My Final Post

I was never more fruitful in my work for the parish than in the days of my departure after 12 years in post as the vicar of St Stephens in Shepherds Bush. My role changed from that of a poet, crafting words and shaping dreams, to that of the clown, drawing back from the community that I have known and loved, and laughing with people at the insecurity of what lay ahead for me. The poet draws people into the telling of a story. The clown distances himself from what is happening and, in seeing things in a different light, teaches others to do so similarly. People felt the spaces opening up where previously there had been stability and wanted to meet with me and talk. Someone, not even from the congregation, posted on line “I never talked to you but always felt I could. I am sorry to see you go”.

 The poet offers shape, order and purpose. The clown is chaotic, contingent and temporal. Some days I have, some days had three different breakfasts and two special suppers in order to see all of the people, with whom I wanted to spend time. I am leaving the security of a five bedroomed vicarage for temporary accommodation, family, friends and people’s charity. My next job, as a prison chaplain, provides no house to go with the position and so until I find a place of my own. I will be at the mercy of others. The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool (As You Like It Act 5 Scene 1).

 People became more open with me about their own lives, as they realised that I would no longer be walking the self-same streets as they. They talked deeply about themselves and I learnt more about the dark corners of the community I loved. I understood more completely the spiritual poverty of mankind, in parting than I would ever have done in staying. I was no longer exuberant, joyful and hopeful but melancholic, desolate, soaked with knowledge and drawn into the pain of another person’s heartache.

 At my final Eucharist in the parish I have asked a child to open the worship, a young person to preach and children to lead the prayers, say the creed and share the Peace with the congregation. “The poem was never about the poet. The sermon was never about the vicar. Life is never about us” [Jenny Helgen]. The Service showcases the people of God and I am their broken down, old clown watching on from the wings as people act out their better selves. It is from the clown that we learn to laugh and cry together: we weep with laughter and cry tears of joy and know instinctively that crucifixion and resurrection are each a part of the other. A yearning for stability is an escape from reality; the holiness of God is also a constructive force making new life possible.

 I am the follower of a dreamer whose dream came true. Courageously and against the odds he stuck to his vision of how the world could be – the leopard would lie down with the lamb and the sheep next to the wolf (Isaiah 11:6). In our society the dream lives on: children will lead adults in worship, homeless people will be treated with dignity and refugees with respect; we will all recognize that each of us are a part of each other and under the sovereignty of God. The dreamer’s dream is both here in part but is still to come in all its fullness. As I prepare to make the transition to my new role as a prison chaplain, I will pray, as did St Ignatius, “grant me nothing more than to be poured out in sacrifice to God. On thou who art the light of the minds that know thee; the life of the souls that love thee and the strength of the wills that serve thee help us to know thee that we may truly love thee; to love thee that we may fully serve thee whom to serve is perfect freedom

The Shepherds Bush I love

Shepherds Bush (SB) is a community of communities. It is the exciting and isolating, vibrant and lonely place that I have been proud to call my home since 2005, as the priest of St Stephens and St Thomas Shepherds Bush with St Michael and St George White City

SB combines a residential population of 39,000, with a footfall of a million people in a week. SB thrives on the Uxbridge Road which is the longest residential road in Europe with the most languages spoken. At the same time SB has 38% of her houses as single occupancy. There are five underground stations, one over ground station and a bus station all within a short distance of each other.

There is a liquid base to the community which means that people can move in and out of the area freely. It means that SB has a proud history of inclusivity and welcome. When the Ayam ZaMan Restaurant decided to use our church hall for Iftar meals during Ramadan they emulsion whitewashed the walls of the hall for free and described it to us as a gift from the community. We have to read newspapers to understand Brexit because it makes so little sense to us in our cross-cultural, multi-racial many faith life together. In the 1960s it was in Shepherds Bush that Caribbean families were made welcome. St Stephens even set up the Shepherds Bush Housing Association to ensure that this was so.

When we arrived in the parish a Polish family parked their car in our drive for a month and lived out of their car while they looked for work. They were wonderful people and came back that Christmas with a Christmas card and a bottle of wine. A homeless man came to the vicarage every evening for five years and taught me to see the world through the eyes of the poor and dispossessed. Eventually he left for a flat in Earls Court. The vicarage became a safe-haven for vulnerable people on crowded London streets. People would knock on the door after they had been released from Wormwood Scrubs with nowhere to stay.  I would sit late into the night on the steps of the church and talk with them. One Saturday I sat with a concert goer and talked through the night about why he should not commit suicide. I was in church, a few hours later, preaching about the love of God in Christ Jesus.

I have seen the Westfield Shopping Centre open and develop a doughnut economy with all the jam at the centre and little effect on the local communities of SB and White City. It is still the case that life expectancy in Hammersmith and Fulham is three years shorter than that of those who live in Kensington and Chelsea.

I am leaving after 12 happy years to become Chaplain at Rochester Prison and work with young offenders. My last service at St Stephens will be at 10am on February 3rd. I will leave with SB in my heart to carry on what the area does so well which is to draw people from the edges of society back into the centre. 70% of young offenders re-offend once they have left prison. I will come with a listening ear, a loving heart and a determined mind and try to help prisoners to understand that there are different ways of living out their future.

My challenge for this next period of my life is to answer a comment made by Mother Theresa. She said that “the greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty -- it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There's a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.” Therein is my task: to meet the hunger for love and for God from within those that are in prison.

 

Endings

Endings are a natural part of life. Jesus. Mary and Joseph would not stay long in Bethlehem before they had to flee for their lives to Egypt. Jesus had his life ended prematurely and went on to Resurrection, Ascension and a seat at the right hand of God (Romans 8:34). Jeremiah had issues of mental health but went on to foresee the coming of a new covenant between God and man (Jer 20:14 & 31:31).

 There can be blessings in any ending or departure and I have always felt it to be my responsibility to see that it is so. I am used to being seen as someone who is bringing blessings to people; I am less used to being the one who is being blessed by others. Now, after 12 years of my caring for others, the Parish is now looking after me, as I make ready to leave and take up a post as Chaplain at Rochester Prison. 73% of youth offenders who get out of jail commit another crime within a year of being released and I feel that it is an area in which I can make a contribution;

 There are precious moments with people that I have known from across the community over the last 12 years. Alison spoke to me, as if she was giving me permission to leave. She said, “when I heard what you were going to do, I felt that I would be happy to let you go”. “They will be lucky to have you”, say others. “You will be missed”. The only time that I have heard someone better talked about, is in a funeral oration and there is a sense of closure to people’s comments. All of a sudden people are telling that I am “inspirational”, “compassionate” and “easy to talk to”. One parent from the school says to me, “you know that no one actually wants you to go”. I tell her that parishes and priests both need endings and departures to be able to refresh and renew themselves.

 Some people have been more cautious. A child at the school said, “you are going very quickly; I hope that you will be all right.” Svetla said “I hope that you don’t stay too long in your new job”. “It is a big deal”, said Anna. There are also those with whom I have walked closely and been through difficult times. Simon and I held each other at the Communion rail and wept. My godson is autistic and needs rooms to be laid out exactly as they were when he last came. On his last visit he took down the curtains from our living room because he was scared that they would otherwise be lost in the move.

The children from the school are intrigued and pragmatic. They ask me: “will you pray with the prisoners, like you do with us and make them feel better inside?” “Who will take the Soul Club (After School Club) when you have gone?” “To whom will I tell my stories?” said Terry. “Who will make me laugh?” said James. “We have been doing this a long time”, said Michael, the charismatic church school headmaster, thinking of the 10 years the two of us have met together on Monday morning in order to start each week with prayer.

I am conscious that praise does not make me a good priest any more than criticism does the reverse. People who may want to criticise me stay silent. Others have already left the church. “As a pastor, not a week goes by where I don't mourn the absence of people who were once present in the life of my congregation. That continual mourning of people who left the church I serve is something I never really know how to process, except with a slow and steady heart-ache” (wrote Doug Bursch @fairlyspiritual).

