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Thursday, 31 December 2015

Poem: ... if we attend ...

Supple sensuous sinuous pencil lines combine
with sketchy swathes, swatches
and blotches of liquid colour,
minimal modelling merging near and far,
present and past on shallow space.
Glass chalices, open windows,
flowers and thorns, still life and landscape.
The Eucharist - one reality in the form of another,
heaven in ordinary - frames and forms his making –
all human making - sacramental signification,
inutile and gratuitous; graceful, playful,
light and loving, abundant and affirming.

If we attend the waters are freed,
aqueous light floods static subjects
as fluid flecks, flurries and washes of colour
suffuse, invade, imbue and inform
playing freely on forms creating flux,
confusing boundaries, circling round
transparent images, blending, merging all -
the wood and the trees - bringing all within
imaginations reach. The spiritual shimmering,
shining through the material, the universal
in the particular - seeing with, not through
the eye - for to pay attention, this is prayer.

A Londoner of Protestant upbringing,
Catholic subscription, and of particular
Welsh and English stock.
A Christian modernist chasing connection
through heritage and lineage,
interlinking, interleaving past and present;
like iconographers writing images,
David Jones opened windows into the divine
in Harrow-on-the-Hill, Capel-y-ffin,
Pigotts, and Portslade.

David Jones: Vision & Memory is at Pallant House, Chichester, until 21 February 2016. A concurrent exhibition The Animals of David Jones is on show at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft. ‘if we attend’ (2015), a white, wall-mounted vitrine with translucent glazing and 16 porcelain vessels, is a new piece by Edmund de Waal produced especially for the David Jones exhibition at Pallant House. It references the calming slowing down effect of these words in the second line of Jones’s poem The Anathemata: ‘We already and first of all discern him making this thing other. His groping syntax, if we attend, already shapes…’.

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David Jones - In Parenthesis.

Richard Paton & Craigie Aitchison - Prayer Chapel window, St Martin in the Bull Ring


This year, in addition to the East window at All Saints Goodmayes, commission4mission member Richard Paton had the privilege of making what was Craigie Aitchison’s final design. The artist Craigie Aitchison passed away in 2009 with his blessing given to make a window for the Prayer Chapel in St Martins in the Bull Ring, Birmingham.

It took longer than expected to finally commission the window but after several samples Richard convinced those concerned that a combination of fused glass and traditional painting was the best way to remain faithful to Craigie’s powerful design. The unusual dark background adds intensity to the figure of Christ in the central window. It was made by Richard Paton and finally installed in August 2015.

Earlier in the year Richard installed a 3 meter high stained glass window set into a light box at a North London Synagogue. The window was inspired by a translation of an 11th Century poem which has been visualised in a design by Michael Hall under the supervision of translator Raphael Loewe. Rainbow Glass Studios were commissioned in 2014 to make the stained glass window using the same techniques available to the medieval glaziers. It’s a very esoteric and interesting piece, which Richard says was a privilege to work on.

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Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings & Buddy Miller - Pilgrim.

commission4mission's latest commission - East window, All Saints Goodmayes


commission4mission recently completed its 13th commission, an East window at All Saints Goodmayes created by Henry Shelton and Richard Paton. The window will be dedicated in 2016 by our patron The Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Chelmsford.

The window was made and installed by Richard Paton to a design by Henry Shelton. Richard and Henry have previously worked together on commission4mission commissions at All Saints Hutton where they created two sets of etched glass windows.Henry’s colourful abstract design for the three light East window features, in his inimitable minimal style, imagery representing the Holy Trinity. Henry is a member of the congregation and previously created etched glass windows for the Reindorp Chapel at All Saints.

The window commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the church and has been funded, in part, by donations from the congregation in memory of loved ones.

Richard Paton says: “The last few weeks has seen the making and fitting of a new East Window at All Saints Church, Goodmayes celebrating the church’s Centenary. This very colourful design by Henry Shelton symbolises the Holy Trinity (God the Father, Jesus & the Holy Ghost) depicted in just 3 lines. The space inside has been transformed from anonymous small square glass making a large space more intimate and warm.”


Richard Paton has over 20 years experience working with glass. When he is not creating works of art in glass, he teaches glass-making classes in the various techniques, passing on his tips, tricks and considerable knowledge to others. Also in 2015, using Craigie Aitchison’s final design, he made a window for the Prayer Chapel in St Martins in the Bull Ring and a 3 meter high stained glass window set into a light box hung on the wall of a North London Synagogue depicting an 11th Century poem visualised in a design by Michael Hall.

Richard graduated from Liverpool with a BA (Hons) in Fine Art in 1990 and was awarded an MA in Visual Culture at Middlesex University in 1998. He is a self-taught stained glass artist with 20 years in the trade who started Rainbow Glass Studios, based in Stoke Newington, North London, in 2001. In that time Richard has had hundreds of commissions which have required different techniques and designs to fulfil very diverse briefs. These range from corporate work to individual commissions from the rich and famous through to work in churches. The variety of glass techniques at his disposal uniquely puts him at an advantage to explore interesting and original work. He teaches regularly at his studio on weekday evenings and runs Saturday workshops for beginners. His work has been featured on TV and at the National Gallery. He is also on the committee for the Contemporary Glass Society who promote the work of glass artists.


Henry Shelton is a noted painter of religious art in a contemporary style. He trained as an apprentice draughtsman in a London studio developing his drawing skills in lettering and fine art. After 15 years he set up his own studio receiving many commissions from such clients as the Science Museum, borough councils, private and corporate bodies. He then worked designing in studios across the world, including Hong Kong and the USA.

Throughout this time and up to the present he has painted Christian art and his commissions include an Ascension installed as an altarpiece in the Church of the Saviour, Chell Heath; the Millennium clock tower in Goodmayes, and the memorial etched-glass windows in All Saints Church, Goodmayes, depicting events in the life of Jesus. In 2007 he had a one-man exhibition in York Minister of the Stations of the Cross. Most recently, he has completed commissions for St Luke’s Chapel in Queens Hospital Romford, a contemporary set of Stations of the Crown of Thorns for St Paul’s Goodmayes and etched glass windows for All Saints Hutton.

