The little tortoise-shell cat sat on the edge of the hole into which the ashes had just been placed. She looked down, and then turned away. The priest continued to read the prayers, as the cat returned her attention to the hole, and carefully reaching down with her paw, dislodging a little patter of soil.

It was clear to the priest that the cat was sizing up the depth of the hole, deciding whether to explore this strange new phenomena in what she had come to think of as her garden. A clerical hand grabbed her by the scruff of her neck and removed her from the vicinity of the grave, while continuing to lead the psalm.

The cat sat down a few feet from the mourners, her back to the priest, and began to wash. The short service concluded, and the family moved away. They smiled at the cat and talked about how much the deceased had loved her own cats. The priest silently sighed with relief, and after a swift glare at the vicarage cat, walked home, followed by the tortoise-shell.


DSC00549.JPGAfter the service I was left with the sound of sobbing echoing like an ear-worm through my week. It had been a huge funeral, and people in the village commented on the number of mourners who came. They assumed that managing the size of the congregation would be challenging to the vicar.

But it was my own grief after the death of my sister in law six months ago made the experience of leading the service draining. It is well known that one bereavement sparks the memory of other losses. It was the sobbing at this funeral that reminded me so strongly of Sarah’s funeral, and the grief that I and others expressed there.

As a priest I see a lot of grief, and I feel immensely privileged that people are willing to share their bereavements with me. Don’t get me wrong – I love my job. But know that I am vulnerable too, and sometimes emotions get better of me. Would you expect anything else?

One of my parishioners has died. I knew he was very ill because people in church told me, and I met members of his family praying in church. He did not want me to call, was not a Christian, variously described by those around him as a humanist and an atheist. He wanted to be cremated – I have suggested that a humanist takes the service.

His family want to remember him with thanksgiving, and the village halls that are used by the school and by committees and rural cinema – they don’t feel ‘right’ for a celebration of a life well lived. The most appropriate and worthy meeting place for a memorial service is the church. So I have offered the church for a thanksgiving, which I will lead, Christianity-lite.

The funeral director is surprised, and tells me that most clergy won’t allow the church to be used for such a service. But we use the church for concerts – those who chose to find God in the music or the silences. Faith and God will be present at this memorial, not unnamed, not named often; present in the very stone of the building, the 1,200 years of prayer that seeps from the walls, and in the hearts and faces of those present for whom faith is important.

Which would be the better witness – to refuse a family the church which lies at the heart of the village, or to have faith that even without words, God will speak to those present?

Being Known

As a priest in Newcastle, I was generally anonymous. Even in a dog collar, unless someone was in a local congregation, I was irrelevant. Henri Nouwen was right to say, “I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self” (In the Name of Jesus, 1989).

One of the joys of moving to the country is the ease of conversing about spirituality and faith. There is no way for a vicar to hide in a village. People know me, and they weigh up my actions as carefully as they weigh my words. They see me in the shop, at the school, in clubs and societies. They know my politics, my bad habits and my motivations.

And there are no edges to ministry here; every conversation and interaction could become public. People notice if I am sharp or critical, if I miss prayers in church, or if I am careless. I relish being known, though it is sometimes costly to me and to my family. But to be known does not protect me from being irrelevant. It is only through transparent vulnerability and availability that Jesus is made known in my life.

11057304_986740608026659_8069286298640311903_n One of my good friends in Blockley helped a group of children to make an Easter Garden. He started with a trolley from the allotments, and added clay from the brick factory. The crosses were made by the father of one of the flower ladies. The stones, all with fossils, were found in the gardens of the village.

Moss and earth w11102687_986740681359985_6081072265970990167_nere brought from the woods, and the empty tomb is a breeze block cleverly disguised with half a round stone shot from the middle ages. It was put in place in front of the nave altar on Good Friday. Over the next 3 days, people added to it. Carrot goldfish appeared in a water filled brook; flowers and bulbs were planted; a goat stood next to the well; two white figures appeared (teaspoons with a scrap of fabric over them).

When the stone was rolled away in the Easter service, the tomb was empty. The mystery within a mystery – “He is not here; he has risen”. For me the joy was as much in the collegiality and sharing of the story – not mine, or yours, but our story of faith, discipleship and telling the story through words and pictures.


A member of the prayer group has received an all-clear after treatment for cancer. We had laid hands on her and prayed for healing. The group are buoyed up that our prayers have been answered, and filled with faith that other prayers will be answered, and other miracles will occur.

I’m still grieving for my sister in law Sarah, who died at Christmas.  There was so much prayer from so many people, so much faith that she would be healed, and yet 4 1/2 years after her diagnosis, Sarah died.  A very unwise person tried hard to cheer me up by suggesting that ‘At least God is looking after her in heaven’.  The person who made the platitude got very short shrift and a very cutting retort – God may be glad of her company, but I would prefer her to be still in mine!

