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In Jerusalem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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In Bethlehem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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God Bless Us, Every One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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It’s the centenary service tomorrow- Christmas Eve 2018.

We have put the order of service online here

Nine Lessons and Carols

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This is a rather unusual post for me to make as it simply shares information on the King’s website. However, I hope that readers of this blog will find it interesting.

King’s [College, Cambridge] has announced a £100 million campaign to improve student access, enhance our capacity as a provider of world class research and to maintain our renowned historic buildings, such as the Chapel.

King’s has among the highest percentage of state school educated undergraduates of any Oxbridge college (77%), but recognises much more still needs to be done to ensure greater access to Cambridge for able pupils from state schools and particularly for those pupils with socially and economically disadvantaged  backgrounds.

The campaign was launched on 1 December with the announcement of a £33 million gift from an alumnus to finance the building of two new halls of residence and the use of the rental income from them to seed a new student access and support fund. This fund will allow King’s to:

  • Add 10 new undergraduate places per year to their existing annual undergraduate intake of 130. These new places will be solely reserved for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Reserve half of these new places for students graduating from the new Cambridge University transition programme – which is designed to allow access to Cambridge from students whose potential has not been realised at A-level due to difficult personal circumstances – when it begins in 2021/22.
  • Launch a ‘post offer of a place at Cambridge but pre-A level exams’ tuition scheme for state school applicants. This is needed to reduce the much higher incidence of state school offer holders failing to attain their required A-level grades when compared with their privately educated peers.
  • Provide annual bursaries of £3,000 to all of the College’s undergraduates from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, to ensure equal opportunities in the ability to accept the low or no pay internships which are increasingly necessary to open the door to careers in a wide variety of prestigious fields.

These initiatives will account for £50 million of the £100 million being raised, with the balance being invested in additional teaching and research capacity, new buildings and maintaining the world famous Chapel and Choir.

The Provost, Professor Michael Proctor commented:

“We are very excited about this campaign. We hope the initiatives it is funding to improve student access, both to Cambridge itself and to careers after graduation, will inspire other Colleges to do the same. A successful campaign will also ensure that we can enhance the world-class teaching and research we are renowned for and maintain and preserve our historic buildings. We have already reached half of the targeted amount and we are confident our alumni will be keen to contribute to help future generations receive the same education they themselves enjoyed when they were here.”

In October this year the University’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen Toope announced a new £500m drive to encourage and support applications from able students from disadvantaged backgrounds and ensure Cambridge is fully inclusive of the most diverse talent. The Vice-Chancellor said:

“We need to make sure that Cambridge is open to all who have the intellectual potential to flourish here, now and for future generations. I am delighted that King’s is launching such an important initiative, and to see our ambitious plans for improving student support become a collective endeavour across the Collegiate University.”

To find out more about the King’s Campaign and its aims, please see our At a Glance brochure


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On Tuesday I attended a memorial service in Southwark Cathedral. In his sermon the Dean of Southwark made a plea for senior clergy to spend more time doing theology and for more theologians to be among the ranks of deans and bishops. It was reported in the Church Times yesterday (30th November 2018) here In this blog I suggest that while there are important issues at stake they do not boil down to a competition between leadership skills and theology.

I was at the service because David Edwards was a predecessor of mine as well as of the Dean of Southwark’s. As far as I could see I was the only representative of an academic institution present. However what was not said at any point in the service – though the point was made in all the obituaries of David Edwards that I saw – was that he was not at home in Cambridge. As the Telegraph obituary put it

But he was not happy in Cambridge. The tension then existing between the deep religious tradition expressed in the glorious King’s Chapel and the aggressive secular humanism of the College high table was much too great for him to bear.

He was too much of a churchman to be really at ease on the frontier of the Christian faith, and it was with a marked sense of relief that in 1970 he accepted the Crown’s offer of the Rectory of St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, to which was attached a Canonry of Westminster Abbey.

It is interesting that the Telegraph was able to suggest without irony that a Cambridge high table is ‘the frontier of Christian faith’. To me that’s an overstatement, at the very least the sentence should have an indefinite article, not the definite article before ‘frontier’: high table as a frontier of the Christian faith? Well, sometimes, but it is an intellectual frontier, not a social, cultural or political one.

