Christmas Day sermon preached in King’s College Chapel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




More Stress, Vicar?

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

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

A Strange Life

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

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

No More Reverend Nice Guy

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

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

Minsters of the Intractable 

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

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

The Care Option of Last Resort

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

Care for the Clergy

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

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

You can read the article that inspired this blog here

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

Carols from Kings – order of service

To pre-order the download of the service visit here


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

Following on from yesterday’s blog. Here is, as far as I know, the world’s first Advent Tree. The location is a closely guarded secret, but it’s north of the Tees and south of the Tyne.

Advent Tree Anyone?

Last Sunday we had our big Advent Service at King’s College Chapel.  It was a wonderful occasion, with lots and lots of people, very beautiful music, carefully chosen lessons, and a splendid procession from west to east to half-way back again. This was first imagined by Dean Eric Milner-White in 1934. The famous Russian ballerina Lydia Lopokova, who was married to Bursar Maynard Keynes, is said to have remarked after the first service that ‘the Dean is the best choreographer of us all’. Whether or not she really said it, and whether or not it is true, we have stayed with his choreography ever since; no subsequent Dean having been a better one.

You will notice that I said that this was last week. That is, a week before Advent Sunday. Most Cambridge colleges did the same thing because this year term ends and choir members go home before real Advent begins tomorrow.  Because of this I understand that one colleague in another college insisted on not using the Collect for Advent Sunday at the end of the service, as it was not really Advent yet.

I find sure calandrelical  purity difficult.  This is just as well, perhaps, as we are recording a television service for Easter in a few days’ time, and will record ‘Carols from Kings’ a whole fortnight before Christmas.  But the reality for me is that when services go well, they slip us away from the dominion of the clock or calendar into a different kind of temporality. Good liturgy frees us from the power of chronos.

So I was delighted to read this tweet from the Bishop of Liverpool:

Here comes Advent, everyone. May I make my annual plea to Christians not to disdain the world’s tinsel in what is for us a season of preparation and penitence. Christendom is over, friends. So let’s remember, and fast, and pray, while not expecting everyone else to do so. Please?

As a message it has a lot of positives – short, sensible, direct and realistic.  Fussing about when Christmas may or may not start is to my mind, and I rather suspect to the Bishop of Liverpool’s mind, a particularly irritating sort of fogeyism. The sort of spiritual sin Jesus would have been more against than the minor and materialistic offence it is criticising.

Having said that, I do tend to send cards rather late, and by the time we go shopping for a tree the best ones have long since gone.

So I have had a thought. Rather than worry about when to put the Christmas Tree up, why not rebrand it as an ‘Advent Tree’.  For one thing, what on earth is a ‘Christmas Tree’? I read nothing of them in the Bible, and the nearest you get to it in a carol is ‘The Holly and the Ivy’, in which, as I recall it, the plants are still out in the wood.

What is an Advent Tree?  Its rather like a Christmas Tree except that rather than dressing it all at once you dress it one day at a time, perhaps one decoration at a time.  By the time Christmas comes it will be fully glorious, but it will have been very nice indeed from the beginning of December.

This, I think, would be even more fun.  What’s not to like?