For the young people, with whom I will work during the next period of my professional life, ‘Home is Where the Hurt is’ (Arthur 2007); this refers to the pivotal role played by the family in the process of criminalization for youth offenders. If families are healthy society is strong. Mother Theresa said that “The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. She said that we can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love; therein is my challenge. How we behave towards those more vulnerable than ourselves is the litmus test of our authenticity. A happy Christmas to all.

Listening to the poor

As a vicar, there are constant jobs waiting to be done. There are emails that need to be answered, baptism certificates that need to be prepared and committee minutes that have to be finished. The rubbish has to be put out on Monday morning and the hall needs to be cleared ready for our Mother & Toddler Group. Chairs are forever being taken out and put back again after various church services. It can take me the whole week properly to follow up conversations from the Sunday before and to prepare the news sheet for the Sunday following.

 Amidst the organizational tasks that need to be completed, there is also a deep Biblical instinct to turn towards the needs of the poor, vulnerable and dispossessed who are often underrepresented in the church pews; if I turn to the edges of the community my congregation will get less attention. It can only have been a surprise to the 99 sheep who get left on their own while their shepherd left them to go and look for the one that had got lost (Luke 15:4). 

 There is no church growth in two years of accompanying an Iraqi-Kurd, to and from the courts as he applies and appeals for leave to remain in the UK. Hawre came to England when he was 16 and has now been applying for 11 years for leave to remain in the UK. There is no sermon preparation time in my sitting in hospital with Sarah as she sits awaits a diagnosis of cancer and then accompanying her in the difficult days ahead through the different stages of mastectomy and chemotherapy.

 God lives among the marginalised, the forgotten and the challenging. We are blessed when we learn to recognise how our God lives amongst us in disguise. Those who are poor, vulnerable and dispossessed become our teachers. Hawre, for example, is a modern day victim of war and his plight taught me how people can use Remembrance Sunday as a way of distancing themselves from war. Thinking only of those that died 100 years ago in World War 1 obscures the fact that more people have been killed by war in the last 90 years than in the previous 200 and more women and children have been killed than soldiers. The effects of war are ongoing

 Listening to the voice of the dispossessed is something that needs constantly to be re learnt. I pray upside down prayers different to what others might conventionally do. I prayed with Jane, suffering from glaucoma and incontinence, that she would not be passed fit to work because if she were, she would lose her Employment Support Allowance (ESA). I learn more readily to share what I have with others. A homeless person told me how much he liked my coat. I took off and gave to him the coat that he had admired and walked home, promptly more appreciative of the fact of my being able to afford new clothes for myself.

 Institutionally also, listening to the voice of the poor is something that needs constantly to be revisited. We went to the Diocese with a vision for a Holy Communion Service at night and so creating a church of the homeless for the homeless. We ran into our own version of the Bishop of Burnley’s prophetic words to New Wine in 2017. The Bishop said that he was “astonished at the number of people Jesus was calling to plant new churches as long as they were in Zones 1 and 2 of the London transport system.” Our version was being told that our church of rough sleepers would need to be self-financing within three years. Their logic was self-defeating since a financially secure rough sleeper wouldn’t be sleeping rough.

 The answer lies with God and with other people. Poverty is not just about money. Poverty is people not knowing what to do and not having anyone to do it with. To be with the poor is to listen, learn and receive from them their gift of friendship. Charity is not about doing things for the poor but being with the poor. Since, as Christians, we believe that we meet Christ in the poor (Matt 25:40), charity is not just another way for us to be kind to someone less fortunate than ourselves. We benefit from them just as much as they ever do from us.

Syira asks me if I want a hug

Funerals occupy a large part of my time. I hear stories of remarkable people and share in the grief of the families for the person who has died. In terms of my own feelings, I am like a batsman lining up to fast emotional deliveries. However well prepared I am there will always be one person, against whom I have no defense. 11-year-old Syira was one such person. The analogy belongs to Franklin, who was the undertaker and whose heart was broken alongside mine in what was to happen.

 Syira’s vivacious and wonderful mother, Chiney, had been the victim of a fatal asthma attack and Syira herself died of an asthma attack the morning after her mother’s funeral. At Chiney’s funeral I had asked people to hug those nearest to them so that their grief would be shared together and not held individually. The church was packed with 400 people squeezed into every corner. As people held each other and their tears tumbled this beautiful woman-child came towards me and asked me if I wanted a hug. She was not looking for reassurance but had seen me on my own and wanted to include me in what was happening. It was she looking after me and not I after her.

 At the crematorium I told people the story of what Syira had done and held her gaze from the front of the chapel. I said that I would remember what she had done for the rest of my life and I asked her if she was ready for me to say the final prayer of committal which would mean the curtains closing. She nodded for me to continue but she was in hospital and died the next morning. 

 I have learnt that children can teach adults about death. In the immediate days that followed Syira’s death adults splurged out their feelings on Facebook. At her funeral the children from her school had come and were lined up dignified and erect thinking about Syira rather than just focussing on their own feelings as so many adults were doing. It was the children who were facing up to the reality of what had happened. Her classmates asked me whether I was “the priest that she hugged?” One of the children said that I had done Syira proud. It was as Syira had done; they were comforting me as much as I was them.

 I have learnt that while things don’t always happen for a purpose God brings a purpose out of everything that happens. God doesn’t stop tragedies from happening in the here and now, but he does promise that in time he will make all things new. I take comfort from the fact that Syira will be a part of the new heaven and the new earth where there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away (Revelation 21:4 &5).

 Funerals continue to occupy a large part of my time. We already have first generation secularism when families are one step removed from the church: their parents would go to church but them not. These families like to have Frank Sinatra (I did it my Way) or Robbie Williams (Angels) playing as the coffin comes in. We now have a second-generation secularism when families are two steps removed from the church: their grandparents went to church but neither they nor their parents have done so. The family of a lady who had died in her forties were one such family. They brought music decks into the church and played loud hip-hop music. We all danced together and for five minutes the church became akin to a club. When I stopped dancing, mindful of the fact that we needed to reach the crematorium in time, one person from the congregation noticed that I had stopped and politely asked me if I had anything else that I wanted to say.

 I live with the memory of the warmth of Chiney’s family who adopted me as their own; the dignity of Syira’s school friends as they quivered at the enormity of what had happened; the gravitas of Franklin as he steered us through both Chiney and Syira’s funerals. There is a French phrase ‘coup de foudre’ which means a flash of lightening. It is used to refer to a moment when a person captures your heart in an instant. Some people live their whole lives without such a sensation. Syira was a coup de foudre for me; that elegant woman child captured my heart in the single moment she walked towards me at her mother’s funeral and asked me if I wanted a hug. 

The Pierrot Priest

As a church minister, the historical figure with whom I feel most kinship is Pierrot the clown with the tear in his eye. Pierrot and the church minister are kindred spirits because we both understand the pain and the glory of being human. We both know that difficult lives can produce impressive people; those who celebrate with others are often lonely themselves. Joy and sadness are a part of each other. The language for the two emotions crosses over into each other: people cry with laughter and shed tears of joy – hence the tears in Pierrot the clown’s eye. As a church minister I live out the ultimate story of grief and joy, as a follower of the crucified and risen Lord.

In origin Pierrot was a European figure. He was a member of the Commedia Dell’ Arte, a wandering troupe of actors travelling from town to town performing as they went. Pierrot was the warm up act, there to attract people to the show. He was watcher, first and foremost; he observed human behavior; he understood the mood of the audience. He would provide easy laughs to soften up the audience. He was laughed at and then ignored, as the main show got under way without him.

Pierrot and church minister understand how apparent opposites blend together because we see what happens in other people’s lives. Pierrot served as an understudy when members of the cast were ill, drunk or temporarily shut up in prison. People talk with me about their situation. I was, once in a cafe, dressed in my formal clergy attire and a man asked if he could buy me a coffee. He explained that he had never brought anyone a coffee before in his life but had just been given a diagnosis for cancer. He realized that he could not take his money with him and he wanted to change how he related to people.