Nonetheless there is something odd in Andrew Nunn’s argument from David Edwards (if I can put it that way) here. The man who was in retrospect seen as the champion of liberal and radical ‘south bank theology’ was nonetheless ill-at-ease with the relentless challenge of ‘aggressive secular humanism’ in Cambridge and was relieved to get away from it into the bosom of established and cathedral religion. And while his productivity was astonishingly impressive, his books, as the Telegraph obituarist put it, ‘were all pitched at the level of the average clergyman or intelligent layman’. A phrase that today speaks of another world, a world which was at some distance from where the most radical radicals ‘were at’ in the 1960s.

A different ‘other world’ was referenced by the Dean in his sermon: the seventeenth century bishop Lancelot Andrewes shooing away all who might get between him and ‘his book’ before midday. There was a time not so long ago when clergy were expected to study by morning, visit in the afternoon and deal with more public matters or take their ease in the evening. In such days the parish clergy would have been a more bookish lot than they are today- not only a parson but a clerk in every parish.

All this is a very long way indeed from the training delivered today to new deans and bishops courtesy not of the Divinity Faculty in Cambridge but of the Judge Management Institute, and in railing against it Andrew Nunn is not a lone voice but one of several who, with increased frustration it seems, express a desire that theology be given more space and priority.

Theirs is a cause that I would like to cheer on, and while I am disposed to be sympathetic – after all I am understood by my colleagues and students to be a theologian and have written a few books and spend my time in the space Edwards found particularly uncomfortable (and while it was doubtless rather edgier and ruder in the 1960s, the ministerial and theological challenges are, in my experience, at least as real and are certainly more relentless and complex at King’s than in any other post I have occupied).

But I am not going to give the cause three hearty cheers, rather two (alluding if I may to the 1951 essay on democracy by E.M Forster, one of the secular humanists who Edwards may well have encountered at high table at King’s).

There is certainly a need for the church to be more theologically thoughtful and to strive for more genuine clarity; the church should also be bolder in raising genuinely difficult theological questions (i.e. those that matter to the population at large and not just those that threaten to divide what remains of the church) and be more receptive to those who are off-message. Every pearl is retrospectively grateful, so to speak, for its grain of sand. If decision-making and direction-setting take place without the contributions of people who have dedicated significant time and serious effort to absorbing the wisdom of the past and the science of today, then we should prepare ourselves to live with the consequences of a wisdom deficit in the medium to long term.

I want to suggest, however, that to put this all down to a lack of ‘theology’ is to be having the wrong argument, to be fighting the wrong fight. The real issue here is not theology but values. And I feel it’s unfortunate that the word and notion of theology is being used in a rather tokenistic way.

On the one hand, what I mean is that theology isn’t necessarily a good, productive, helpful or even truthful business. Theology isn’t a self-purifying pursuit. On the other I mean that theology isn’t necessarily absent when people are at a distance from their books, for instance when working on spreadsheets, or talking about targets or strategy. Not everything purports to be theology is theology at all (never mind good theology) and not everything that looks as if it is not theological is actually devoid of theology.

It seems to me that the church of today is being driven along by much the same forces that are driving other institutions: anxiety leading to an excessive desire to control on the one hand, and to dampen internal controversy and conflict on the other. What is needed therefore is not less leadership but less anxiety; not less strategy but less self-consciousness; not more ‘theology’ but more curiosity and willingness to learn. And it needs all this coupled with an openness to the possibility that God has a will and that as yet we have not quite worked out what it is.

The main task of ‘leadership’ is to keep working at the task of clarifying what that will might be, and then of encouraging obedience to whatever emerges while affirming conscientious dissent, perhaps seeing in that the possibility of a future clarification. All the while we must recognise that there is always going be a gap between us and God. And that’s the point, because it is when our thinking and talking is mindful of that gap, yet longing for it to become smaller and recognising that it will never disappear, that we are engaging theologically.

Do we need theologians? Yes. But we need theologians who practice a theology that doesn’t so much demand space and priority but emerges from situations where the presence of God is known and the absence of God is felt. That’s the engine of theology. It comes not from libraries but from life.
















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