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.

Recent Events

I am caught by a combination of fury and admiration at the recent election result. Fury that we have once more been led into a period of uncertainty by our political leaders. Admiration at the democratic system that produced such a finely nuanced result that reflects so closely the voting of the referendum.

I am taking hope from the newly painted white walls in our church hall. Our local Syrian Restaurant Ayam Zaman  has painted the church hall at their own expense. Why would they do this? They want the option of using the church hall during Ramadan. Muslims fast between the hours of sunrise and sunset during Ramadan. Each evening meal is a celebration. We are just over the road from the restaurant and they feel that they could use the hall as an overfill to their restaurant for people's evening meal together. 

The issue for them is that the hall is in a shabby condition. Once a week we feed 60 homeless people. Islam and Christianity are agreed on the need to care for the poor in society and they appreciate us for doing so. They decide to paint the hall for us and describe it as their gift to us from the community. 

I feel proud of our church being given credit for its work with the poor and dispossessed rather than for its beautiful music or historical heritage. “I prefer a church” says Pope Francis, “which is bruised hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets”. In this instance we are that tatty church to which he refers

Whitewashed walls are no answer to the recent terrorist attacks in London and Manchester but they give a glimpse of how the country could be, if we were able to learn from each other. Quite apart from the quality of their food I am able to absorb the riches of their story. Ayam Zaman means “the old times”. It is a poignant name for a Syrian restaurant to call itself, evocative of the days before the troubles started. I sit at a table in the restaurant, for hours at a time, writing my sermon for the coming weekend. They never charge me for the coffee I drink and they describe themselves as being proud of the fact that I sit there as I do. 

Other opinions on recent events come from children and young people with their own particular brand of urban pragmatism. A young person [15] said to me that he was more likely to be killed by a car than by a terrorist. On being told that a school trip was being cancelled for security reasons a child [10] replied, ‘there were only 22 people killed in Manchester but millions in the country so we should be safe’. Another child [10] said  [of the Westminster bomber] he would have been more dangerous if he had had a gun rather than a knife. 

Children work things out as they are going along. Adults systematise according to conclusions they have already reached. The contribution that that the Church can make to society, over this next period of history is to help people to think with a child's determination and fascination for self discovery. 

We are in the middle of a process, of which a hung parliament is only a part of rethinking how we want to live together in society. We are 'lions led by donkeys' as we stumble towards the conclusion of what was set in motion by the events of last year.

2016 saw the European Referendum and the launch of Brexit, the 100th anniversary of the battle of the Somme and the publication of the Chilcott Report into the Iraq War all happen within a fortnight of each other. These events left people unsure of how to relate to each other within society. Those who voted for or against our exit from the European Union distrust those who voted differently. Add militant terrorism into the mix and there is a once in a generation opportunity for the Church to help people to reimagine different ways of being together as one society.

There is an important role for the local church in building social cohesion. By gathering different people together from across the local community. The parish church is the best place to explore how this might be so. Emulsion painted white washed walls in the church hall show what can be achieved at a local parish level. I am vicar for the local area and not simply chaplain to a congregation. In Shepherds Bush we are a community of communities and so I am free to enjoy the company of all. 

It has now officially been recognized that the best place for people of different cultures to meet is in a church. The Social Integration Commission (2014) identified that churches and other places of worship are more successful at bringing people of different backgrounds together than gatherings such as parties, meetings and weddings, or venues such as pubs and clubs. 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. It will take healthy parish churches to deliver a harmonious national life over this next period of history.

The Parish Handbook

I have just finished writing a book! At the moment I feel as if I could write a book about writing a book such is the effort involved. There are two particular challenges in my doing this while also running a busy parish. How do I get the time to do it and how do I find the words to write it? The first question is more easily answered. I have stopped watching TV, changed from long baths to short showers and I am at my desk four mornings a week by 5am. When the parents arrive at 9am with their children at the Church School I have been long awake.