Pierrot and the church minister are kindred spirits because the menial tasks fall to us both. Pierrot looked after the animals, the dogs, monkeys and bears that were part of the performance. He slept on the same straw, if straw was available, as these half starved and ill used beasts. I felt Pierrot-like when I spent my August Bank holiday with my hand down a blocked toilet, unable to get hold of a plumber in time to clear the toilet ready for a church full of worshipers and a church hall full of party goers arriving later that day.

Pierrot and the church minister are kindred spirits because we both have a passion for life, a hunger for truth and a desire for communication. Pierrot knew, wrote Kay Dick (1960), what made the people laugh, what made them angry, what they anticipated, what they feared, what they loved. He knew why men beat their wives, got drunk, and was tender and cruel with their children, how they contracted debts married off their children and how they died.

Pierrot had a fundamentally optimistic nature; he believed in people’s ability to come through the most difficult of circumstances. This optimism sprung from a resilient nature, a tough life and a natural instinct for joy. His knowledge came from understanding people’s experiences.

Pierrot has a particular resonance for the UK at the moment. The height of his fame held within it the beginning of his decline. He was imported from Europe to England, following Napoleon’s defeat at the battle of Waterloo, and was reinvented as an English clown. England had been at war with France and her acquisition of France’s Pierrot and was a triumph in international power politics and propaganda.

As a clown and clown alone Pierrot was no longer watching human behavior but simply performing to the crowd. Pierrot was the symbol of a defeated nation. After Waterloo there was no holding back the Englishness of Pierrot and his translation from being an observer into an entertainer marked the height of Pierrot’s popularity. England could only accept him as a clown. He became more popular but less relevant to the surrounding society. Over the next 100 years Pierrot was to fade into obscurity, nothing more than the object of ridicule at seaside towns and resorts.

It is a recurring temptation for the Church to substitute popularity for relevance, in our search for larger congregations, and now it is a temptation for the country to substitute populism for politics. As the clock ticks down towards Brexit, we will need Pierrot-like-figures, both in politics and in the Church, with insights drawn from experience and a deep understanding of humanity to be able to draw together different races, classes, genders and types of people into a healthy and harmonious whole.

 

From the hospital

A multiple broken shoulder and now an immanent operation with a replacement titanium shoulder have been wonderful gifts to me for (what Rohr (2012) describes as) “second half of life spirituality”. Second half of life spirituality is the time in our lives when we indwell the script we have learnt of ourselves and live it out as distinctively our own. In the first half of our lives we discover our own particular narrative and in the second half we write it, live it out and own it for ourselves.

My dear shattered shoulder has enabled me to do just this. Never has a ministry been more distinctively claimed and lived out as a person’s own.  I have grown to love the stillness of the late night hours when I have been unable to sleep due to  my not being able to lie still on my shoulder, and I have learned once again the lessons of how to pray, as St Augustine said, as though everything depends on God.

Such have been the restrictions placed on my movements that I have given the formal blessing week after week at the Sunday parish Eucharist without raising my hand above my nose.

Such are the limitations on maneuverability that I have baptised children without being able to hold the child myself. I have had to rely on the parents to do so. It makes for a smoother ceremony. 

Such have been the weakness of my shoulder that I have had to carry and lay out 200 blue chairs for school services one chair at a time. It has made for smarter neater rows.

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”, said Mary Oliver. My dear lovely long shattered shoulder, soon to be replaced by a new hi-tech titanium one, has helped me to answer this question.

My shoulder has helped me to be a better priest. Rohr (2012) says that we are a script writing, boundary making, structure forming first half of life culture. We value certainty, security, routine, order and control. We live by set routines admire people who are busy and who make definite decisions and decide on specific outcomes. Two years on the National Health Service waiting list has helped me to understand the ambiguity and uncertainty that are a natural part of many people’s lives.

My shoulder has helped me become a better Christian. Rohr (2012) says that such is the reassurance and familiarity to be gained from what is routine, safety and security that many of us never feel the need to make the transition to a more reflective second half of life spirituality. My shoulder has helped me to unlearn as well as to learn what I can expect from a life of faith in Christ. It is easy to assume that there is an emotional contract in our relationship with God: we say prayers and feel peaceful or we sing worship songs and feel joyful. Sometimes for us, as for Elijah (1 Kings 12), God comes only in small whispers and we are hardly aware that he is there. We are left with faith alone to guide us through. The point of praying for healing becomes faith and hope rather than the healing for which we seek.

My appointment with the surgeon’s knife will take me back into a first half of life spirituality and I will be relying on the certainty, security, routine and order of the hospital to guide me through the process. I can’t imagine that I will ever feel as fond of my new titanium shoulder as I have of his shattered predecessor but I am looking forward to a new reality of unbroken night’s sleep, holding children at baptism services and cheering at QPR, my local football club, with my hands held above my head. I will also face a lifetime of setting of metal detectors in airports. 

As a child I grew up watching a television series called The Six Million Dollar Man. It was an American science fiction thriller in which former astronaut, Colonel Steve Austin, had superhuman strength due to bionic implants and was employed as a secret agent by a fictional government agency. 

My ‘one wild and precious life’ is being spent with prayer, scripture and Christian fellowship as my equivalent bionic implants and my poor damaged shoulder has been a precious companion in seeing this happen. 

Our faith is shaped by the underdog. A convicted, crucified criminal is our unlikely Lord. A two year broken shoulder has been my unlikely teacher. “All things work together for the good of those who love the Lord” (Rom 8:28). My new hi-tech titanium shoulder will become a part of my ongoing story of faith in  Christ 

Joy and other faiths

The Duke of Cambridge said that the England football team had given us something to believe in. If it takes a 2-1 defeat against a country of 5million, that suffered a period of ethnic cleansing back in the 1990s, to give people something to believe in then the church has got some catching up to do. It was not the fact of two teams playing football, with tickets being sold for up to £11,000, to which Prince William referred. It was the joy and the sense of hope that came as a result of England’s cup run. Hope and joy are specialist subjects for the Church.

I have had occasion, during the last week, at the Leslie Newbigin Summer Institute, to reflect on Jesus and other world faiths. I am in a parish with three times the national average of Muslims and other World Faiths and so it was pertinent to the work that I do. I have open handed, generous and joyful contact with people of all faiths and none. One lady comes to our church once a fortnight and to the Buddhist Temple on the weeks in-between.

I benefit from repeated cups of coffee in a nearby Syrian restaurant. They like the fact of the local priest in their restaurant and have always refused to take money off me for the coffee I drink. During Ramadan they hire the church hall for an Iftar. This is the evening meal at which they end their daily Ramadan fast. Ramadan is a yearly challenge to the Christian community in their observation of Lent. Ramadan is a community event that draws people together. Lent is approached individually and people seem to think that giving up chocolate is an achievement.

When the local council changed the parking regulations Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist were joined together in opposition. The radio station The Voice of Islam interviewed me on my work in the community. Different Muslim families then contacted me on Twitter to carry on the conversation.

Believing that in Jesus God is present in the fullness of his being does not preclude the reality of the work of God in the lives and works of men and women outside of the Christian church. We collaborate with the charity Muslim Aid in our work with the homeless. They provide food for distribution and high quality sleeping bags. In the cold winter months the homeless know that they will get a better quality of sleeping bag from the Muslims than they will do from the Christians and they benefit accordingly. Leslie Newbigin said that the sensitive Christian mind, enlightened by Christ, cannot fail to recognise and to rejoice in the abundant spiritual fruits to be seen in the lives of men and women of other faiths.

The very nature of the Christian message is joy. Jesus followed the joy that was set before him (Heb 12:2). The angels start with joy (Lk 2:10); the disciples end with joy (Lk 24:52). Football might not be coming home but God is in charge of the whole cosmos, and not just us, and for that we rejoice.

Only in a church

I have just finished preaching my way through a rich period in the liturgical year. Pentecost, Ascension Day and then Trinity Sunday contain within them the heart of this last period of human history which is we waiting for the return of Christ to earth. This same Jesus, who was taken from the disciples into heaven, will come back in the same way they saw him go into heaven (Acts 1:11). For good measure we have also had the Thy Kingdom Come Celebrations and Christian Aid week in-between the celebrations for Ascension Day and Pentecost.

