The end of my sabbatical is now beginning to appear on the horizon. With the way Christmas falls if I’d gone right to the end of November then I would have missed Advent Sunday. I couldn’t do that! So I will be making an appearance in the Cathedral on that wonderful day when we both begin the new Christian year and the approach to Christmas. But I also couldn’t miss the ROBES Sleepout which happens on the Friday night before Advent Sunday.
For the past few years I’ve joined those who, like me, are concerned about the numbers of our sisters and brothers who are homeless in one of the wealthiest cities in the world, in spending a night outside. Over those years my friends have helped me raise almost £28,000 for the project. The ROBES Project is both simple and effective and Southwark Cathedral is delighted to be a partner in its work and to be the venue for the sleepout.
As someone who likes a good bed and my creature comforts I can’t say sleeping out in the churchyard is a comfortable way for me to spend a night – I monitor the weather forecasts nervously as the day approaches! But I’m sure the people I pass on the streets would also like a good bed and a the comforts I enjoy and have very few choices left to them. This can be a way back into a better life for them. You can find out more about ROBES by clicking here.
I am grateful to all those who follow my various blogs and have been reading this sabbatical one. I always like to share what I’m doing and thinking but I also keep the blog going for selfish reasons – I love writing and I like to get my thoughts down, even on virtual paper! So, if you could, of your charity, help the ROBES Project this year by sponsoring me I’d be really grateful. You just have to click on the button on the right hand side of the screen.
I was seeking Jerusalem on Monday and went to the site of one of William Blake’s houses. He wrote a poem called ‘London’ which begins like this.
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
Things do not seem to change. But they can. Thank you for your support – it means a huge amount to me, it means even more to those who will be the guests of the project.
It was a much shorter flight back to London than the nine and half hours that it took to get to Vancouver. The train journey heading east to Toronto shaved off three hours time difference and so it was just over six hours until we landed having left Montreal. It was a fantastic three weeks in Canada.
My purpose in going was, I suppose, three-fold. A sabbatical gives you the opportunity to spend time doing something you wouldn’t normally be able to do. The last time I had a sabbatical – back in 2006 – I visited places that I had always wanted to, notably South Africa and India, and so one purpose was simply to see Canada.
As far as that was concerned it was everything and more than I had hoped for. The three cities – Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal – were all interesting and each had its own beauty. Vancouver is in a stunning location; Toronto is big but not brash and the lake it sits alongside is stunning; Montreal is distinct and has a character unlike the other two. I was always conscious that I was not in the USA, it felt very different. The big surprise was that Montreal felt very much like France, not just Canadian with French sprinkled in. It’s European character is in the grain of the place.
The second purpose was to visit family. One of my cousins has lived there for a long time and though I’ve seen her back here I hadn’t had the chance to see her at home. Staying with her and meeting her Canadian family, my Canadian family, was fantastic. It also gave me the chance to see something of suburban life in Ontario.
But the third and, I suppose, the principal reason was to get to know something of the Anglican Church of Canada. I’ve been fortunate over the last few years to be able to offer hospitality to the Primate of Canada and his successor along with their Chaplain as they pay their annual visit to the Archbishop of Canterbury. It’s been a wonderful opportunity to hear about a part of the Anglican Communion that I knew nothing of. That isn’t quite true. I had always plundered their prayer book for ‘other texts’. As a Precentor I collected prayer books from other parts of the Communion and the Canadian, along with the one from New Zealand, provided lots of useful material.
But apart from that I really knew nothing about a church with which though the Commonwealth we are still enormously close, until the issues around same-gender relationships began to be a dividing issue in the Communion. Then I began to take notice and listen to how the Canadian church was dealing with the issues that we have to deal with and how they were doing it in a different way to the Anglican church in the USA (TEC).
