‘More like seventy times seven,’ Jesus replied.

But if Christianity is a religion of forgiveness it is a rather unbalanced religion. For while unimaginably huge amounts of effort have gone into puzzling away at the question of how it is that God forgives sins so readily – these are questions of atonement and justification; and truly incalculable amounts of liturgical and pastoral time have been spent with individuals articulating their need for forgiveness in ways that they believe might elicit the forgiving love of God; the questions of how, when and why it is good to forgive other people for what they have done to us is relatively unexplored.

Our two readings today touch on both the divine and the human forms of forgiveness. In the Gospel, Jesus comes across a man who is so sick that he can’t walk. But rather than tell him that he is healed, Jesus says that his sins are forgiven. The sick man presumably liked what he heard. But the bystanders weren’t very happy about it. They didn’t say anything, but Jesus knew what they were thinking. Perhaps he saw that they were catching each other’s eyes and raising their eyebrows. There goes Jesus, tut tut tut, forgiving again.

So Jesus spells it out. And he spells it out in two ways. First, he emphasizes that he has gone for the easiest option. ‘Which is easiest?’ he asks.  And implicitly makes the point that it’s right to make divine forgiveness easy.  God isn’t a reluctant forgiver, but a generous and enthusiastic forgiver.  God is quick to forgive and very good at it. You could even say that forgiving is what God does most and best.

And Jesus, the son of man, is equally adept. That’s the second point.  You could almost say that wherever God is, there is forgiveness. Father, Son, and Spirit too, are all equally adept at forgiving; because its forgiveness that you find not on the rare occasions when God’s divine arm is twisted, or God’s ethical algorithm calculates that you have repented enough or suffered enough punishment to deserve forgiveness, but whenever you encounter God.

In the Epistle we also come across forgiveness. It’s another of those passages where Paul is telling us what a good Christian life looks like.  The old man, the old you, is a sad, bitter and twisted sort of person; the new you, the you that believes in the good news that Paul has proclaimed, is no longer to be bitter and twisted, but is to be righteous and holy; living a decent life and being kind, warm and loving towards others.

As part of this we are to forgive one another. And Paul deliberately connects this human forgiveness with God’s forgiveness of us. This connection is made elsewhere in the New Testament, of course. Most notably in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’.

But there is a problem with this aspect of familiar Christian teaching. 

Forgiveness, as I have said, is at the core of God’s being and nature. It’s what God does. God’s heart is a forgiving heart.  But human beings are not God.  And while there is no reason why we should not look to Jesus as example as well as Saviour, we should not set ourselves a standard which we can never achieve.

When it comes to forgiving others we need to recognize that while we put our faith and trust in a forgiving God that does not give us superhuman powers of forgiveness. It might seem that our faith commits us to be as forgiving as God is, but it does not, because we are not God. This is a really important message. Should we seek to be forgiving people? Yes. Does this mean that we will always readily and completely forgive those who hurt or harm us? No.

You are not God. God lives in eternity and you live in time.  God lives in heaven, but you live on earth.  God is infinitely wise and powerful and you, my friends, are not. So whatever we might say about human and divine forgiveness we can say that they are connected, but different.

And what of Jesus? Until the last few days of his life, Jesus wasn’t a victim. He wasn’t bullied or abused; he wasn’t subject to domestic violence. No one murdered his mother. Certainly he was a refugee as a child, but he never said anything about that and so we don’t have a clue what he felt about it.

True, Luke’s gospel says that from the cross Jesus cried out, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’.  But that wasn’t Jesus saying to those who were hurting him, ‘I forgive you all’.  It was a prayer for their forgiveness. It wasn’t the finished, signed, sealed and delivered moment of decisive forgiveness. It was a cry from the forgiving heart of a man in dire straits.

Forgiveness in real life is often messy, difficult and open-ended.  It’s also quite rare. Obviously there are lots of little forgiveness of minor offences, but the word ‘forgiveness’ really comes it into its own when we have been hurt in such a way that feels – well, unforgivable.

So this is the good news about forgiveness. God is infinitely forgiving, but you are not God, and God doesn’t want you to be God. God wants you to be a forgiving person, but God doesn’t want you to be exploited by people who prey on your good nature.  If you have been hurt or are routinely being hurt my advice to you is as follows. First, get it stopped. Second, get some help to get yourself back to normal. Third, in the fullness of time ask God to give you the generosity to forgive. 