Synagogue NazarethAfter Jesus has opened the Isaiah scroll in the Nazareth synagogue, he began to teach that not everyone, even those righteous in God’s eyes, will be healed (Luke 4).  God healed Naaman the Syrian, but not the myriad Jews with skin infections who no doubt besieged Elisha for a cure.

But just becasue I don’t understand why the answer for Sarah was not the one I wanted, does not mean that God was oblivious to the cry of my heart (and the prayers of so many others too).  Oh, for some answers, and a view of the bigger picture.  In the meantime, I shall attempt to pass through the midst of the outrageous doubts and sadness, and go on my way.

10425457_10101075313365803_1316164460450323518_nIt’s early spring in the Cotswolds. The gardens and roadsides are covered with snowdrops and early daffodils. The warmth of the sun promises that the buds on bushes and trees will soon open, and the fields are beginning to green. We have lived in Blockley for 6 months now, and we feel like we belong.

We arrived in the late summer, to a series of generously-shared gluts: courgettes resulting in cakes; beetroot resulting in relish; raspberries resulting in trifle; and green beans which went into the freezer. Then the autumn brought the leaves from the trees and we discovered new views.

Winter and clear skies opened up the fields and woodland to the widest vistas of the parishes that are my land, mine and the Bishop’s and God’s. The cold drove me to buying slippers for the first time in my life! Either it is colder down here (unlikely) or I am getting older.

And now we have spring and summer to look forward to. I love this place, I love the people and the churches, and I feel so blessed.

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930 BCE/2015

200px-Rehoboam._Fragment_of_Wall_Painting_from_Basel_Town_Hall_Council_Chamber,_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger.The reading at Morning Prayer from 2 Chronicles 10 reminded me of the dangers of power, and the forthcoming general election. Rehoboam inherits a powerful kingdom from his father Solomon, but a kingdom which was less politically stable than it appeared. When a delegation appeals to their new king for tax breaks, Rehoboam decides to follow the advice of his foolish young friends rather than that of his father’s advisers, leading to the division of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. War between the two kingdoms drained the resources of the land throughout his 17 year reign. 12-tribes-of-israel-infographic

A number of things are worrying me about the state of British politics – regional fracturing and autonomy; the disillusionment of the electorate, especially younger voters; and the ever growing disparity of wealth between rich and poor. But today my concern is about the scheme colloquially known as pensioner bonds.

Baby-boomers have enjoyed so much already (if you are in any doubt about this, see, and the pensioner bonds look to me like a pension pay-off to those who might be persuaded to vote the current government back into power. I’m not sure we can afford to pay back 4% over 3 years, and even if we can SHOULD we? The baby-boomers present a significant voting block – if only they would encourage the government to help others. To those it have, it seems, more shall be given.  I am reminded of Psalm 49:13-14.

_80531580_libby_kneel_paLast Monday, the Bishop of Stockport was consecrated in York Minster, with an exceptional number of bishops queuing to lay hands on her. It was a glorious and joyful day, and the necessary elements of the sacrament were present – the authorised liturgy, the appropriate symbols, the intention of the ministers and people, and the willing heart of the recipient.

Hooker, the 16th century theologian who defined so much of what it is to be an Anglican, admitted that it was not possible for the human mind to understand how a sacrament is effective, describing a sacrament as a “visible signs of invisible grace.”

The consecration of Philip North as Bishop of Burnley next Monday will be a more muted affair, and Archbishop Sentamu has decided to withdraw from laying on hands during the service. But do we as Anglicans really believe in apostolic succession in such a linear way? If Sentamu was recognised as provincial archbishop and could consecrate last month, if the elements are present, how will his abstinence from the laying on of hands help? We are in a theological mess. The archbishops have not brought this to be discussed by Synod, and a damaging precedent is being set.

The BBC tells us today that far right activity is at its weakest in 20 years, but that is not the experience of the hundreds of Jews who emigrate to Israel from the UK every year.  Anti-Semitic attacks have increased over the last year, and in a recent YouGov poll over 40% of people (everyday ordinary peope like you and me) were found to hold anti-Semitic bias. French Jews are fleeing France for the UK, only to find that the racism they experience here means that this nation is no longer a safe haven for them either.

My 12 year old asked about the latest, post-tragedy, edition of Charlie Hebdo – was I going to buy a copy? I had thought about it, becasue I want to affirm their right to free speech. But the magazine has been consistently abusive to everyone of faith – Christians, Jews (a cartoonist was prosecuted in 2009 for anti-Semitism), as well as Muslims. And just becasue they can publish a picture of the Prophet on the front of the magazine, should they? Is it appropriate?

For my 12 year old, to flaunt the power of free speech and the moral high ground (as well as the publicity of the awful tragedy they have experienced) is unnecessarily offensive as well as provocative. I agree. And the publication does nothing to honour the memory of the Jews and the Christians and the Muslim who also died in the Parisian terrorist attack. Enough already, Charlie Hebdo!

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