In January when the Primates of the Anglican Communion met in Canterbury to discuss the issue, again, and when the decision was made to impose some kind of discipline (I don’t know what other word to use) on TEC a number of people in the congregation at Southwark Cathedral asked what the Chapter was going to do about it. To be honest we felt that there was little we could actually ‘do’ but we did want to make some kind of response. The issues around how LGBT+ people are welcomed and cared for and celebrated and included have always been part of the mission of the Cathedral. I was there when we hosted the LGCM 20th Anniversary Service; I was there for wonderful AIDS Day Services; I was there when we went through the Jeffrey John debacle; I am still there and continuing to respond to the call of God in this part of our life and to do it in a way that helps the church as well as LGBT+ people is something that I and my colleagues are passionate about.
Part of the response that we thought we could make was to consider whether we might possibly consider finding a cathedral in Canada with which we could link. Canada was still struggling with the issue, they were approaching their Synod, and we had some links already in each of the cities I decided to visit. But knowing whether there was any mileage in this idea required a visit as much as conversations.
We enjoy wonderful links already with the cathedrals in Rouen and Bergen and they constantly feed our life from an ecumenical perspective. Our diocesan link with Zimbabwe and our own Cathedral link with the Diocese of Masvingo are central to our life, our prayer and our mission. The thought was that a link with a Canadian cathedral might enable our own thinking about how we might continue to address the issue of the inclusion of LGBT+ people in our life in a truly positive way and a way which could also help us respond to God’s mission call in the diocese.
The church is always set in society and breathes the same air. We are incarnational because God is incarnational. Whether the church has been in first century Palestine, in ancient Rome, in medieval Europe, in colonial Africa, in post-colonial India, in North America or wherever, the fabric and life of the institution has absorbed a huge amount from the context. At the Reformation we left behind an alien church language and embraced the language of the place in which we were set and that made it’s own changes. The story goes that the missionaries in Papua New Guinea in translating the scriptures and the liturgy for the indigenous people knew that ‘Lamb of God’ would be meaningless, there were no lambs. So instead they had to look for the equivalent, which turned out to be ‘Pig of God’. The church must breathe the local air.
Canada is a very secular country. Montreal is full of wonderful and exotic churches. It is a city of saints, people like St André of Montreal, of whom I’ve written, and the nuns and the priests who brought the faith and taught the children (and did some horrendous things at times). The Anglican Church is part of the mix, not established but, as with TEC, punching a little above its weight within that society.
The principles on which Canada is based, and which people will always tell you about, are ‘peace, order and good government’. It is felt that each informs the other and produces a good society. From what I saw it is true. Canada is the only country asking for more Syrian refugees; it is truly inclusive. Tolerance is not a word that is used, tolerance is not what that society looks for, it is all about acceptance. If we’re thinking about the place of LGBT+ people in society Canada is a fantastic example. Every city I visited had its own Gay Village, not some seedy corner, an ashamed backstreet, but somewhere celebrated with rainbow flags flying and, in Montreal, a street covered the whole of is length in thousands of pink balloons as a permanent feature – a place for the whole community, gay and straight, to relax. It’s a country of politeness and quietness, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t shout.
So is it any wonder that the Canadian Church shares these characteristics? In every Anglican Church I visited there was a rainbow banner and a proclamation of full inclusion. Now, I’m often called a liberal and I don’t object to that but even I was challenged. One church in the centre of Toronto had a banner on the outside proclaiming ‘Every day is gay pride day at Holy Trinity.’ Inside the church street homeless were sleeping on the pews, the floor, the benches and volunteers were feeding them in this safe space – so inclusion there went beyond the gay community. But on occasions I did wonder how straight people felt, whether they felt as included as some others in the community. But in the conversations I had, they did, and wanted to celebrate the really inclusive church to which they belonged and of which they are proud and which they sincerely believe reflects the all-inclusive nature of the God they seek to serve.
The first evening I was in Toronto I was invited to attend with the Primate the regular ‘Queer Eucharist’ that happens in one particular suburban church on a regular basis. It was fascinating to be there, celebrating, albeit with what I found a rather challenging liturgy, the life and hopes of the LGBT+ community. It was a blessing to be there.
The opening greeting we were invited to say (not from Common Worship!) was
We are here! Being the Church! We have not retreated! We are standing in praise!