That’s about all that can be said in a sermon. In real life all these things are difficult and so if you are struggling with forgiveness don’t struggle alone. Find some help and support. The Christian gospel is not that people should feel guilty when they can’t forgive. It is that  whatever happens to us God’s love and grace is there not to make matters worse but to bring us, through healing and restoration, to the love, joy and peace that characterize the fullness of life for which we were made and saved. And from which we should not be excluded because people have treated us badly or hurt us deeply.

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A sermon preached at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, on Sunday 3 July 2016 the final Sunday of the academic year.

Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously said that a week is a long time in politics. One can only think that had he coined the phrase recently he would have said that a week is an extremely long time in politics.

A few days before the referendum someone remarked to me that ‘there is a lot of emotion about at the moment’.  I believe that person was right, and further believe that there has been even more emotion in public life since then.  Emotion often begins to flow when people are uncertain and when they sense that change is afoot that they either do not desire or do not understand.  We are also emotional, though in a slightly different way, when we look back and remember events in the past – whether they are delightful or dreadful. Many people have found themselves moved as the Battle of the Somme has been commemorated, and they have been drawn closer to the human side, the human cost, of history.

At their best, emotions make us wiser, drawing from us intuitions that are more profound than the workings of the rational mind.  The famously unemotional Mr Spock of Star Trek was excellent at some tasks. But he was hopeless at others. If we are to flourish then we need to learn how to feel, understand and respond both to our own emotions and to the emotions of others. Empathy, sympathy and compassion are integral and vital in all human relationships and all human communities.

I was speaking with some people about medical education recently, and one of the points that came up was that while we might want to encourage doctors to have empathy, and to train them to be sympathetic and compassionate, there are limits to these, as to all other, virtues.  Personally I want a doctor to be full of sympathy and empathy when he or she is talking with me about my problems. But when it comes to the technical side of the work I don’t want empathy, I want precision, efficiency and an excellent result.  In cases like surgery, this should be quite simple. As far as I am concerned the empathy can stop the moment the anesthetic kicks in. But what about more complex areas like physiotherapy?

The subtleties of emotional life are indeed complex.  When children are very young it’s no good if their parents try to organize things so that the child will never be upset. On the contrary, the parent must determine when the child is upset.  Part of the role of the parent is to be in charge of the boundaries that make the child’s life safe and manageable and healthy. Part of the role of the child is to test and to seek to transgress those boundaries. Fast-forward seventy or eighty years and things may well be reversed. Power of attorney is arranged and the children might now have to upset their parents by making decisions about care and wellbeing and even such basic things as whether someone can live at home any longer. These will be times of strong and difficult emotion – and rightly so.  Emotion is a proper and important part of life.

Emotions rise when choices are faced, and the starker the choice and the closer the deadline, the greater the emotion. A referendum is therefore bound to raise more emotions than a general election – and the aftermath is bound to be more emotional. Just as a knockout competition is more exciting than a league, and why penalty shoot-outs are knife-edge affairs, especially when they get to the stage of ‘sudden death’.

If well attuned and proportional, our emotions can make us wise, but if they are excessive, they can easily make us foolish.  Very often when emotion pushes us to make a mistake we go on, flooded with the further emotions of guilt or embarrassment, to make more and more mistakes so that the whole thing spirals out of control until something or someone, or maybe many things, or many people, get very badly hurt and we decide, far too late, to stop it.

And so it is that we look back at the wars of the twentieth century with a tear in our eye, and look at the current state of our politics and feel at least a little bit anxious about where it is all heading. For a long time the most motivating words in politics and economics have been ‘growth’ or ‘change’. Looking at things today many of us might find words like ‘stability’ and indeed ‘sustainability’ more attractive.

However there are times in our lives when change is not an option; change is the point at which we have arrived. We have recently seen graduation ceremonies here, and today we come to the end of the Chapel’s academic year, and so we are saying goodbye to our Year 8 Choristers and our recently graduated Choral Scholars.