I had an immediate insight into why a Trinitarian God is so hard for people to grasp. I had eight people round for a meal and between them they had six separate dietary requirements. One person did not eat dairy food and another person did not eat carbohydrates, including leeks. At a stroke we had ruled out the two significant food families. One person was a vegan and another a vegetarian. One person was a meat eater and another brought his own food since he wanted to keep a tight control on his diet. In another culture a meal would have been a coming together but here, in our cold northern European culture, it was a marking of the differences between us. I arranged a buffet where people could help themselves to the combination of foods that suited them best. A salad with optional cheese, meat or bread was the only thing that suited everyone. Each of us then sat on sofas and talked across the room to each other rather than sat next to each other at a table.

Okechukwu Ogbonnaya (1998) wrote that the Trinity has long been considered an enigma within Western Christendom because a Communitarian Divinity does not fit with our individualized, self-referential, consumer rights driven worldview. Supermarkets used to be the only places, other than a church, where every class race and social group would be represented. However supermarkets are now socially stratified in a way that they have not been previously. When Waitrose offered free coffee, their regular customer complained on line that the initiative might encourage the wrong type of person into the store. “I don’t want to walk behind someone pushing a trolley with their belly hanging out of their trousers”, was a particular example of social snobbery. 

Where else other than in a church will people that might otherwise never have met gather together? It is the counter cultural nature of a parish church bringing together different groups of people that shape her distinctive role within the community. Last night our parish hall was in use till midnight by our local Islamic group celebrating Iftar. This morning everything will be cleaned and ready for a Baby and Toddler session along with music and puppets.  

Where else other than in a church do we get to care for the poor and vulnerable and challenge the unjust structures of society? A lady who comes to our Rough Sleepers Cinema Club cared for her husband who had dementia. Her husband had crossed the legal threshold of competence needed before they were able transfer tenancy of his flat into her name. When he died she was given a month by the Council to leave the house that she had lived in for the past 20 years. She has been without permanent accomadation ever since.

Where else other than in a church do we learn to die well? We have had some beautiful deaths recently from among our congregation. They have broken our collective heart but left us conscious of the God who calls us home. Each person had their own particular and distinctive way of dying that was true to the person they were. Jean died sitting up in her chair. Mary slipped away quietly in the few minutes that her son was out of the room. She did not want to be a fuss. Renee died while we were sitting in her hospital room talking about politics. She wasn’t the centre of attention but she was surrounded by voices she knew. It is a deeply impressive aspect of our human make up that we carry on making choices right up until the point of death.

I have just finished preaching my way through a rich period in the liturgical year and I count myself a lucky man to have been able to do so - to God be the glory forever! Amen (Romans 11:36).

The Windrush Generation and UK's national day of shame

Plans for our church to mark the 70th anniversary of the landing of the HV Empire Windrush Sunday on June 24th have proved less straightforward than I had imagined. I had thought simply that we would celebrate the sense of style and fun from among Caribbean members of the congregation, have a guest speaker and a Bring and Share meal after church. We would enjoy ourselves and express our gratitude to the Caribbean community for the multi racial Britain we have become.

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Little did I think that the Government’s treatment of the Windrush generation would be under the spotlight, described by David Lammy MP as a national day of shame and lead ultimately to the resignation of the Home Secretary. It has emerged that people who came to the UK as part of the “Windrush generation”, many of whom are now elderly, have lost their jobs, homes, and bank accounts having being told that they were unable to demonstrate their legal status as British citizens. Some have faced deportation.

Ansell Wong spoke at an evening arranged by the Windrush Foundation to mark the 70th anniversary. He described his arrival in the UK from Trinidad in 1965. He said that the British Council induction at Hull University involved showing newly arrived Caribbean immigrants how to flush a toilet and how to use a knife and fork because there was a perception that they wouldn’t know how to do these things. Caribbean members of the congregation, who were in England in the 1960s, talk about being asked by young people whether or not they had a tail.

Being asked if you have got a tail is ignorant and cruel but it is not deliberate and calculated, as was the decision by the Home Office in 2010 to destroy thousands of landing cards recording Windrush immigrants’ arrival dates in the UK. It is this decision that has created the lack of documentation. MPs have said the targets for removing people living in the UK legally but without the correct documents could have led enforcement officers to target “low-hanging fruit”. Billy Holliday sung “Strange Fruit” about the lynching of a slave and to have our government using such imagery so loosely makes Donald Trump look a model of social decorum.

A Stephen Lawrence Day every April 22nd, as announced by Theresa May, might be taken to indicate that issues of racism are being addressed. The immigration debate over the Windrush generation children suggests the reverse. The Church of England should hang its head in shame for how it took part in the early years of racism against the Windrush generation. Mike Philips records his mother’s experience in the 1950s when she went to worship in the local Anglican church: “I went to join in the worship but after the service I was greeted by the vicar, who politely and nicely told me: “Thank you for coming but I would be delighted if you didn’t come back.” And I said, “Why?” He said, “My congregation is uncomfortable in the company of black people.”

St Stephens has a proud record from the 1960s of making Caribbean newcomers feel welcome. Rev John Asbridge, the then vicar set up the Shepherds Bush Housing Association to answer a need for rented accommodation. On June 24th we will celebrate the friendships we enjoy with each other and recognise the debt we owe to each other. We will bring food and share it together. I have learnt life long lessons of style; fun and discipline from the Caribbean ladies that have made this church their home.

Marjorie, who came originally from Montserrat, was Church Warden when I came to the parish. She said to me when I first started “Don’t worry; we will look after you”. She died last year and I will remember her openhearted generosity for the rest of my life

People of African and Caribbean origin make up 2% of the UK's population but account for more than two-thirds of Sunday churchgoers in London and 7% of worshippers nationwide. New figures from the Christian Research Association show that over the last five years black church membership has grown by around 18% compared with a 5% drop for churches nationally. The 492 Caribbean passengers who arrived on the Windrush have significance in our country’s history disproportionate to their numbers. People may not have wanted them then but we need them now. The work of @BAMEAnglican is highlighting the debt the Church of England owes to Afro Caribbean communities and how their leadership needs to be an integral part of our future.

HV Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury on June 22nd 1948. How will you mark the 70th anniversary in your church? For ideas, information or simply to make a donation contact The Windrush Foundation.

Truth simplicity and joy while working 15 hour days

In the week after Easter one person said that talking with me made her feel healthy and whole. One person said that I was inspirational. One person helped to keep me rooted and told me that when I was preaching she could not always follow my line of thought. According to St Francis it is the last critical comment that I should value most highly because it is from this that I will learn the most. St Francis, says Moorman (1977), was terrified of praise and was delighted when people spoke of him with contempt because therein he was able to follow more closely in the footsteps of Christ. 

My barometer for a healthy parish ministry is honesty, simplicity and joy. Honesty means prayer before the day begins, preparation before preaching and listening before talking: you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (John 8:32). Being told that my preaching needs to be simplified made me relieved rather than disappointed – it meant that there was something that I could do about it. Scripture is fascinating and intriguing before it instructive and informative and to have reason to go back to source and to relearn how to wonder at the words that are written will be a delight. Sermon preparation time is the northern star for my week. It keeps me from becoming a social care worker, religious service organizer or general nice guy in the community. A minute of preaching takes me 20 minutes to prepare and so a 15 minutes sermon takes me 5 hours to prepare. 

The simplicity of my role, as a parish priest, comes into sharp relief with the happy-sad task of being with people as they die. Padding round a hospital at midnight and sitting with a congregation member, now with only morphine to ease their pain, as they live out their last hours of their life, is both poignant and a privilege. A priest is paid a stipend rather than a wage so that he has the time to give to his ministry and the opportunity to do this and I am lucky to be trusted by the church to do so. 