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Moby - Almost Home.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Divine Beauty: From Van Gogh to Chagall and Fontana



Divine Beauty: From Van Gogh to Chagall and Fontana is an exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. This exhibition with over one hundred works by important Italian artists as Domenico Morelli, Gaetano Previati, Felice Casorati, Lorenzo Viani, Gino Severini, Renato Guttuso, Lucio Fontana and Emilio Vedova, together with international masters like Vincent van Gogh, Jean-François Millet, Edvard Munch, Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Georges Rouault and Henri Matisse, sets out to explore the relationship between art and the sacred from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century.

The curators argue that, while sacred art is traditionally linked with the period stretching from the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century, in reality, it has never completely vanished, and this exhibition retraces its history in the years between the 1880s and 1950, both in Italy and abroad. Divine Beauty investigates the relationship between art and the Church, a connection that had been unbreakable in previous centuries and that seemed to have been lost in the modern era. 

As a result, Divine Beauty investigates much of the ground that I have explored on this blog through my Airbrushed from Art History series and my Sabbatical Art Pilgrimage. This blog has also tried to regularly highlight places where discussion about faith and art has been occurring (see, for example,here, here, here, herehere and here).

Divine Beauty provides visitors with a unique opportunity to compare and contrast a number of famous works of art, observed in a new and different light, alongside pieces by artists whose work is perhaps less well-known today but who, in their own way, have helped to forge the rich and complex panorama of modern art as a whole, not simply in a religious environment. Religious art is presented here as a "genre" in its own right, as an art form that came down from the altar to play a direct role in the artistic debate between the 19th and 20th centuries while at the same time reviving the great themes on which religion and spirituality have been focusing from time immemorial. 

Curated by Lucia Mannini, Anna Mazzanti, Ludovica Sebregondi and Carlo Sisi, the exhibition, which is the product of a joint venture between the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, the former Soprintendenza Speciale per il Patrimonio Storico, Artistico ed Etnoantropologico e per il Polo Museale della città di Firenze, the Archdiocese of Florence and the Vatican Museums, is part of a programme of events devised to run concurrently with the Fifth National Bishops Conference, scheduled to be held in Florence from 9 to 13 November and in the course of which Pope Francis himself will be visiting the city. 

Divine Beauty analyses and sets in context almost a century of modern religious art stretching from the 1850s – when the Roman Catholic Church of Pope Pius IX actively encouraged the most innovative forms of artistic expression – to the 1950s, in a display hosting the best examples of that art to have been produced either in Italy or abroad, highlighting the dialogue, the ties, and at times even the clashes in the relationship between art and religious sentiment. This "divine beauty" takes on the significance of a grace that injects aesthetic substance into the form of works of art, each one of which emanates a different and unique kind of spirituality. 

After a period during which Christian art was associated with "historicism", an attempt began to be made in the late 19th century to identify an artistic vocabulary suited to modern times. This led in the course of the 20th century to the existence of multiple parallel yet different styles governing the representation of the sacred. This variety of expression is broadly illustrated by the works on display in the exhibition, which range from naturalism and the narrative style echoing the way history was depicted in the late 19th century to the Symbolist research of the early 20th century, and from the exploration of realism in the 19th and 20th centuries to interpretations bordering on the abstract and the downright controversial, as exemplified by the startling work of the Futurists or of Edvard Munch whose Madonna triggered such a storm of controversy that it represents one of the most provocative images of Mary to have emerged at any time in the course of the 19th century. 

The key pieces include masterpieces such as: Jean-François Millet's Angelus on exceptional loan from the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, a work that emanates an ancestral spirituality, a universal sense of the sacred that transcends all barriers; Vincent van Gogh's Pietà from the Vatican Museums, a crucial work because, despite his religious and mystic calling, Vincent rarely addressed the sacred in his art, and even when he did so, he took his cue from other artists' work; Renato Guttuso's Crucifixion from the collections of the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna in Rome, an emblematic work with an intense political connotation which, like Picasso's Guernica, embodies a cry of pain and grief; and Marc Chagall's White Crucifixion from the Art Institute Museum in Chicago, one of Pope Francis's favourite works of art. 

The exhibition is divided into seven sections. In the introductory section (From Salon to Altar), large paintings of the highest quality testify to the eclecticism in the styles and approaches to the theme of the sacred in the second half of the 19th century, with such works as Antonio Ciseri's The Maccabees and William-Adolphe Bouguereau's Flagellation of Jesus Christ. At the turn of the century, the theme of the Virgin (Rosa Mystica) acquired special significance as the Symbolist aesthetic began to take hold, with artists imbuing the image with their strong desire for the ascetic – a trend effectively illustrated, for example, by Domenico Morelli's Mater Purissima. The exhibits in the very extensive central section are arranged to echo the narrative of the Gospels. The Annunciation to the Virgin Mary is followed by Nativity and Childhood of Christ, Miracles and Parables, The Passion, The Last Supper, The Way of the Cross and The Crucifixion, Deposition and Resurrection (with works by, among others, Glyn Warren Philpot, Maurice Denis, Giuseppe Capogrossi, Odilon Redon, Arturo Martini, Stanley Spencer, Georges Rouault, Otto Dix, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Renato Guttuso, Lucio Fontana and Emilio Vedova). 

The works are arranged throughout the exhibition in chronological order, comparing modes of artistic expression which are frequently very distant from one another and which, on occasion, address the theme of the sacred with significant and sweeping new takes on modernity, thus highlighting the different trends and clashes of expression in the relationship between art and religious sentiment. In this context, a special section is devoted to Gino Severini: Mural Decoration from Spirituality to Poetry, which uses a selection of Severini's works to clarify the artist's philosophical dialogue with Maritain. This is followed by a video-installation entitled Architecture, illustrating the multiple solutions adopted between the 19th and 20th centuries in the construction and decoration of Catholic places of worship, also underscoring the close link between architecture and ritual. The penultimate section in the exhibition analyses the depiction of The Church (illustrated in the work of Adolfo Wildt, Scipione and Henri Matisse) with a reflection on the public side of religion; while the final section explores the private and intimate dimension of Prayer (with paintings ranging from Millet's extremely well-known Angelus to Felice Casorati's extraordinarily elegant Virgin).