They hadn’t retreated and the place was full of praise of God. The Primate was there to talk about their Synod vote on same-gender marriage and the questioning of him was long and polite and caring. But then it would be because as I said in my sermon in Toronto’s Anglican Cathedral, the shock was that Canadian people are SO polite. They are also so caring.
So is it any wonder that the church is responding to society in the way that it is. I’m not saying that the grass is greener there or that the Canadian Church has it sorted. But it appears to me that they are trying to do that impossible thing – being the universal, eternal church in the particular, now, place.
The Second Reading for the Eucharist on the Sunday I was preaching in Toronto was 1 Timothy 2.1-7. That passage, which begins like this, was pure gift from God that day.
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2.1-4)
This seems to me to be exactly what the Anglican Church of Canada is trying to do. It was fascinating and a privilege to be able to share in its life just for a few weeks. Where this takes us as a Cathedral community we have yet to decide but the bonds of affection for me are strong. I was encouraged by a polite, quiet, engaged and engaging church that truly is inclusive.
The ‘Queer Eucharist’ concluded with us praying this prayer together. It’s my prayer at the end of this first stage of my sabbatical.
Almighty God, once again you have given us what we need: sacrament, one another, hope for a better day. With renewed energy we offer ourselves to be sent out in your name; hopeful, grateful, useful, leaders of liberation, proclaimers of love. Amen.
Toronto, so I’m told, means in the Mohawk language, something about where the waters meet. It’s a place of meeting. It really is a world city and the church tries to reflect this in terms of its commitment to inclusion. It’s music to my ears, the Southwark vision across the water, the church as the place of meeting.
It was a privilege to be asked to preach at the Anglican Cathedral for their Choral Eucharist. The lections were Amos 8.4-7; 1 Timothy 2.1-7 and Luke 16.1-13 – great, if challenging readings from which to preach. Anyway, this is the text of my sermon which reflects something of my experience so far in this great city and country.
Travel tends to produce a lot of surprises. It certainly has for me. This is the first time that I’ve been in Canada and it’s been full of surprises.
The first was that you’re all so polite. From day one I simply couldn’t get over it – you make us Brits look positively rude – but then maybe we are! The other thing was that you have to have fruit with everything. On the train from Vancouver to this wonderful city of Toronto – five days of sheer bliss – I ordered a Yorkshire Pudding filled with beef in gravy and it came complete with a slice of watermelon – what was that about! And that train journey. I knew this place was big but that was ridiculous – five days through some of the most magnificent and breath taking scenery I’ve ever witnessed. Thank you God.
But one of the other surprises has been your tax system – I’m not talking about income tax – as a visitor I thankfully know nothing of that – I mean your sales tax. So, we were wandering through China Town the other day to meet up with a friend we were meeting in Kensington Market and saw a sign – five postcards for three dollars – perfect. Of course it wasn’t that at all because a lump of tax was added at the till – not much but it was still, and always is, a surprise.
The gospel for this Eucharist is one of those shocking stories that Jesus told that makes me scratch my head at the end and say ‘so what was that all about?’ ‘What precisely is Jesus commending?’ Here we have someone thoroughly dishonest, caught out by his boss, gets the chop and then adds to his misdemeanours by defrauding his employer even more. Even in the worst days of the City of London this would be a shocking story for our daily papers to cover. So what on earth is Jesus on about?
We’re all familiar of course with the story of Matthew, Levi, called from his job collecting taxes and one of those startling people that Jesus chooses to call and chooses to call his friends – I don’t know you of course, but, I suspect, startling people like you and me.
The reason of course that the choice of Matthew was so surprising was that, apart from, one assumes, by his mother and those who loved him, he was one of the most despised figures in the community. He was working for the tax authorities so that was a downer for a start but even more than that he was working for the occupying power – he was what we might call a ‘quisling’ – and they end up hated by those they work with and hated by those they work against – a person without morals. The way of course that Matthew made his money was by slapping on top of the tax bill his own 10% – he had a cut of what he made for the Romans – and probably, in some instances more than he was securing in tax to line his own pockets.