Simplicity means that I become like a little child to enter the kingdom of heaven (Mk 10:15). I think well of people with whom I disagree or who do so with me; both of which are a feature of parish life. My sternest critic is my closest friend. St Frances is unsentimental about difficult times that we may have to face. He wrote that we can never tell how patient or humble a person is when everything is going well with him. But when those who should cooperate with him do the exact opposite, then we can tell. A man has as much patience and humility as he has then, and no more. 

When I get to Monday evening and find that I have worked two 15-hour days it is a time for me to be honest with myself. It is an unsustainable pace and it is bad theology to do so. If I try to maintain the same pace I will become a part of the statistics produced by St Luke’s Healthcare for the Clergy (2013) who found that 12% of clergy are “struggling or barely coping” with the pressure. 15-hour days is bad theology because the work done, through the church, is God’s responsibility and not my own. Revival in the church will come through faith, prayer and the finger of God. It won’t come through my hard work. 

In terms of living joyfully, I have the advantage of being a trail runner. This takes me on some beautiful races in beautiful places: most recently a half marathon along the Sussex coast. At the end of April I will run the same distance in Pembrokeshire. Joy means that I accept God’s gift of grace as mine by right and not something that I have to work to justify. In the Bible ‘joy’ is not a suggestion or advice. It is a command. The genius of God’s grace is that no experience is ever lost but all becomes a part of our growth in Christ. Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance (James 1:2). Everything is done within the love of God and so everything is learning about God.

 

The Sweetness Of Grace

St Stephens has gone recently from being two clergy and a church administrator to myself, as the one person left on the dance floor. People come and people go and the changed circumstances are an opportunity for me to learn not to take myself too seriously. I am not going to manage to get everything done however hard I try. I am never going to be the church leader that everyone wants me to be. I am not the Message but simply a postman who brings good news – this analogy is from Leslie Newbiggin.

A reduced staff team offers me a chance to recognise some of my limitations that may have previously been covered by others. The comment “I am good at relationships but not at administration” is not one that can be made in a parish where the vicar is the only staff member left standing. It is, anyhow, a modern day version of theological dualism to set time spent in prayer, preaching and relationships and time spent in administration and answering emails in opposition to each other.  

We talk about ‘maintenance’ [of a church] rather than ‘mission’ as if one were possible without the other whereas in reality the two are interdependent. The purpose of maintaining a church is mission to the community. God’s path of ‘mission’ is through a ‘maintained’ Christ centred outward looking church.

A parish church is rooted in the history of the local community as well as its current social political reality. The Church of England occupies a quasi-judicial role and people might need documentation to help them to do things in other parts of the world. If James Peter Sullivan wants a copy of his Baptism Certificate from 1985 so that he can get married in Italy then he shall have it!

God uses everyday, mundane things to communicate the very life of God, making Christianity, as Archbishop William Temple used to say “the most materialistic of all the great religions”. My contribution to God’s kingdom in this instance was the time spent ferreting about in the filing cabinet to find the details of his baptism in order to provide him with a new certificate.

One reason that many church leaders struggle with the need to give time in the week to administration is that many of us are really closet dualists caught by the desire to draw a distinction between the sacred and the secular, the spiritual and physical. We want our church life pure, spiritual and uncomplicated. We talk about being spiritual but not religious in the hope that we can have the first without the second.

In church life congregation members act out their own version of dualism by putting their minister onto a pedestal and expecting more of the person than he or she can give. The trap for a church leader is to try to live up to an idealised version of themselves. I have found myself doing just this and wanting to maintain the level of service delivery that the parish has enjoyed previously. I have been working 60-hour weeks but I am coming to realise that it is not just hard work that is needed. Jesus tells his disciples that there will always be more to be done than there are people available: ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few’ (Matt 9:37). I must follow the example of my father who used to say to me “don’t raise your voice; improve your argument”.

I will do as I have always done. I am a long distance runner and I will take my ever hopeful, physical, spiritual self and runI have signed up for the beautiful Sussex Coastal marathon next month on March 17th. ‘Heaven and earth and all that is in them on every side bid me love you Lord’, wrote St Augustine, and they will do me as I run. It is a Saturday and so I won’t even miss a Sunday. I will be back in church the following day.

The Holy Spirit will do as she has always done and, as again wrote St Augustine, ‘the sweetness of grace by which whatever is weak is made strong.... will [continue to] draw together fellow pilgrims and companions of the way’. Life in the church will continue differently but the same as before. We will get on with the job of worshipping God, as we always have done. In the meantime if there is anyone from St Stephens in the 1980's that wants duplicate baptism forms, then I am your man!

Our inclusive Carol Service

A highlight of my Christmas season was the chance to work in partnership with Unique, a charity, whose mission statement is to understanding chromosome disorder and to work with families thus affected [www.rarechromo.co.uk]. Together we put on an inclusive carol service Christmas service for children with special needs. The Service was a joy with children delighted to be able to read themselves rather than always have to listen to others do so. The parents were relieved for not having to face disapproving stares for not keeping their children quiet. The pity was that the service could not be seen as a natural part of the mainstream provision at the Church and that the children needed their own special event. We went ahead with a specially designated ‘inclusive carol service’ for the sake of the parents as well as for the children. They were glad to meet with others in the same situation as they.

Parents of children with special needs don’t want to be patronised and met with sympathy at the church gates; much less do they want to feel blamed for their children being noisy in church. Children with special needs should be celebrated and not tolerated or felt sorry for. I have come to love and appreciate the different qualities all of the children I have met through our inclusive carol services. There are the gentleness and affection of a child with Downs Syndrome; the focus, intelligence and frustration of a child with autism; the confusion and vulnerability of a child with epilepsy.

I have learnt also from adults with special needs. The extremes of behaviour, in an adult with bipolar disorder, have taught me to rethink how I view society. Our project to feed the homeless would never have got under way were it not for the bipolar fuelled certainty, that we should do so from a member of the congregation who had himself been previously homeless.  

I have learnt from the tolerance shown by people who have to negotiate inhospitable buildings with their wheelchairs. My most loyal of friends is Sam, my millennial godson, with autism. He can remember Peter Rabbit as the first film we watched together when he was a child and likes to have it repeated when he comes to stay. He played, on the piano, the music score from The Pirates of the Caribbean, having heard the original only once.

As someone myself with a disability, I have to strike the balance between letting my ‘employer’ be aware of my condition but yet retaining their confidence that I can do my job properly. I face the same conundrum as development agencies. They want to establish the need for their services yet have to avoid poverty porn in order to do so. I may need an employer to make reasonable adjustments for my condition but I don’t want them to feel sorry for me because for them to feel pity for me would be a judgement that I am worse off than they.

Christianity is not simply lighting a candle and feeling better about ourselves but confronting the selfishness and possessiveness in all of us. We all have different types of need and compulsion within us. I am grateful to my disability for helping me to confront my instinctive desire to have things my own way.

The subtle nature of God’s reign is not about power but about a relationship of love and care in which God is identified as being in league with the most vulnerable in society. The children overturn the natural order and teach us how this might be done.

God’s mission, says Pope Francis (2013), is for a ‘revolution of tenderness’ through the Church. People will learn the joy of relating to Christ as the guiding light through whom all things make sense. It will be a Church that is vulnerable, bruised and hurting because it has been out on the streets and not stuck in a confine. It will be a Church that feeds the homeless, befriends those who have been divorced, and welcomes the marginalised, the disabled and the lonely.

The Church stands alone in creating a climate for social change. Once we have committed ourselves to relationships with people who do not reflect back to us our own world view, we are admitting to a wider set of concerns than simply our own. This was the opportunity we missed. A special feature of our inclusive carol service was the chance for parents to meet together and draw strength from others in their same position. A special sadness for me was that the wider church did not have the chance to learn from the example they set.

This article first appeared in the Church of England Newspaper

Christmas and Donald Trump

I had occasion to spend 10 days in the USA before Advent. I learnt that in Oregon you can buy rifles in a supermarket and in Texas church ushers and sometimes the preacher may be wearing a pistol. I learnt that the Episcopal Church is not obsessed with finding a solution to the debate about same sex marriages.  ‘Never mind sex’ I was told, ‘what about people in poverty? Economic issues are far more important’.  America is not the land of mega churches: 75% of Americans worship in churches of less than 100. These churches are not full of Donald Trump supporters. People that I met were both embarrassed and hostile towards their President.