Several major works of art have been specially restored to mark this exhibition. They are Antonio Ciseri's The Maccabees, Giuseppe Catani-Chiti's The Saviour, Vittorio Corcos' Annunciation, Arturo Martini's Prodigal Son and Primo Conti's Crucifixion

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Delaney and Bonnie - Poor Elijah.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Exhibition: Foundations of the City


An exhibition of paintings at St Stephen WalbrookFoundations of the City (8 February – 4 March 2016) by Alan Everett

Three paintings in this exhibition are entitled Rood, reflecting their genesis in the Anglo-Saxon poem, The Dream of the Rood. This poem of great imaginative intensity was written when much of England was in deep forest. The Cross appears to the narrator in a dream vision, telling how as a tree it was cut down to share in the Passion of Christ. The paintings show successive stages of the Crucifixion, as if the tree itself is being crucified (Rood I, III and IV).

Three cross paintings address further aspects of the Crucifixion. Unclean Cross alludes to the pollution of blood; Salvage to the recovery of the Cross from cultural obliteration. Cosmic Cross embraces the energy of creation, also expressed in In Motion.

Three paintings elaborate the unpredictable nature of preservation, with reference to the written word: Text, Code and Fragment.

Another group of three paintings represent – in style and content – processes of layering, with both architectural and literary associations. Bricolage, Palimpsest and Retro resonate with a church such as St Stephen Walbrook, constructed as it is above a Roman city.

The harmonious neo-classical design of St Stephen is of course a selective reading of antiquity. Alcestis and Bacchae offer an alternative perspective, in response to plays by the ever-subversive Euripides.

Finally, two paintings approach the difficult subject of martyrdom – viewed by early Christians as an offering at the very foundations of the City of God. 10.00pm 2 December 1980 El Salvador refers to the rape and murder of a Catholic lay-worker and three nuns on that date; 12-15 February 2015 Libya to the beheading of 21 Coptic Christians.

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The Dream of the Rood.

Stations of the Cross: Art & Passion



Stations of the Cross: Art and Passion is an exhibition across London in 14 iconic destinations: A pilgrimage for art lovers. Experience the Passion: Lent 2016: 10 February (Ash Wednesday) - 28 March (Easter Monday).


On the day he died, Jesus walked the Via Dolorosa through the streets of Jerusalem, a holy city for Jews, which would later become sacred to Christians and Muslims. Jesus' journey is traditionally commemorated by the Stations of the Cross. Across the chasm of two thousand years, this tortured path resonates with current events for people of many faiths and cultures. In particular, it calls to mind the hazardous journeys of refugees from today's Middle East.

This unique exhibition — held in 14 stations across London — uses works of art to tell the story of the Passion in a new way, for people of different faiths. In this pilgrimage for art lovers, viewers will travel across London, mapping the geography of the Holy Land onto the streets of a ‘new Jerusalem.’

The Stations will weave through religious as well as secular spaces, from cathedrals to museums. The art on display will run the gamut from Old Master paintings to contemporary video installations. Artists will include Christians, Jews, Muslims, and atheists. Instead of easy answers, the Stations aim to provoke the passions: artistically, spiritually, and politically.

1. Jesus is condemned to death by the mob and Pontius Pilate washes his hands.
King’s College London Chapel
Terry Duffy, Victim No Resurrection

2. Jesus takes up his cross and begins his journey.
Parliament Square
Philip Jackson, Mahatma Gandhi, 2015

3. Jesus falls the first time.
Methodist Central Hall
James Balmforth, Intersection Point, 2015

4. Jesus meets his mother.
Westminster Cathedral (Catholic)
Eric Gill, Stations of the Cross (Station IV), 1915

5. Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross.
Wallace Collection
Twenty-four Plaques after Albrecht Dürer's Small Passion Woodcut Series, Limoges, France, c. 1570- c.1625

6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus.
Cavendish Square
Jacob Epstein, Madonna and Child, 1950-52
With nightime image projection planned by Hannah Habibi

7. Jesus falls for the second time.
National Gallery
Jacopo Bassano, The Way to Calvary, c. 1544-5

8. Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem.
Notre Dame Refugee Centre/Notre Dame de France Church
Jean Cocteau, Our Lady’s Chapel, 1959

9. Jesus falls the third time.
The Barbican & St Giles Terrace
G. Roland Biermann

10. Jesus is stripped of his garments.
Salvation Army International Headquarters
Guler Ates will create a piece using children’s clothes collected from the Salvation Army in London, which she will mould into a sculptural form which connects the theme of Jesus’ torment with the experiences of refugees.

11. Crucifixion: Jesus is nailed to the cross.
St Paul’s Cathedral
Bill Viola and Kira Perov, Martyrs, 2014
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12. Jesus dies on the cross.
Tower of London
Guy Reid, Crucifixion. Life-size (183 cm x 180 cm), lime wood

13. Jesus is taken down from the cross (Deposition or Lamentation).
St. Stephen, Walbrook
Michael Takeo Magruder will create a multi-media sculpture in the form of a tomb with walls displaying videos related to tragic contemporary events.

