Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Why Bede’s World really, really matters

The little museum of Bede’s World, up on the south bank of the Tyne, has closed unless funds can be found to save it.  If this was a London museum, it would be sad, but on Tyneside it is tragic.  It honoured the history of an area which often feels forgotten and where aspirations are sometimes low.  That Tyneside was a centre of learning and culture needs to be remembered and celebrated.

It was a small museum, but one which punched well above its weight.  Visitors learned about the Romans, and a bit about what happened when the Romans went home, and lots about Anglo-Saxon life.  They picked up some history of culture, religion and science, and there was art and design to appreciate and Celtic colouring sheets to take home.  That was the indoor bit, which also had decent toilets, a little shop with coasters and pens and a nice little café next door with a glorious herb garden for sunny days.  All in all, it was a decent day out.

It was the outside that brought the past to vivid life.  Real animals, real wattle and daub replica buildings, and you got just about as good a sense of what life might have been like over a thousand years ago as a twenty-first century visitor could hope to achieve.  If you were little, you could run in and out of the buildings, sweep the floor with a besom, talk to the goats and marvel at the enormity of the pigs.  Older people read about the exhibits and chatted to the volunteers who actually got on with the work of farming, Anglo-Saxon style, right in front of you. We experienced things directly with all our senses, including some rich Anglo-Saxon smells.  It was short on electronics and long on joy.

From our many visits, it’s the freedom I remember.  We weren’t kept in neat lines to view objects, we were encouraged to get our feet wet and to poke our noses into everything.  We learned about history, and about the history of history, but not without having fun.  The animals were essential to the experience and we learned that they would have their picture taken, or not, as they chose. We realised how people lived cheek by jowl with their pigs and goats and how they were dependent on their animals and plants for survival. Respect for the natural world and for agriculture was instilled without preaching.

Years after our many visits, long after we moved away from the North East, I still remember Bede’s World and I wept when I saw it had closed.  In September my daughter is likely to start History A’Level.  I am sure our experiences at Bede’s World helped to awaken in her the idea that history is not a dead subject, but the process of bringing the past to life.

Bede was a great scholar, allowed to study and to write his history and theology because, in the eighth century, a high premium was placed on learning and scholarship.  He is a towering figure in our culture and deserves to be celebrated.  Thirteen hundred years later, his memory should be celebrated and honoured, and Bede’s World did this in style.  If it does not reopen, the children of Tyneside will, shamefully, be denied a part of of their rich and beautiful heritage.


Tuesday, 1 September 2015


There’s so much to Greenbelt, and yet it is over in the blink of an eye.  If you have never been, it is a Christian Arts festival, ‘where arts, faith and justice collide’.  It is a mixture of beauty and mud, of transcendence and joy rooted in the real world, and this year it was better than ever.  Last year was patchy with teething problems as the festival settled into its new home in the grounds of Boughton House.  This year it has found its way again.  It may seem strange to celebrate radical equality, freedom, justice and faith in the grounds of a top nob’s country house, but it works because the setting is so peaceful.  Towering trees are reflected in deep pools and green lawns stretch out to merge into fields and woodlands. A grass labyrinth suggests pathways to mystery and odd geometric hills take us a step beyond the simply rustic.

Photo: Jonathan Davis
Though we did not get perfect weather, this year things seemed to work smoothly.  There wasn’t so far to walk, the canopy-style venues were easy to wander into and the site was a joy to explore.  Some things are still wobbly – the Treehouse and Leaves talking venues were hopelessly small and set too close to the music venues – but the loos were cleaner, the queues were shorter and, most importantly, the content was thought-provoking, moving and full of surprises. I did not miss the old massive and overbearing mainstage.  The new covered central area was at once intimate and intense as it contained and reflected sounds back to the audience who were engaged, involved and delightfully dry.  I could do with more visual arts - the exhibitions in the Shed are always gone before there is a chance to see them - but Greenbelt still offers a rich variety of things to see, hear and do.

I have shaken the stowaway earwigs out of my bags, washed off the mud and tended my bruises (I always fall over at Greenbelt, not through alcohol but because everything is too interesting to bother watching where I’m going).  I am left with memories and a feeling of homesickness.  Greenbelt is the place when I feel I belong, the place where everyone belongs, the place where we have a sense of delighted wonder in the diversity of human beings.  It’s not heaven, but it is special.  At its best, Greenbelt gives us a peek through heaven’s veil.

Two entirely different shows woke new ideas and will stay in my heart.  Peterson Toscano and the Gender Outlaws of the Bible gave new perspectives on old stories.  Reading the bible through someone else’s eyes is startling.  I had never before been invited to consider the story behind the man carrying a pitcher of water, or the eunuchs in the court of Xerxes.  Peterson Toscano is a funny, gracious man who brings a breath of fresh air and fresh truth to all his performances.