I was in Oregon for the launch of Professor Roger Newell [2017] new book Keine Gewalt! No Violence! The book outlines how the role played by the German Church in the 1940's laid down the foundations for her part in the ending of the Cold War in the 1980's. In the first half of the century the German church withdrew into pietism and individual spirituality leaving the political area to the Nazis. In the second half of the century the German church actively engaged in the civil society leading to the peaceful overthrow of Communism.

The underlying question in Roger’s book is how the Church relates to society. This question is especially relevant in the UK and USA with the Trump phenomenon on one side of the Atlantic and Brexit on the other. Being anti American is seen as the last acceptable form of racism but it is the American policies with which we disagree and not the people. The people are warm-hearted and, when I was there, asked me no end of times about whether I was having a ‘nice day’.

In the 1940s Germany the Church was told to look after people and leave society to the state. It is not for us to make the same mistake. I told my hosts that Donald Trump was a symptom and not a cause of a changing world. If he comes to visit the UK I would be happy for him to come to the church and talk about his view of the world. More significant than Donald Trump, as an individual, is the vote to put him there and what that says about the American people. It is a false morality for us not to be prepared to listen.

The USA is suffering its own form of church decline. According to the Hartford Institute of Religion Research, more than 40% of Americans “say” they go to church weekly. As it turns out, however, less than 20% are actually in church. This still compares favourably to 2% of the population in the UK regularly attend church. America sees it as her role to send missionaries to the UK, some of whom I have benefited from working alongside [www.newcityipc.org]. We are all glad for the work they do in the local community.

Roger’s question is also relevant to us all socially with the Christmas celebrations in full swing. We face our annual onslaught of Christmas clichés: “remember the true meaning of Christmas; don’t forget the reason for the season; church is not just for Christmas”. The Christmas season is a modern day revival of the medieval tradition of ‘fat days’. Prior to each season of Lent, the medieval Church granted the folk a series of official ‘fat days,’ during which they might legally celebrate pleasures of the flesh before a period of fasting began. Mardi Gras [Shrove Tuesday] was one of the original fat days. Mardi Gras is French for "Fat Tuesday". These celebrations became known as ‘carnival’ because they embodied the “final days of carnality”.

‘Fat days’ at Christmas bring with them the offer of cheap grace. Dietrich Bonhoeffer criticised the 1940's German church for peddling cheap grace. In his opinion the Church was selling off Christian truths like bargain basement goods. Are we any different in what we do now? A hundred years on we rely on the idea of cheap grace as the cornerstone of our Christmas evangelism. Like one of the big six business energy suppliers, offering discounts to new customers, the Church, at Christmas, will offer people a message of grace and forgiveness as a down payment on a future life of discipleship. Christianity should carry a health warning. The challenge of the Gospel is to give up everything and to follow Christ, not simply to light a candle, feel good about ourselves and to sing carols. The only solution to cheap grace is the refrain of George MacDonald: God loves us just the way we are but he loves us too much to let us stay that way.

This blog first appeared as an article in the Church of England Newspaper. Follow Bob on Twitter -  @RevBobMayo

Our work with the homeless

Our church doesn’t do charity. We have relationships with people in difficult circumstances. This means being with people rather than doing things for them. One such relationship was with Michael. For my first five years in the parish he came every evening to the vicarage for a cheese sandwich and a cup of coffee. I called him my teacher as he opened my eyes to how he saw the world from the edges of society. He described me as the gentlest man he knew. It is a compliment that I treasure dearly

Every Monday, in partnership with a local charity [www.streetlytes.org] and New City Church [www.newcityipc.org], we put on a cinema club for homeless people. We open our doors to 100 guests for an evening of hot food, practical support and friendship. We watch a film together. Going to a cinema is an expensive, socially included activity and not one that would not lie within the budget of a homeless person.

A homeless person [Rudi Richardson] set up the project. People who have only recently found a room stay in touch and become volunteers themselves. It means that we are not a group of ‘haves’ doing something for the ‘have nots’, but a group of people working together to put on the evening. We are working with rather than for homeless people. Hearing their stories is important as well as giving them food. On the streets loneliness is as much of an issue as hunger. There is no cold charity in what we offer. The food is as good as we might have had at home

On my birthday I took my cake to share it with our guests. They sung ‘happy birthday’ and I have never heard it sung worse. I reflected afterwards that they would rarely have had the opportunity to do what for others would have been a simple and regularly done activity.

We are not offering solutions to social problems but being alongside people in need. Listening to people’s stories is as important as giving them food. A Film Club is no answer to the fact that homeless people die 30 years younger than the national average. The average homeless person has a life expectancy of 47, compared to 77 for the rest of the population. The life expectancy for women is even lower, at just 43 years. Jesus spent 90% of his life, says Wells [2015] simply being among the people of Nazareth, sharing their hopes and struggles, therefore Christians should place a similar emphasis on being alongside people in need rather than hastening to impose solutions.

We see the underbelly of society. This is not always easy. I was attacked before church on a Sunday morning and had to make myself ready to meet the congregation, an hour later, for our Sunday service. Stephanos is a long-term street dweller and a hoarder. He stores black bags of rotting fruit and food and rubbish in the church grounds. Each week I put them out for the dustmen and each week he will threaten to knife me and to burn my house down.

When people are in prison they have food provided and no housing worries. They are then let out with no outside support. They have nowhere to go and they come to the vicarage. I have sat past midnight waiting with people newly released from prison talking about their options ahead of them. If I am not at home they will stand at the door banging and shouting. My wife who may be in the house will sit quietly waiting for them to go.

If we could loosen our newspaper obsession with Brexit we could recognize that there are things in our society that we can do better, here and now, without waiting for any decision from Europe. People being released from hospital and from prison without anywhere to stay are two examples of where we could improve our social care as a society. Our concern for the homeless is another. According to a report from the Heriot Watt University (2016) nearly a quarter of a million people are experiencing acute forms of homelessness across Britain, with rough sleeping set to rise by 76 per cent in the next decade.

The other night when it was raining I talked with some rough sleepers and told them how sorry I was that they would be outside on a night such as this. In Biblical terms I was doing nothing more than what is said on the can. We are judged according to how we treat the most vulnerable in our society [Matt 25:31-46].

 

The parish church is where you go to meet people

It has now officially been recognized that the best place for people of different cultures to meet is in a church. A report published by the Social Integration Commission (2014) has identified that, while spectator sports events are the most successful at bringing people of different ages together, churches are the most likely place for people from different cultures to meet. The Report says that the most isolated are the unemployed and the elderly and that class can be a more enduring source of division than race.

The parish church is providing the answer because, across the UK, it is a prime mover in promoting neighborliness and social integration. Churches and other places of worship are more successful than gatherings such as parties, meetings, weddings or venues such as pubs and clubs at bringing people of different backgrounds together. A parish church is a site of radical resistance against the fragmentation and isolation endemic within modern society.

Newbiggin (1989) wrote ‘I do not think that we shall recover the true form of the parish until we recover a truly missionary approach to our culture. I don’t think at we shall achieve a missionary encounter with our culture without recovering the true form of the parish. Learning to relate to each other in the name of Christ is the social revolution that lies at the heart of parish life. The world is not going to be changed in a PCC meeting but that is where the process can begin. A recent marriage in my church was of two congregation members who met while sharing a turn on the coffee rota.

The Church is a prophetic minority not a moral majority. Coming together in the name of Christ is an act of hope in which we imagine how the world could be different to how it is. Our lives, as the people God, are transformed by a re-energized imagination, not by ethical instruction. In meeting together the question that we ask of our belief is not is it practical or viable but is it imaginable?

Imagination is quickly lost on any church committees where it is felt that too much of the work is done by too few of the people. In our PCC meetings we try to reach a consensus over the priorities for the Church. We talk about jobs that need to be done and we ask for volunteers. Consensus, jobs and volunteers and are a Holy Spirit, Father and Son formula and so by the end of the evening we can meet ourselves coming back as a Trinitarian Church. PCC members leave the meeting having had a cup of coffee and a digestive biscuit but seldom realizing the rich theology in which they have taken part.