14. Jesus is laid in the tomb.
Temple Church
Leni Diner Dothan, Crude Ashes: Three Faces for Death, Burial, and Resurrection


The Passion in Art: From Old Masters to Contemporary Installations
Feb 8: Monday, 1–1.45pm
National Gallery (Sainsbury Wing Theatre)
Dr. Aaron Rosen, author of Art and Religion in the 21st Century (Thames & Hudson, 2015)
http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/whats-on/calendar/lunchtime-talk-8-february-2016

Contemporary Artists Take on the Passion
Feb 16: Tuesday, 6:00pm - 7:00pm
Wallace Collection
Artists Leni Dothan & Michael Magruder in conversation with Dr. Aaron Rosen
Price: £7.00
http://www.wallacecollection.org/collections/event/7412

In Conversation: Stations of the Cross
March 16: 1pm
National Gallery, Room 9
Artist Terry Duffy and National Gallery Curator Dr. Matthias Wivel

Does Religion Belong in Museums?
March 22: Tuesday, 6:30pm - 7:30pm
Wallace Collection
Panel discussion with:
Dr Christoph Vogtherr, Director of the Wallace Collection
Rev Prof David Jasper, University of Glasgow
Mr Jonathan Ruffer, Chariman, Auckland Castle Trust
Dr Aaron Rosen, King’s College London
Price: £7.00
http://www.wallacecollection.org/collections/event/7504

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Flight & floe-fall lament


Lucy Winkett, the vicar of St James Piccadilly, says, 'Whatever the Victorian carols might say about oxen and midwinter snow, the approaching story of Christmas is of Mary and Joseph becoming refugees after giving birth in dangerous circumstances to a baby who grew up to change the course of world history. And the coming festival declares that the birth of Christ expresses something unutterably beautiful and redemptive about the renewing presence of God in the world. The real Christmas celebrates the divine in a humanity that is both messy and miraculous, a festival by no means sanitised from the blood and tears of the world. And this real Christmas story is this year is being played out in front of us in family after family climbing into boats to flee from tyranny.'

Two videos of the work can be viewed on the website showing the vessel used by refugees to reach the Greek island of Lesbos. One is by St James's member and film maker Carolyn Davies; and, the other, a time lapse film showing the 6 hour installation above the nave of St James's as part of Flight. The boat carried 62 refugees from Turkey.

Sara Mark writes: “ ‘Her floe-fall lament (COP21)’ was made by freezing 66 litres of water into an oil drum. I placed it in the central aisle of the church to cause maximum disruption to the usual events on Sunday and the constant amplified sound of the melt-water pouring into the oil barrel beneath was an insistent reminder of something happening in real-time elsewhere in the World.”

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Art & Religion in the 21st Century


'The idea of artists as iconoclasts on a quest to offend is compelling. Yet it tells only a fraction of the story. Good art should challenge us. It should perforate our pieties, religious or otherwise. But simply offending for the sake of headlines (and sales) is a cheap trick, unworthy of the best artists. For the most part, people who really want art to be “blasphemous” aren’t artists. The people who need it to be offensive are the ideologues, who may never set foot in a gallery.' (Aaron Rosen, The Guardian)

Art & Religion in the 21st Century by Aaron Rosen is out now, published by Thames & Hudson.

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Bear's Den - Agape.

The Christmas Revolution

'Because the Christmas story has been told so often for so long, it’s easy even for Christians to forget how revolutionary Jesus’ birth was. The idea that God would become human and dwell among us, in circumstances both humble and humiliating, shattered previous assumptions. It was through this story of divine enfleshment that much of our humanistic tradition was born ...

We Christians would do well to remind ourselves of the true meaning of the incarnation. We are part of a great drama that God has chosen to be a participant in, not in the role of a conquering king but as a suffering servant, not with the intention to condemn the world but to redeem it. He saw the inestimable worth of human life, regardless of social status, wealth and worldly achievements, intelligence or national origin. So should we.' (Peter Wehner, NY Times)

For more on the revolutionary nature of the Christmas story, see my sermon on 'The Revolutionary Magnificat'.

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Bruce Cockburn, with Lou Reed & Roseanne Cash - Cry Of A Tiny Babe.

The Admiralty Service on BFBS Radio

The annual Admiralty Service which I led at St Martin-in-the-Fields was broadcast on BFBS Radio on Christmas Day.

BFBS Radio’s Jo Thoenes presented this special programme with carols and interviews recorded at the Service.

The event has become a traditional meeting point for the Royal Navy, their foreign counterparts and members of the City of London who support the Naval family and its principal charity, the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity.

The Admiralty Service represents the first of the season’s military services and is comprised of a traditional carols, followed by a drinks reception and charity collections.

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J.S. Bach - Toccata in D Minor.

Windows on the world (372)


Convent of La Tourette

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Moby - The Last Day.

Friday, 25 December 2015

Christ, the ending and beginning of all our journeying

This is my sermon from Midnight Mass at St Stephen Walbrook:

Journeys feature heavily in the Christmas story. There are the physical, geographical journeys of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register in the census, the rather shorter journey of the Shepherd from the hills surrounding Bethlehem to the manger itself, the lengthy journey of the Magi following the star via Herod’s palace to the home of Jesus, and the journey of Mary, Joseph and Jesus to Egypt following the Magi’s visit.

Then there are the emotional and life journeys that the characters in the story make. For Mary the journey of pregnancy and birth following her submission to God’s will at the Annunciation; the journey of carrying God himself in her womb for nine months while enduring the disapproval of her community. For Joseph, there is the journey from what was considered right in the community of his day – a quiet divorce – to the realisation that to do God’s will meant standing by Mary despite the local disgrace and scandal.

All these journey’s, and others, bring us to the birth of Jesus; the birth of the new thing that God was doing in the life of our world and the new thing that he was doing in the lives of these people. What can we learn from their journeys that will help us in our own life journeys?

None of their journeys were easy. Even those with shortest journey, such as the Shepherds, risked disapprobation and even the loss of their livelihood, for leaving their sheep to worship Jesus. The Magi, no doubt, had a lengthy and uncomfortable journey not knowing exactly where they were going and nearly being seduced by Herod into contributing to the death of the child they sought. But for Mary and Joseph their journey was most difficult; the worries of carrying a full-term baby in the full glare of public disapprobation, an uncomfortable journey just prior to birth, and the pain of birth in an unsuitable and uncomfortable environment far from home.