And that’s what I think was happening in this gospel. Yes, the man was a bad manager, squandering his master’s profits we’re told. He was dishonest. But the way he would’ve made his money would have been to add his own sales tax at the till, on the bill, the bit below the bottom line that made the real bottom line oppressive.
So, he’s found out, he loses his job and then he does the right thing. Even he can do the right thing – he adjusts the bills to remove his slice of the cake. And for this he’s commended – he’s gone beyond what was called for – he lost his job but he also gave up his cut.
The reason that we’re here this morning in this magnificent cathedral is that we worship the God who creates and loves us and does more than we ever deserve. We’re here because we’ve been called by Jesus who, as St Paul said in our Second Reading,
‘gave himself a ransom for all’
We’re here because we believe in a God who holds nothing back, who never takes the extra slice, but gives more, gives all, gives himself in Jesus Christ, as the price, as the ransom, as the food, as the hope. We’re here because we believe in the God who as light and love exposes the darkness and hardness of our hearts, the God of transparent love who reveals the shadiness and hiddenness of so much of our living. We’re here because in our own dishonest living God is continually calling us into that better place, that holy place.
One of the things that I’ve seen in the life of your church, our Anglican Church in this great country, is your commitment to social justice, to endeavouring to do the right thing.
In Vancouver where we began our time in Canada and here in Toronto and I’m sure in Montreal where we go tomorrow, we’ve seen churches giving everything to the work of social justice. It’s the kind of Amos call to just living that we heard in the First Reading and you do it openly and in a way that’s truly humbling.
The other day, before we bought the postcards, we wandered into Holy Trinity and there were homeless people sleeping, some on the pews, some on the floor and getting a coffee and getting some food as they needed it and all around them were proclamations of love. I take that back home with me as a challenge to our generosity to our own street homeless in Southwark.
I’ve seen in this Cathedral and in all the churches I’ve been, banners, rainbow banners and statements about the full inclusion of all people and not least the LGBT+ community. I know that your courageous stance leads you into hot water with some others in the Anglican Communion – but all I’d say to you is do what you know to be right and what you know the Holy Spirit is calling and guiding you to – you’re a nation built by pioneers, we still need pioneers, willing to transform the wilderness in which so many live.
And I’ve seen a church working with the nation for the peoples of the First Nations and the people of every nation who meet in this city of meeting, in this most diverse city in the world.
Social justice, doing the right thing, and more than the right thing, making the response not just generous and right but sacrificial, is what it’s all about and what we see in Jesus. Matthew 25 reminds us that judgment will not be based on getting the doctrine neat and right but on whether we’ve served God in the homeless and the prisoner, the excluded, the despised, the anxious, the addicted, the sad and sorrowful as well as the joyful and successful and whole, for as the parable keeps saying
‘just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
The great Welsh priest poet R S Thomas wrote many powerful poems but amongst them is one called ‘The Coming’. It goes like this
And God held in his hand A small globe. Look he said. The son looked. Far off, As through water, he saw A scorched land of fierce Colour. The light burned There; crusted buildings Cast their shadows: a bright Serpent, A river Uncoiled itself, radiant With slime.
On a bare Hill a bare tree saddened The sky. Many People Held out their thin arms To it, as though waiting For a vanished April To return to its crossed Boughs. The son watched Them. Let me go there, he said.
That dishonest manager is commended because in the end he gave everything, just as God has given everything and God, the God who comes to where we are, does it again in this Eucharist.
The God of justice is the God of the Eucharist, of broken bread and wine outpoured, who gives his own flesh and blood to be our food and drink.
The God who comes here, comes to you, comes to me and with divine and boundless generosity gives you, gives me, everything, the full measure, the full measure of love as we come to him with open, empty hands.
And we’re sent from this place, fed, satisfied to make that known in word and action that others may be fed, physically, spiritually, that others may be loved as never before and that the world may know that we know the God who knows us, the ransomed one who holds nothing back from you, from me, from this beautiful and ever surprising world, so loved by God.