The second question is less obvious. The book is called The Parish Handbook. It is an A-Z of parish life. It will have 26 chapters, each of 2,000 words and each beginning with a different letter of the alphabet. I argue that a parish church is relevant to society precisely because of its non-conformity to contemporary culture. In gathering people together from across the community the parish church is a site of resistance against the individualized, segregated and often-lonely society in which we live.

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The book is not however be about the vagaries of parish life. It is about the ways of God in the world and therein lies the challenge - how do I write about the one thing that cannot be described? How can I use representational language for God when God is the one thing that can never be represented?

I am not writing about God per se but giving expression to how we perceive God. Theology is watching what we say in front of God. It is a work with words. God used words to reveal himself and we use words to respond. John (1:1) identified Christ as the pre-incarnate word. Christ himself gave [to the Church] the prophets, the apostles, the evangelists, the pastors and the teachers (Eph 2:11). They talked, made announcements and gave testimonies.

We use words for absence of anything else and words are a limited in what they can do. Generations of clergy would have found Trinity Sunday easier to contend with if they realized that St Augustine himself openly admitted (De Trin V 9 VII 4) that to call God by what [we understand as] ‘person’ is simply a necessity or protocol for speaking; a really suitable term for it does not exist. He said that we still uses the expression three persons, not because it has any value in itself but simply so that we might not be altogether silent.

I am finding that words for someone to read are more precise than words in a sermon. When I preach I have eye contact. I can smile at people but what might be a challenge in a sermon can come across as hectoring in a book. I am finding that words for someone to read are more demanding than words on the Internet. In a blog or on a website I can be anecdotal in the name of accessibility but what might be anecdotal on the Internet can appear random and disconnected in a book. In a book the ideas are king and the author their servant. If I can’t explain something simply then I have not understood it well. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. said I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

The early hours of the morning have become my secret garden in which ideas germinate and take shape. My three golden rules of writing spill into my daytime parish life and are making me a better priest in the process.

My first golden rule is not to start sentences with a negative. I say what something is before I say what it is not. I now tell people not to define their day by the worst thing that happened. My second golden rule is to write the book without using the words ‘should’ or ‘ought’. People don’t wanted to be hectored in a book of theology and there is nothing gracious in my doing so. The ethos in Scripture is that something is either done or it is not done. Ideas are not left hanging as a possible course of action. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12) is a command not a piece of advice. There is a therefore but there is no should in grace. My third golden rule is that I write in order to live more fully. ‘There is nothing so practical as a good theory’, wrote Kurt Lewin, ‘if you want truly to understand something, try to change it.'

Election 2017

Graham Tomlin (2009) calls it provocative. Chesterton (1908) calls it paradoxical. Paul calls it foolishness (1 Cor 1:23). Living out the Gospel story is an act of faith, hope and love (1 Cor 13:13). It is not always an easy task. The children in Bethlehem are killed (Matt 2:16). Stephen is stoned (Acts 7:55-60). In the Middle East today Christians are under threat of their lives. Jesus Christ may be the answer but we still have to provide the questions in the life we live. Depending on our circumstances we talk about liberation theology (Gutierrez 1988), narrative theology (Hauerwas 1983) or contextual theology (Bevans 2004).

If you are a parish priest a life of faith, hope and love includes moving chairs for events in the church hall, photocopying service sheets for Sunday morning and week-by-week sermon preparation. When it comes to moving chairs and photocopying the task seems endless. When it comes to sermons the drumbeats for the General Election are beginning to sound.

The Election comes at a crucial point in our history. In the Second World War we shot at each other. Afterwards we set up trade agreements to keep the peace. Global trade became the order of the day. With Brexit we are rethinking the role of the nation state within globalism. We vote to take back control of our borders and become poorer as a result. The next generation will be the first generation, in a more than a century, to be materially worse off than their parents and home owning congregation members have been a part of the political process that has made this so. Generation Rent who show no signs of ever being able to afford the costs of housing ask with some justification ‘when are the rich old going to stop oppressing the poor young’.