God does not promise us that the experience of being part of the new thing that he is doing is ever easy but imagine the joy and wonder of the moment that Jesus is born, when Mary holds this precious, promised child for the first time, when the Shepherds come bursting in with their tales of Angels singing glory to God and the Magi come bearing their gifts, and all who come, come to worship the child that she holds. No wonder the story tells us that she pondered or treasured these things in her heart.

This child, both God and human being, was born to save humanity for our sins. God’s new act to rescue a fallen humanity; God doing a new thing in our world to demonstrate his love for each one of us.

Like the shepherds and wise men, we have journeyed tonight to celebrate this birth. Our physical, geographical journeys may, like those of the Shepherds have been short, but the life journeys that have brought us here tonight may well have been lengthy and hard. Like Mary and Joseph, those journeys may have involved disapprobation or scandal, the worry and pain of birthing and caring for children, like the Shepherds our life journey may have risked our livelihoods or like the Magi have involved a lengthy search for truth that has included looking in and leaving the wrong places.

However we have come tonight, the possibility remains for us to experience the new thing that God has done in our world through the birth of his son, Jesus. The good news about which the Angels sang on that first Christmas night was peace on earth, goodwill among human being; a peace that comes as human beings receive forgiveness from God for all the wrong and torturous journeys we have had, the actions and decisions that have hurt us and hurt others. We know now that we can be forgiven because God has come, as a human being, to be with us, to experience all that human life involves and, ultimately to die to save us from our sins.

This is the new thing that God has done in our world. It is this that came to birth at Bethlehem. It is this to which all our journeys lead. Will we, with Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and the Magi, this Christmas kneel and worship this child, Jesus, God with us, the Saviour of our world, the ending and beginning of all our journeying?

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Franz Schubert - Mass No.3 in Bb Major, 2. Gloria.


Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Midnight Mass by Candlelight


Come and join us at St Stephen Walbrook for... 
  
The Midnight Mass by Candlelight 
Christmas Eve at 11.30pm
with the Choir of St Stephen Walbrook and Joe Sentance on the organ
All welcome! Followed by mince pies and hot drinks

Best wishes for a blessed Christmas and New Year
with much thanks for all your support, involvement and interest 
in St Stephen Walbrook over the past year

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Hector Berlioz - The Shepherd's Farewell.

The 10 albums that I enjoyed most in 2015

Here are the 10 albums (in no particular order) that I've got hold of and enjoyed the most in 2015:

Sid Griffin, writing on 'The Importance of The Basement Tapes,' describes in Biblical terms how the 'beat poetics' of Dylan's political and urban songs 'morphed into whimsy or Biblical-like prophecies'; 'songs derived from old sea shanties, melodic reflections about life's absudities, hard-rockin' and often hilarious fictitious character sketches, musical tributes to past heroes which bordered on pastiche, musical pastiches so authentic they bordered on being tributes, devout spirituals, C&W laments, a new take on blues balladry, and, yes, love in all its guises'

To mark the 50th anniversary of the freedom marches as well as the Staple Singers’ performance at the New Nazareth Church on Chicago’s South Side, their concert has been remastered and restored to its original setlist and runtime. Pops Staples, patriarch, bandleader and musical visionary, had written a song about the freedom marchers called ‘Freedom Highway’ which was debuted at this concert and which became the family’s biggest hit to that date, a pivotal record, connecting gospel music with the struggle for civil rights, that inched them toward the pop mainstream without sacrificing their gospel message for a secular audience.

'The Staple Singers have left an imprint of soulful voices, social activism, religious conviction and danceable “message music.”' 'Pops and the family were rooted in gospel, blues, and "message music" traditions. He sang about darkness, and he sang about light. He's done it again [on 'Somebody Was Watching' from Don't Lose This], and while the song's arrival might be belated by over 15 years, it's a total gift to hear one of the greats completely owning his lane.'

Bill Fay's 'beautifully hymnal fourth studio album' Who is the Sender? 'contains sublime, heartfelt ruminations on nature and the world.' With less light and shade than Life is People but with a more consistently meditative tone, With profound simplicity, like that of Chance in Being There, Fay mourns the inhumanity of our warlike impulses while prayerfully calling for a new world to be manifest.

Carrie and Lowell is a meditation on grief observed that channels the emotional honesty of C. S. Lewis' reflection on his time in the shadowlands. 'I saw intimacy pass by while going about it's business, like something sung and felt by Sufjan Stevens on his new beautiful solitary and rich record filled with faith and disbelief and the resurrection of trust and dreams.'

Carleen Anderson said in an interview for Huffington Post: 'the spiritual element in my life comes from miracles, in the form of love, like my child being born, or the way my grandparents raised me. It's emotional rescue. Love is a miracle, and from that music is made, as is all art.' 'The one piece of music I'm most proud of is probably a gospel song I wrote called 'Salvation Is Free' [Soul Providence, 2005]. It's about how I feel when everything in life is going wrong; it's about finding peace within all that.'

'Look Out Machines! is ... probably [Duke Special's] best, most complete work for a good while ... it’s broad enough to encompass the big issues. ‘Son Of The Left Hand’ is religious guilt with a dash of William Gibson. The title track is big enough to call down the apocalypse, with the help of Shakespeare and Betjeman: “What’s done is done, so drop the bomb”.' ‘God In A Dive’ is the best song I’ve heard for ages, about religious acceptance of one’s own kind. 'In A Dive', he says, concerns 'my living in Belfast and finding beautiful and profound qualities in people in the most unlikely of places.'

'On The Life Pursuit [by Belle & Sebastian], [Stuart] Murdoch treats church almost as a matter of course – yes, he goes to church, doesn’t everybody?! The references are simply there; they don’t attract attention themselves. Christianity (and church) is portrayed as an almost unspoken factor in the everyday lives of real people, one that is in turns pathetic and profound, but a factor nonetheless. In other words, his references ring true.'

Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices is the second album by The Welcome Wagon, the musical duo of Vito and Monique Aiuto, a Presbyterian pastor and his wife. 'Vito explains: “This album has a somewhat liturgical structure, ordered loosely like a worship service. It begins with the existential and cosmic dread of ‘I’m Not Fine,’ immediately followed by ‘My God, My God, Parts 1 & 2,’ a prayer that rails against God’s seeming absence from this world and our lives. The words are adapted from the prayer of Jesus while he hung on the cross."'

'"Banga" ... opens with the first of two songs about Europeans’ discovery of the New World. Piano and strings drive the rhapsodic, epistolary "Amerigo." On this and other tracks, [Patti] Smith sings with more depth, timbre and richness than perhaps she ever has ... Writing and art-making are recurrent themes on "Banga." On "Constantine’s Dream," the second track about voyages to America, Smith tackles the very nature of art - and the art of nature. Halfway through the 10-minute opus, painter Piero della Francesca shouts this "Horses"-worthy Patti war cry: "Oh lord let me die on the back of adventure/ With a brush and an eye full of light." ... "Banga" is both a return to form and her best album in many years.'

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Carleen Anderson - Salvation Is Free.

Levelling mountains and raising valleys

This was my reflection for the lunchtime Eucharist at St Martin-in-the-Fields today:

“All who heard … said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.” (Luke 1. 57 - 66)

“What then will this child become?” The answer to that question is given us in the reading from Malachi 3. 1 - 4. The child born to Zechariah and Elizabeth would be the messenger who would prepare the way before the Lord, the Messiah who would suddenly (unexpectedly) come to his temple.

As the messenger preparing the way for the coming of the Lord, John the Baptist preached: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

The ministry of John the Baptist is described then as being like a major road building programme. This road is one that requires mountains to be levelled and valleys raised in order that it can run as straight and smooth as possible.

The purpose of this road building project – in other words, the purpose of John the Baptist’s ministry – is that Jesus, God’s salvation, should be plainly seen walking down the road towards us. Everyone is able to see him because there is nothing to block our view; no mountains blocking our vision of Jesus and no valleys from within which we are unable to look out. The purpose of John’s ministry then is that everyone should see Jesus clearly.

So it is worth asking, what are the mountains in our lives that could prevent us from seeing Jesus? John’s ministry was a call to repentance, turning away from all that is wrong in our lives in order to turn to Jesus. In the Malachi reading this is described using the imagery of refining and cleaning. The mountains that need to be torn down are the sins that we cling onto, those things that we struggle to renounce or leave behind and which therefore stand in our lives in the place where only God should be; the centre. When we put something or someone at the centre of our lives then that thing or person becomes a barrier which prevents us from seeing God. What might these things be in our lives? Well, that is for us to decide, but, in Church history, people have sometimes talked in terms of the seven deadly sins; of wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony.

When we are in a valley we are low down, in a depression, and can’t see a way out; so can’t see God. Here we are not talking about sins which block our view of God, instead we are talking about fears, anxieties, hurts and depressions which bring us down so that we cannot look up and out and see God. What are the fears, anxieties, hurts and depressions in our lives at present? If we want to see God more clearly then we need to be raised up so that we are no longer looking at life from the depths of a depression.

John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This is the construction project for our lives which enables us to see and receive God’s salvation in Jesus. As we turn away from the mountains of sin and the valleys of depression, we turn towards Jesus who stands ever ready to receive us with open arms.

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Sarah McLachlan - O Little Town Of Bethlehem.


Sunday, 20 December 2015

St Stephen Walbrook, Catharine Macaulay and Thomas Wilson

The Telegraph has an interesting article by Christopher Howse about a controversial commission from the history of St Stephen Walbrook. On this occasion the piece is not about the Henry Moore altar but a statue of historian Catharine Macaulay which was installed at the church by its Rector, Thomas Wilson, in 1778. The statue was installed in the sanctuary but proving controversial was soon removed, eventually finding a home in Warrington Library.

Thomas Wilson "was a pioneering advocate for the propriety of decoration in Anglican churches. He edited and contributed to William Hole’s important Ornaments of Churches Considered (1761), a book which helped mark a new interest in introducing visual art among Anglicans." A memorial to Wilson and his wife Mary is to be found in the church.

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J.S. Bach - Jesu, meine Freude.
 

The Revolutionary Magnificat

This is the sermon I preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields this morning:

At my first training weekend as a curate the then Bishop of Barking, David Hawkins, performed a handstand to demonstrate the way in which Jesus, through his teaching in the beatitudes, turns our understanding of life upside down. He was thinking of the way in which Jesus startles us as paradox, irony and surprise permeate his teachings flipping our expectations upside down: the least are the greatest; adults become like children; the religious miss the heavenly banquet; the immoral receive forgiveness and blessing. Bishop David's action turned our expectations, as curates, of Bishops and their behaviour upside-down at the same time that it perfectly illustrated his point.

Donald Kraybill wrote a classic book on the kingdom of God which used this same imagery as its title and defining metaphor. ‘The Upside-Down Kingdom’ shows how the kingdom of God announced by Jesus appeared upside-down in first-century Palestine and continues to look upside-down as it breaks into diverse cultures around the world today. That image and the visual metaphor of Bishop David’s handstand can just as easily be applied to the Magnificat, the song sung by Mary following her meeting with Elizabeth (about which we heard in today’s Gospel reading) with all of the great reversals contained within it; ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.’ Turning upside-down, as in a handstand, involves a revolution and, because of its great reversals, the Magnificat has been called ‘the most beautiful and revolutionary hymn in the world’; one that ‘is redolent of theologically and politically destabilizing realities.’

In a Holy Week meditation I wrote a few years ago based on Jesus’ meeting with Pilate I explored similar revolutions to those articulated in the Magnificat by seeing Pilate as “representing / the oppressive, controlling / Empire of dominating power, / with its strength in numbers / and weaponry, / which can crucify / but cannot / set free” while Jesus represents “the kingdom of God; / a kingdom of love, / service and self-sacrifice / birthing men and women / into the freedom /to love one another.” Our choice is then: “The way of compassion or the way of domination; / the way of self-sacrifice or the way of self; the way of powerlessness or the way of power; the way of serving or the way of grasping; the kingdom of God or the empires of Man.”