St Augustine talks of the Trinity as understanding (Holy Spirit), memory (Father) and will (Son). The Holy Spirit gift of understanding is shown through the process of us reaching a consensus on the priorities for the Church - How good and pleasant it is when God's people live together in unity (Psalm 133:1). The Father God gift of memory is shown through the jobs needing to be done to keep the collective memory of the Christian faith alive - bills need to be paid, rotas need to be arranged and events need to be planned in order to act out the public face of the Church as the people of God. The Son’s gift of will is shown through us as the embodied reality of the Church willing to volunteer get jobs done.

The Trinity is the majesty of God, the service of the Son and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. We have a story to tell (Father), a mission to follow (Son) and a fellowship to maintain (Holy Spirit)

Generally the Trinity does not hold a central place in the liturgical year of the parish. The Trinity is seen as a troublesome piece of theological baggage best kept out of the way when talking about the faith to non believers and most easily explained in a Trinity Sunday sermon by using the analogy of water, ice and steam or different notes of music – each entirely separate but of the same substance. A sermon demonstrating that a three in one God is possible falls short of showing how it shapes our identity as the people of God.

The Trinity has long been considered an enigma within Western Christendom because a Communitarian Divinity (Okechukwu Ogbonnaya 1998) does not fit with our individualized, self-referential, consumer rights driven worldview. Christianity in the last analysis is Trinitarian. Take out of the New Testament the persons of Father Son and Holy Spirit and there is no God left. Church life without the Trinity is like having the ingredients without the recipe to put them all together.

Thank you to our Caribbean friends

Rt Rev Wilfred Wood was the curate at my church before he went to become Bishop of Croydon in 1985, and the first black bishop in the Church of England. His Bishop’s cope was kept for 11 years and then passed on to the second black bishop in the Church of England. This was Rt Rev John Sentamu who was appointed as Bishop of Stepney in 1996. It would be another twenty years before Rt Rev Wilfred Wood’s original bishop’s cope could be passed on again to the third black bishop in the Church. Bishop Karowei Dorgu was appointed in 2016 as the Bishop of Woolwich.

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When Bishop Karowei licensed Rev Edd Stock to be the minister at Holy Trinity Sydenham old and new came together in the dance of the Holy Spirit across the generations. Rt Rev Karowei Dorgu had the cope from a previous curate of our church. Half a century later we had been Edd’s sending church, putting him forward for ordination.

Three black bishops, in 30 years, do not reflect the debt of gratitude that the Church of England owes to BAME communities. We are yet to integrate church leaders from the black communities as a natural part of our DNA. All three of the Church of England bishops grew up outside of the UK.

The Church of England has appointed a national minority ethnic vocations officer to tackle the issue. BAME has become BAMER [Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic and Refugee] but the questions remain unanswered. People of African and Caribbean origin make up 2% of the UK's population but account for more than two-thirds of Sunday church-goers in London and 7% of worshippers nationwide. Figures from the Christian Research Association show that, over a five-year period, black church membership has grown by around 18% compared with a 5% drop for churches nationally. Where is the proportionate increase in black church leadership? Might there be a Black British born bishop as the next but not in the timescale we have seen!

Is the Church of England now ready to learn from the mistakes of previous generations and welcome people from BAMER communities into church leadership? Canon Francis-Dehqani, who has recently been appointed as the first bishop of Loughborough, reckons so. She thinks that the Church of England is beginning to shake off its legacy of hostility to foreigners and ethnic minorities. Are the mistakes made in Shepherds Bush when Rt Rev Wilfred Wood was curate and people from the newly arrived Caribbean communities were asked not to come back to Anglican churches beginning to be addressed? Our ability to speak as a national church depends on our ability to do so

Canon Francis-Dehqani’s father’s prayer when his son [her brother] was murdered has shaped my ministry for a number of years. Her father, the late Hassan Dehqani-Tafti was the first Iranian Anglican bishop, and the first President Bishop of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East. He prayed for his son’s murderers because [as he said] through their crimes we now follow your footsteps more closely in the way of sacrifice. “The terrible fire of this calamity turns up all selfishness and possessiveness in us. Its flame reveals the depth and depravity and meanness and suspicion, the dimension of hatred and the measure of sinfulness in human nature. It makes obvious as never before our need to trust in God’s love as shown in the cross of Christ and his resurrection. Love, which makes us free from, hate towards our persecutors. Love, which brings patience forbearance, courage, loyalty, humility, generosity, and greatness of heart. Love which more than ever deepens our trust in God’s final victory and his eternal designs for the church and for the world”.

The Church is not alone in needing to welcome and learn from leadership from among the BAMER communities. Thankfully we have the example of an itinerant Middle Eastern, convicted criminal called Jesus to guide us in our way

Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury Dock, carrying some 500 settlers from Jamaica. With Bishop Wilfred Wood, hailing from Barbados, as a previous curate of my church, I am especially conscious of the contribution of the Caribbean community to the post war settlement.

Of the three ethnic groups from that period African-English people will still talk of Africa as home. Asian-English people will maintain an extended family structure across the world. Caribbean-English people came and dwelt in the land and made the UK their home. A part of the reason for them being able to do so this is that they have a history of cultural and social dispossession from when they were taken from one side of the world to the other and sold as slaves. The Caribbean community have absorbed the wickednesses of history and have come up laughing, playful and profound.

Do not be taken in by right wing press reporting that the Notting Hill Carnival is out of control and should be moved to a park. Two hundred arrests, as happened this year, out of a total of two million people attending is not a high proportion.

The original carnival emerged out of a race riot [1958], and a murder [Kelso Cochrane 1959]. These events became the catalyst for the idea of holding a carnival to showcase Caribbean arts and culture. To hold a carnival rather than to retreat into suspicion and mistrust, following such a sequence of events, shows the stature of the people involved.

The carnival continues to teach us how to be in a society together. This year the music stopped playing and the procession paused for 60 seconds outside North Kensington fire station, half a mile from the Grenfell Tower, remembering the people who had died in the fire. The firemen lined up, removed their helmets and bowed their heads. The moment was concluded with the firemen being cheered, clapped and thanked for what they had done.

Last word should go to a Caribbean lady who asked a question from the floor at an evening, hosted by St Mellitus in London, looking the question, ‘The Parish: Has it Had its Day?’ After an evening spent discussing the value of traditional and other forms of church, she said, “I am not from the Church of England and I don’t get you. Why have none of you talked about prayer?” Her question evidenced the natural sense of transcendence from among the Caribbean community, which was not reflected in the answer she was given by the panel, which was that prayer had been assumed. If the Church of England were to pray more and assume less, ladies such as she would find themselves more easily able to ‘get us’.

 

Game4Grenfell

It is easy to criticise football. At one end of the scale Paul Pogba, of Manchester United, is the highest paid footballer in the Premier League. He is paid £290,000 a week. It takes him six hours to earn what I earn in a year. At the other end of the scale 60% of Premier League footballers go bankrupt within five years of retirement due to lack of forward financial planning.

With this in mind it is good to give credit where credit is due. Queens Park Rangers, the club at which I am chaplain, organised a charity match to raise money for those affected by the Grenfell Tower fire. Thousands of tickets were handed to those directly affected, including residents, relatives and volunteers. Jose Mourinho made a cameo appearance as a replacement goalkeeper. Survivors and fire fighters played alongside professionals and celebrities.

QPR were doing some basic things well. They were working with the community and not for the community and have been doing so for years. QPR in the Community Trust is a registered charity and works with young people right across the area [qprcommunitytrust.co.uk]. When the disaster happened relationships were already in place. A local Grenfel man had said to me soon after the fire “we are a proud community. Give us the tools and we will sort things out ourselves”. That is what Game 4Grenfel was doing.