We are to be hot or cold but never lukewarm (Rev 3:15). In Election terms this means that we might be joyful or sad, delighted or angry at what is happening but apathy and cynicism are not an option. I am uneasy at how we seem to have become a one party state with a lack of any serious opposition to the Tory Party. I am upset at how we allow immigrants to be served up as scapegoats for how uncomfortable we are with ourselves. Last year we has the anniversary of the Somme, the publication of the Chilcott enquiry and the results of Brexit all happen within a few days of each other. I am excited at how this gives an opportunity to the Church to reimagine different ways of us being together in society.

Christians end as they begin looking into the face of Christ. Provocative (Tomlin 2009), paradoxical (Chesterton 1908) and foolishness (1 Cor 1:23), it is faith, hope and love that drives our political engagement. EU Referendum voter turn out in the 18 – 24 year old category was 36%. Local elections voter turn out was around 36%. This level of political disengagement is not an option for Christians. I tell my congregation to decide for themselves how they will vote but at the least to make sure that they do so. We are so used to seeing revolutions happen across the world that we fail to realise that we are in the middle of one ourselves. “We are”, says Archbishop Justin, “to engage with sweeping economic, political, social and cultural changes and to be the answer that God provides" The work to make this happen carries on Sunday by Sunday in the Church pews.

Running the London Marathon

My Easter spills straight over into the London marathon. If Jesus was resurrected from the dead then anything is possible. There is no reason why I should not manage 26 miles [42 km] ~ how hard can it be? Running is a primal emotion and thus the perfect Easter activity. Running away from someone is a Good Friday expression of fear. Running towards someone is an Easter Sunday expression of joy. Maybe Bruce Springsteen is right and we are all born to run. I will find out soon enough.

There are features of marathon running that echo characteristics of the Kingdom of Heaven and I would like to try these out for myself. In a marathon all are considered as winners simply by virtue of their participation. There are no winners and losers, but only a reflected glory in which all are bathed simply by virtue of their participation. Likewise in God's kingdom all are equal. Grace neither rewards virtue nor punishes sin. Those who work the whole day in the vineyard get no more pay than those who start work at the eleventh hour [Mt 20:1-16]. The phalanxes of charity runners earn people’s respect simply for having a go.

Running is a great leveller and egalitarianism is a core theme for the early church. Jew & Gentile, slave & free, male & female come together as one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28). People of all ages, classes, racial groups and types can run. Parents and children run together. There is no need even to belong to a gym. All one needs is a pair of trainers. Severely disabled people complete marathons to great acclaim.

Marathon running, like Christian living, is an exercise in how to live in the immediate moment. You complete a 42km marathon route by running 42,000 metres one after another. Likewise in Christian living you learn of God's love one day at a time ~ sufficient are the worries of the day [Matt 6:34].

A golden rule for marathon runners is to make sure that they run the second half of the route quicker than the first. It is easy for nerves and adrenaline at the start to set a fast pace from which one will soon tire. A measured start will mean a faster finish. Likewise in the Christian Faith it is easy to make oneself busy and to run around doing things in one’s own strength. Christianity is entirely anticipatory. There is more to look forward to than has happened in the past. Christ is coming again and will gather up the living and the dead in his glory (1 Thess 4:16-17}.

The Huffington Post gives 26 reasons why not to run a marathon and says that the only really good reason to do a marathon is because you really want to do so. This will be my last and strongest marathon running Christian learning motivation to run. Desire is at the heart of faith and faith is at the centre of Christian living. My best motivation to keep running and my best hope of finishing comes from the Old Testament. In the Bible Isaiah (40:30-31) says that people who trust in the Lord shall run and not be weary.

I am running the London marathon [23rd April] to raise money for Street Child World Cup. Please log on to http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/BobMayo and sponsor me. It will help me get through the wall at 18 miles and support a valuable charity working with street children across the world.