Today, though, I want to focus briefly on relational revolutions deriving from this story. The first is that the Magnificat was sung by an obscure young Jewish girl who has become one of the most important figures in the global faith that is Christianity. This example of expectations being turned upside down is captured well by Malcolm Guite in his Sonnet for the Feast of the Visitation:

Here is a meeting made of hidden joys
Of lightenings cloistered in a narrow place
From quiet hearts the sudden flame of praise
And in the womb the quickening kick of grace.
Two women on the very edge of things
Unnoticed and unknown to men of power
But in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings
And in their lives the buds of blessing flower.
And Mary stands with all we call ‘too young’,
Elizabeth with all called ‘past their prime’
They sing today for all the great unsung
Women who turned eternity to time
Favoured of heaven, outcast on the earth
Prophets who bring the best in us to birth.

Mary has been given many titles down the ages but ‘the earliest ‘title’, agreed throughout the church in the first centuries of our faith, before the divisions of East and West, Catholic and Protestant, was Theotokos, which means God-Bearer. Mary is the prime God-Bearer, bearing for us in time the One who was begotten in eternity, bringing Jesus to us and, therefore, as woman and mother, the one who has been closest to God. Every Christian after her should “seek to become in some small way a God-bearer, one whose ‘yes’ to God means that Christ is made alive and fruitful in the world through our flesh and our daily lives, is born and given to another” (https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/tag/mary/). Mary’s role, as Theotokos, challenges the patriarchy of the society in which she lived, as well as that of the Church throughout much of its history. 

Patriarchy is also challenged by another revolutionary aspect of Mary’s story and that is the Virgin Birth. The primary purpose of patriarchy is to assure the man of the legitimacy of his offspring.  “Patriarchy's investment in systems that ensure proof of authorial possession results from the necessity of overcoming male anxiety over the ultimate uncertainty of biological paternity. Although the woman always knows she is the mother - through her physical connection with the developing foetus - the man never knows for sure that he is the father, and thus has a high stake in maintaining a system by which he can claim paternal ‘ownership’.” (Amelia Jones, quoted in ‘Re-Enchantment’ - http://www.jameselkins.com/index.php/academic-books/234-the-art-seminar-series)

But, as we know, in the Nativity story Joseph is not the father of Jesus and does not know whether Mary has slept with another man or not. A different role is asked of Joseph from that of the Patriarch; that of being the guardian and foster-father of Jesus. So, Jesus' birth occurs outside of or at a tangent to patriarchal systems or structures. Jesus, himself, is a man who doesn’t marry and who has no physical offspring - the furtherance of his 'seed' is of no interest to him. His emphasis is on his followers as his family, rather than his blood and adoptive relatives. His death is for the entire family of God - all people everywhere – and he teaches that after the resurrection people will neither marry or be given in marriage.

As a result, the philosopher Thierry De Duve has suggested that the: “great invention, the great coup of Christianity”, resulting from the Virgin Birth, “is to short-circuit” patriarchal ownership and a “production line that fabricates sons” (‘Re-Enchantment’). Robert Song has argued that the advent of Christ changes our understandings of sexuality because there is a “fundamental shift in horizons brought about the resurrection.” In the resurrection life there will be no marrying or giving in marriage, Jesus says, and behind his thinking is the idea that where there is no death, there will be no need for birth or marriage. Subverting the patriarchal system through the Virgin Birth and removing the necessity for procreation through the resurrection opens up space in which to reimagine marriage, including the possibility of a greater diversity of relational and family structures in society characterised by faithfulness, permanence and fruitfulness. Robert Song calls these “faithful covenanted relationships”; committed relationships which are sexually active but non-procreative (https://durhamabbeyhouse.wordpress.com/2014/10/31/book-launch-robert-songs-new-book-on-same-sex-relationships/).

The anthropologist Daniel Miller in quoted in the current edition of ‘The Big Issue’ as saying that “Christmas is a festival that aims to make the family not just sacred but an idiom for society more generally, including the local community or neighbourhood but also the national family.” In Britain, he suggests, “we place considerable emphasis on re-establishing a version of the domestic at Christmas time, rediscovering a certain sentimentality for this idealised version of family life.” The article then notes that, of course, “this rose-tinted vision is a world away from the reality many people live through at Christmas” because we do not enjoy “such an idealised family festival.”

However, if we were to grasp the unconventional and non-idealised relationships which God chose to reveal himself and be incarnated through the birth of Jesus – a conception outside of marriage, a relationship on the brink of divorce, a foster-father, a birth in cramped and crowded circumstances, an immediate threat to life followed by refugee status – we might then understand the reality of incarnation; of God with us in the reality, not the ideality, of our lives.  

For Mary and Elizabeth to be caught up in events with such revolutionary implications - events which turn our understanding of societal norms for relationships upside down – was far from easy. “Behind Elizabeth and Zechariah's joy at the birth of their son John was the knowledge that they had lost an inconsolably long number of years to enjoy watching him grow up.” “At the edge of Gabriel's annunciation was the social stress that Mary would endure in a society where it was all about your embedded role in the community.” She was not believed, either by those closest to her and those who didn’t really know her. Engaged to Joseph when the annunciation occurred, as she was found to be with child before they lived together, Joseph planned to dismiss her quietly. He had his own meeting with Gabriel which changed that decision but, if the man to whom she was betrothed, could not believe her without angelic intervention, then it would be no surprise if disbelief and misunderstanding characterised the response to Mary wherever she went. And “lurking over Joseph's shoulder was the gossip that would nag him all his life, that he is merely the putative father of Jesus.” (W. David O. Taylor - http://artspastor.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/the-annunciation-really-weird-story.html)

Bearing all this in mind, we can imagine how much Mary needed the moment of empathy and inspiration described in today’s Gospel reading because the experience of being the God-bearer involved such difficulty. We can imagine how important it was to her to be with a relative who not only believed her but was also partway through her own miraculous pregnancy. The relief that she would have felt at being believed and understood would have been immense and then there is the shared moment of divine inspiration when the Holy Spirit comes on them, the babe in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy, and as Elizabeth blesses Mary, Mary is inspired to sing the Magnificat. In the face of so much disbelief and lack of support, this confirmation that they were both following God’s will, would have been overwhelming.