QPR were avoiding the mistakes of disaster relief made by Live Aid (1984) of throwing money at a situation as if it were a problem to be solved rather than a community to be strengthened. The reason for the 1984 Ethiopian famine was not drought, but bad government. The country was torn by civil war; that is what stopped food getting through. There is evidence that charitable interventions, such as Geldof's Live Aid, may have prolonged the conflict, and therefore deepened the catastrophe. Similarly Grenfel and the surrounding community don’t need just sympathy and charity but political will to ensure that a similar thing will never happen again.

QPR has a role with its fans both in life and death. One in four football fans say that football is one of the most important things in their life. QPR was described as a prince among clubs for its memorial services and ashes scatterings for fans [www.scattering-ashes.co.uk]. Fans fly from all over the world to leave the remains of their loved ones with the club.

I am part of a network of sports chaplains who gathered at a parliamentary reception to celebrate 25 years of Sports Chaplaincy Sports Chaplaincy UK [sportschaplaincy.org.uk]. At QPR Rev Cameron Collington, my co-chaplain, and perform the ashes ceremonies and have contact with players, staff, directors and fans. We make ourselves available to those with all faiths and none. Across the UK there are 25 million men, women and children involved in sport. It is a mission field that the Church cannot ignore

I learnt of the power of sport to touch people’s lives in 2012 when I carried the Olympic Flame and was the focus of celebration across the world. On the day that I ran with the torch, a lady in the community who had been depressed for years chatted and laughed, as she had when she was a girl. The next day she reverted to how she had been before the day. I run 15 miles a week: 800 miles a year. Every 5 years I run over 2,000 miles (equivalent of coast to coast in America). I was thrilled at how QPR had harnessed the power of sport to touch those who had been affected by tragedy. Three months previously they had been escaping from a burning building. Now 18,000 fans were cheering them as they ran onto the pitch at Loftus Road. It was a great day.

Grenfell Tower - 2

These are strange sad days to be a vicar in west London. We have had the perfect storm, a minority government, terrorist attacks and the Grenfell Tower tragedy, with which to contend. The blackened tower stands etched on the horizon as a judgement on us all. The morning after the fire, when people escaped from the building itself many had only the clothes they stood up in - often simply nightclothes. There were different stages of shock among people, relief and worry for friends and neighbours. There was the dawning realisation that they had lost everything. There was anger at what they felt had been a known risk had been ignored and sidelined and had then proved to be a significant factor in the catastrophe.

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On the first Sunday after the fire I preached on the sending out of the 12 disciples. I talked about the fact that of the 12 disciples, John was the only one to die of old age. Judas committed suicide and the other 10 were all martyred. I told people that Christianity is a magnificent story; it is a triumphant story but it is not a happy story. My voice broke as I consecrated the bread and wine and we all wept together. One woman lit eleven candles, one for each of the children in her school that had died. 

In the week following the fire the different Faith group leaders gathered. People stood in silence and told each other their stories of the week that had passed. Church services were organised and prayer meetings were arranged. It was a story of grief, dignity, and courage. There soon came an air of unreality to the process. A backlog of [donated but still] unsorted clothes in the centres saw people scavenging piles of clothes and at points things took on the atmosphere of a Portobello Road market with young people trying on clothes and then putting them back to try and get a better fit. There were people wanting to take photos of the tower. Some even came wanting to take selfies.

I asked some young people, with whom I work, to have a minute of silence. They asked, "Do we have to?" It would have been the third occasion that they had been asked to do so in a short space of time. People were trumpeting their connections to the tower as a badge of honour. One young person said defiantly “my aunt’s boyfriend’s brother’s friend was the man with the fridge!”

The underlying truth, as shown up by Grenfell Tower, is that there is a gross inequality in the distribution of power within our society. Notting Hill is the most unequal corner of the most unequal city in the country. Half of the children in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea – most of those living south of the Westway go to private schools, while a quarter (i.e. most of those in the north) live beneath the poverty line. It is also the most diverse borough in Britain with 52% of all residents born abroad.

We may have one-person one vote but people’s ability to get local and national government to respond depends on their access to power. One local man had said to me “We are a proud community. Give us the tools and we will sort things out ourselves”. He had spent two days looking with a father for his son before the father finally accepted that his son had died in the fire.

My prayer is that just as Hillsborough [1991] changed football stadiums, Zeebrugge [1987] changed travel on ferries, Grenfell will change housing across the country and this will transform our society. It would be lovely to think, says Danny Kruger, a local social activist, that out of the rubble of the tower a new social order may emerge in which an equal partnership between statutory authorities, local people and voluntary sector organizations will create strong local communities and ensure that the poor and vulnerable within our society need never be disadvantaged.

It is the role of the Church to seek the welfare of the city says Jeremiah [29:7]. The local church is the only public body in the community that consciously and deliberately gathers together different, genders, ages, race and class. Meeting together in the name of Christ people are able to reverse the damaging effects of social, political and economic inequality.

Three cheers for St Clement’s, Notting Dale that opened the church at 3am and by 7am, had a fully stocked breakfast bar, with volunteers organising themselves into different teams. Latymer Community Church  have set up a designated fund for those who want to give to people affected by the disaster. Churches were in place as the fire broke out and will be there still, long after the disaster relief has gone.

Grenfell Tower

Since the fire at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington the resilience and unity shown by local residents and those further afield has been astounding. As one of the outlying parishes we have been affected by the tragedy in three ways.  We have grieved; muddled and organised.

We muddled. We were drawn into the chaos of the fire with a series of events that led to the homeless in the area being offered ballet costumes alongside sleeping bags for the night ahead. The local churches and community centres near Grenfell were swamped with donations after the fire and had more clothes than they knew what to do with. They sent some back to homeless projects such as our own. The clothes arrived in the same linen canvas bags that our ballet group uses with the result that ballet costumes and clothes were offered together to the homeless. The costumes were rescued and crisis was avoided but the incident stays in my mind as illustrative of the strange days following the blaze.

We grieved. The Eucharist is the shared pain of the death of Christ and, in my church, we are each week drawn into its retelling. Grief and prayer were needed to anchor the story that was being dissipated within days of the fire happening. Speculation flourished. People were asking questions of why the fire had happened. Did the external cladding contribute to the blaze? Why was there no sprinkler system in the building? Conspiracy theories abounded. I was told that it was the sons of peers who owned the building company that had worked on the flat and for this reason they were not going to be prosecuted.

Political activism flared. Hundreds of people marched in protest in a self styled ‘day of rage’. I went to talk with the protesters before they left on their march and asked them to honour the dignity of those who had died. I admired their idealism but they were not marching in the name of the Grenfell Tower residents.

There was a rota of people available at the Latymer Community Church available to talk to those who had been affected by the fire. One lady took photos because she had lost friends in the Twin Towers Tragedy and felt a kinship with those who had suffered here. People came wanting to see the burnt out husk of the building for themselves. They talked of coming to pay their respects. One family came down from the Midlands and wanted to take photographs of the site. One lady said that they were going out to the O2 but wanted to come here first. Grief porn is the voyeuristic instinct of human nature such as when people slow down on a motorway to look at an accident. I told them stories of people who had died in the fire. Jessica Urbano was 12 years old when she was lost in the fire. Her family returned after five weeks later, quiet poised and dignified to and released balloons to mark what would have been her 13th birthday [#JusticeForJessie ].

I told people that the question of why there were no sprinklers and only one stairwell in the building would need to become a part of a national debate. They should email their MPs and bring it to their attention (justice4grenfell.org). We need solutions not scapegoats to make sure that a situation such as this never happens again.

We organised. The urge to do something in response to the tragedy is overwhelming and so in partnership with UK chart-toppers The Hoosiers, Alessi's Ark, Sam Swallow and more, we will throw open the doors of the church on July 27th for a fund raising concert in support of Grenfell Tower victims. We promise an evening of fantastic music to lift everyone's spirits in this difficult time and bring our community together. You can either turn up on the night, email me or else buy tickets off eventbrite: details off how to do so are available on my twitter account - @RevBobMayo. The concert will take place at 7pm in the wonderful urban setting of St Stephen's Church in Shepherd's Bush, 1 Coverdale Road, London, W12 8JJ.