But it was the last performance in the Playhouse that took my breath away.  Late on the Monday night, as the  festival wound down, Justin Butcher gave to a small and tired audience a shock of infernal brilliance in The Devil’s Passion, a faithful retelling of biblical story seen through a sharp new angle.  We sat spellbound as the Devil schemed to stop Jesus, fuming at the actions of this dangerous radical who threatens to upset the delicate balance of good and evil.  A captivated audience forgot cold feet and aching backs as we travelled to a terrifying cosmic battlefield.  Energy crackled in every line.  It was a privilege to see such a groundbreaking piece of drama.

I cried as I packed.  Greenbelt is my spiritual home, somewhere I am healed deep in my soul, somewhere I have met true friends.  I am awkward, geeky, socially inept and I cannot sing in tune.  At Greenbelt this just does not matter.  Nowhere else have I felt that I am loved for the person I am, not the person I try to be, and nowhere else have I been so inspired to take that love back out into the world.  It passes by so quickly, but it inspires me for a year.

Monday, 10 August 2015

On migration, when it was known as Exodus

A talk on the experience of migration, or Exodus, preached on Sunday 2nd August.

Exodus 16.2–4,9–15The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’ Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. Then Moses said to Aaron, ‘Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, “Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.” ’ And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked towards the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, ‘I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.” ’ In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.
I’m going away next week and my daughter is staying with friends, so there isn’t much food in my house, other than leftovers from when we had guests last week.  In the interests of research for this sermon, I had a look in my fridge last night.  It contained some harissa mayonnaise, some pesto, some cold meat, a diet milkshake, some vegetables and a piece of cheesecake.  The cheesecake looked a bit untidy, so I tidied it away.  I hid the diet milkshake behind the orange juice.

I was doing this research because I was looking at our Old Testament reading, which is about the people of Israel getting hungry in the wilderness – the desert – on their way from Egypt to the Promised land.  I was thinking how hard it is for us to relate to their pain – the pain of real hunger – if you are living on even a moderate income here in the West.  That’s not to say that people don’t go hungry in this country, but it is hard for us to relate to the fear and desperation of the Israelites, stuck in the desert between Egypt and Israel, not knowing when – or if – their next meal will be found. 

And so I think we need to work at this reading.  We need to understand the fear and despair of the people of Israel as they look back to Egypt, where they were at least fed, though they lived in slavery and oppression.  We need to remember that this kind of hunger is not just a matter of missing a meal, but of missing all your meals.  It’s a matter of long term deprivation of protein until your body literally starts to eat itself.  It can be a bit of a joke when we read the bible – the people of Israel are whingeing again – but the reality is that being hungry and thirsty in the desert is one of the worst experiences of a human life.  The people of Israel were getting desperate.

We need to work at this reading, to understand the people of Israel, because their situation is not just a bible story from the olden days.  There are people in that situation right now as I speak.  Refugees and migrants cross the Sahara desert regularly in a desperate attempt to find safety and security.  Many die on the way.  This has been going on for years, it’s just that they used to stop in Libya.  Now things are so bad in Libya they try to keep going and to reach Europe. 
I wonder if we would classify the people of Israel as refugees or economic migrants?  They were escaping slavery, they were looking for freedom and security. 
The people of Eritrea are escaping one of the worst totalitarian regimes in the world, a regime where you can be called up to join the army on minimal wages - £20 a month - from the age of fourteen and – here’s the catch – you are conscripted indefinitely.  It’s a regime with some of the worst human rights abuses in the whole of Africa.  That’s why 3% of the population is leaving. 
Syrian refugees are leaving a country torn apart by war – many cannot go home because home no longer exists.  Other refugees have been terrorised by Islamic state and lived in utter fear. 
Sudanese people leave behind war, desperate poverty and starvation. 
Most refugees are children and young people – worldwide, half of them are under eighteen.  Many are alone.  Most are sheltered in camps in countries near their point of origin.  86% of refugees are still in the developing world.  We only see a fraction here. 

The world is full of travelling people, hungry and thirsty in one desert or another.  We are frightened that they will take more than we have to give, and certainly we can’t take all the world’s refugees here in the UK – though in point of fact, nobody is asking us to.  A humane and decent response to this problem will be very hard to find.  What we must remember though, and what some of the scaremongering and frightening rhetoric of recent weeks forgets, is that these are real people, just like us.  They are all children of God, and we need to search our consciences and inform our minds before we respond.  I’ve heard some really stupid things said this week – “Put them on the next plane home”.  There are no flights to Libya or Syria, because they are in deadly chaos.  God’s children deserve a more thought-out response than that.