One of the nice things about institutions is that they generate and evolve traditional rites of passage. These help us manage the inevitable emotions and make good transitions. Sometimes such traditions involve food, a dinner perhaps, with speeches. The Choral Scholars have a dinner tonight, and I gave the Choristers a dinner a few weeks’ ago.  It is worth noticing in this context that the talking and eating, the conviviality and shared emotion of such occasions, mirror that of the Eucharist with its focus on the meal of bread and wine and the sharing of the word of God through readings and sermon. If we use these occasions to be emotionally generous and intellectually truthful then they can be more than good ways to manage the emotions of transition. They can become gateways to the transcendent; windows that open us up to the guiding, supporting and sustaining love of God, who is grace and truth.

And it is to that eternal love that I would want to commend our leavers, and all those who are at this time experiencing complex and deep emotions; all those who have been taken by forces both outside and inside themselves to a place of disequilibrium and stress; and all those who have in recent days been on the receiving end of hurtful remarks or violent actions sparked by the unfortunate emotionality of our recent political process.

The love of God is more than a match for all this trouble and strife. God’s future is far more positive than the naive mix of anxiety and optimism that dominates our current politics, and bangs on about change and growth as if they were ultimate values.

Time and again Jesus and his followers have said that it is the heart that matters most.  Certainly it is our hearts that can become dangerous when inflamed with raw emotion but it is our hearts that are the seat of our deepest values and the place of our spiritual struggles.

The message of this final sermon of this year is simple: put your heart into the hands of the God of love, truth, peace, forgiveness, hope and joy. These are the things that matter most deeply, for they are the qualities of both of God and of human beings at their best. And it is when we pursue these that we find our selves, our lives and our world transfigured and transformed, and discover that we are easing our way towards a positive future in the sustaining company of the God of grace and truth.

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

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

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

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

So – why do we even mention her today?

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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A sermon for Ash Wedensday delivered at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge.

One of the first puzzles that often faces a person who believes that there is a good God who loves us and desires our love in return is this: how do I live with myself? A sense of spiritual inadequacy is one of the most common responses to the presence of God. Faced with the purity, holiness and perfect loving-kindness of God we realize how very different we are and we feel guilty – if there is something specific on our mind. Or, just as often, we feel ashamed that we are – well, such a disappointing human being.

The guilt response is what we heard illustrated in the Psalm that was the Introit to this service. Allegri’s Miserere is David’s long song of lament when he realized just how bad and sad a person he was by misusing his power as King.

And that is rightly where our Ash Wednesday service, and therefore our Lenten journey, begins – with the sense that we are in the wrong. Although some people may have to work hard to generate a sense of penitence or compunction or sorrow, for many it is not far below the surface of smiling happiness or earnest seriousness. It’s one of those things that people think about but don’t talk about; that feeling of not being right with yourself, not being right with God.

But although feeling that sort of feeling is the beginning of the Lenten journey, it is certainly not the end. Lent is not an invitation to wallow in guilt or sink in shame, but to acknowledge it in some way and then to move forward in our relationship with God and our neighbours.

So – what to do for Lent? What to give up? What to take up? Most of us could afford to be rather more adventurous and self-challenging in our Lenten disciplines. There are, after all, no rules that we must obey. We are free to do what we like. My most memorable Lenten exercise was to try to give up grumbling.

I have since persuaded quite a lot of people to try it. No one has found it easy. One person told me it almost ruined her social life. And yet the pleasure of complaining is indeed a sinful pleasure. It does nothing to reflect the glory or grace of God. Sometimes we must protest, sometimes we need to critique, but much of our grumbling and complaining is unworthy of us.

But if giving up grumbling is a new idea, our service this evening will end with an invitation to you to connect with a very ancient idea. Before the congregation is dismissed, a bowl of ashes will be blessed, and those who remain for a minute or two will have an ashen cross smeared on their forehead while the minister says, ‘remember that you are dust and to dust you will return’. This ancient ritual points to the truth that while people imagine the spiritual quest as a struggle upwards, against gravity, as it were, in truth Christian spirituality is mostly about the journey downwards, based as it is on the belief that God can cope with anything other than dishonesty, hypocrisy and pretense.

It’s the real you that God loves, even if you find yourself disappointing.

The journey of Lent is not one of self-improvement, or one in which you discover how to be a perfect, good or impressive person; nor is it a journey that teaches you calm and serenity. It’s a journey that teaches you that God is love, and that God loves you.

To do justice to Lent we need to remember that at the heart of Christian spirituality we do not find the quest to be good, but the struggle to allow yourself to be loved by God as the mortal and the sinner that you undoubtedly are.

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