When we read about the children of Israel starving in the desert, we are not just reading about something that happened three thousand years ago, we are reading about God’s children today. The difference is that there is no promised land for these people.  Somehow we have to make the world a better place, somewhere people don’t live in fear for their lives.  Poverty should be history, but it isn’t.

I think we are frightened to think about this.  I don’t think we like to look at the world’s great problems, because we don’t have any easy solutions.  We don’t like to think about all those suffering men and women, or those terrified children.  We don’t like to believe the stories people tell of rape and torture and summary execution, because it shows us just how awful the world can be.  The documented evidence is there in the news, but it’s hidden away under World – that tab we don’t click too often. 

But part of being a Christian is being prepared to care, being prepared to listen, being prepared to understand.  We can only find the strength to do this if we, too, understand that we need the grace of God to survive.  The people of Israel received bread from heaven to meet their bodily needs.  In our gospel reading, Jesus also offers us bread – Jesus met people’s bodily needs too – but Jesus also offers us the bread of life.  Jesus offers us the love and the strength to keep on going, to keep on caring, even when the problems of the world seem overwhelming and we feel that we can’t do anything.

Because there is no manna going to fall in the desert today.  There are no quails for the hungry to have for dinner tonight.  It’s up to us.  We are lucky – our needs are met and we have somewhere to sleep tonight.  We have been given bread and it’s our job to make sure that the rest of the world has bread too, both the bread that feeds our bodies and the bread that feeds our souls.  Last time I spoke I talked about how Jesus responded to human need both on an earthly level and a spiritual level.  It’s left to us now to carry on that work, in this village, in this country and in this world.

So where do we start?  We start, as always, with an open heart.  We start by listening.  We seek to understand before we open our own mouths.  [If only I practiced what I preach, I hear you say]. We come in humility, not pretending we have easy answers, but we listen to the pain of the world and then we do what we can. 

And if you feel helpless in the face of the world’s pain, if you are frightened that maybe some of that pain will come to you, then take heart from our second reading.  Jesus said,
Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 

There are no limits to God’s love.  We do not need to fear.  There is hope for this world, broken and suffering though it is.  We meet together to share in the bread of life, trusting that there is enough to go around.  When we sing ‘Let us break bread together, we are one’ we mean it.  When we take holy communion, we take it alongside the poor of the world.  God’s blessings are not finite.  Love is not a limited resource.  Have faith, and be willing to share your bread with strangers.  

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

On women priests

This is my week.  I will take worship, leading a parish communion service and baptising a child in front of a packed church.  I will liaise with the musicians, the welcome team and the readers to ensure the service proceeds like clockwork (which it does, to my slight surprise).  I will light the Pentecost flame, which I have previously ordered, tested and risk assessed. I will ensure a competent person is in charge of the correct fire extinguisher and that nobody strays into its path.  I will preach the sermon I have written, after much thought, and the service will include singing words I have composed.  I will be greeter, listener, friend, leader and mentor and perhaps hate figure to some.  I will ensure there are copies of the liturgy in a clear, readable and accessible format, with large-print versions available for those who need them.  I will fill out the Baptism Register and certificates for godparents and the child.

I will attend an evening concert by a visiting choir and chat over supper afterwards.  If you are what you eat, I am 90% quiche.

I will make the tea and buy the biscuits and lead the bible study evening at my house, after a quick tidy up.

I will do all the work involved in supporting a family in grief and taking a funeral service.

I will teach the local primary school children about Holy Communion and present them with new concepts and new ideas about joy and thanksgiving, explaining some of the many layers of symbolism and the biblical narrative along the way.

I will visit someone who has not long for this world and offer all the support I can, leaving them with my blessing and my prayers.

I will attend a briefing on schools performance management.  I will handle a baptism records search, attend the Chapter meeting of local clergy and take communion to a housebound lady.  I will nip to the stationers to buy posh paper for the service orders and stickers for the children.  I will read the stuff about church politics and I will go through the lectionary identifying worship themes so we can draw up a rota.  I will fill in a grant application and answer a pile of emails.

That’s half my working week - I am "only part-time".  The other half is spent in chaplaincy at a local youth offending institution – demanding ministry indeed which draws on all my priestly skills.

And by the way, I will love and tend my family.  Oh, and the socking great Vicarage garden may get a little attention.  And my personal prayer and meditation will happen – somehow.

All this I do gladly.  I love my job and I have a sense, at last, of vocation fulfilled.  I know I burn the candle at both ends, and I have to manage my stress levels, but it is the most fulfilling work I have ever done.  If I were not called to do this work, I could not possibly do it.  I can do this because I am loved and supported by God, my church and my family.

How can anyone say I shouldn’t be doing this because I am a woman?  Where is the relevance?

How DARE anyone say that we are second-class priests, not fit to be bishops?