We can learn much from Mary’s faith, trust and persistence in the face of disbelief, misunderstanding and probable insult. We can also learn from this moment when God gives her both human empathy through Elizabeth and divine inspiration through the Holy Spirit to be a support and strengthening in the difficulties which she faced as God-bearer. Our own experience in times of trouble and difficulty will be similar as, on the one hand, God asks to trust and preserve while, on the other, he will provide us with moments of support and strengthening.

As we have already heard Malcolm Guite suggesting, every Christian after Mary should “seek to become in some small way a God-bearer, one whose ‘yes’ to God means that Christ is made alive and fruitful in the world through our flesh and our daily lives, is born and given to another.” Mary bore Jesus into the revolutions of her day and time; revolutions which began with her bearing of Jesus and continued in and through his ministry, death and resurrection. We are called to bear Jesus into the revolutions of our own day and time; even bearing him in such a way that new revolutions begin.

Christ is born in each one of us as we open our lives to him and we then bear, carry or take him to others as our daily lives reveal aspects of his character and love to others. As Teresa of Avila said: “Christ has no body but yours, / No hands, no feet on earth but yours, / Yours are the eyes with which he looks / Compassion on this world, /Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good, / Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world. / Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, / Yours are the eyes, you are his body. / Christ has no body now but yours, / No hands, no feet on earth but yours, / Yours are the eyes with which he looks / compassion on this world. / Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” In this way, we bear him to others.

Malcolm Guite’s poem ‘Theotokos’ sums up some of the different ways in which Mary’s experience can speak to us and inspire us in the challenges we face as we go through life. In its final lines, it also suggests a possible response to those challenges and experiences:

You bore for me the One who came to bless
And bear for all and make the broken whole.
You heard His call and in your open ‘yes’
You spoke aloud for every living soul.
Oh gracious Lady, child of your own child,
Whose mother-love still calls the child in me,
Call me again, for I am lost, and wild
Waves surround me now. On this dark sea
Shine as a star and call me to the shore.
Open the door that all my sins would close
And hold me in your garden. Let me share
The prayer that folds the petals of the Rose.
Enfold me too in Love’s last mystery

And bring me to the One you bore for me.

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Herbert Sumsion - Magnificat.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

@OurCofeE

The Church of England in 140 Characters is an exciting year long project on Twitter to tell the story of the Church of England through the eyes of its people, providing a daily insight into modern faith in action.

Each week, followers of the account will be given an insight into all the work that goes on into the day to day running of a church community from schools to chaplaincies to cathedrals. Followers will be able to peek behind the curtain of church life and see behind the scenes as they get a feel for daily life in parishes. In addition to daily life there will be a glimpse of the inevitable unusual and unexpected events that come with being part of the Church of England. Through it all the account will seek to show through thousands of tweets how God is at work in His Church each day.

From 21-27 December Katherine Hedderly from St Martin-in-the-Fields will be the host for the Church of England’s Twitter project, that tells the story of the church through the eyes of its communities around the country. She will be tweeting about the St Martin’s community each day. Do follow @OurCofE and re-tweet to share the life of St Martin’s at Christmas far and wide.

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John Telfer and Clive Hayward - I See You.

Hinterland: an architectural masterpiece re-animated at night for the first time

"Discover Scotland’s greatest modernist ruin, St Peter’s Seminary, transformed by light and sound at the official launch event of Scotland’s Festival of Architecture 2016.

Fifty years on since the building opened, you can explore this architectural masterpiece re-animated at night for the first time.

As dusk falls to darkness, a walked route will weave through atmospheric woodland towards the abandoned building complex. Hinterland will reveal the full glory of the towering concrete ruin, combining moving light installations and projection with a haunting choral soundscape by composer Rory Boyle, recorded by the St Salvator’s Chapel Choir of the University of St Andrews.

With a two year restoration planned to start later in the year, this will be the only opportunity for the public to witness this world-renowned building in its current state of majestic decay ...

book ... at www.hinterland.org to be part of this monumental production.

Hinterland is an open manifesto for the ground-breaking creative work that will be programmed at St Peter’s Seminary from 2018 onwards. The long term plans will rescue, restore and reclaim this outstanding example of 20th century architecture and bring it back into productive use as a national platform for public art and world-class heritage destination." (http://nva.org.uk/artwork/hinterland/)

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Rory Boyle - Such Sweet Sorrow.

For at least a short while, all will seem a great deal better in the world

The Rt Revd David Walker, the Bishop of Manchester, writes in the Church Times:

"It is that time of year when church doors are flung wide to welcome both familiar faces, and those who are, shall we say, less frequent in crossing our thresholds. Special acts of worship, from carol services to Christingles, pack our pews.

But who are these people joining us in Advent, whom we don’t see through the rest of year? They might be “cultural Christians”, devoid of faith, drawn by a mixture of nostalgia and aesthetics; but there might be something deeper stirring within them ...

This Christmas, as at every Christmas, we will be opening our doors to the slightly familiar faces of those who occasionally come to church. My plea is that we try to understand them better, and thus be a little more informed and hospitable to their needs. Who knows? They may come back again."

Similar questions have been preoccupying other writers in the mainstream press as well. Quentin Letts writes in the Evening Standard that:

"Church regulars should capitalise on this once-a-year influx and simultaneously learn from the invasion; equally, the visitors should make the most of their rare visit to church. Millions of nominal agnostics will have a chance to reconnect fleetingly with a faith from which they have drifted. The evocative lighting, the sturdy New Testament lessons and the familiar harmonies of those carols can work a strange form of alchemy, if that is the word.

If the service is done well — and that is quite a big “if”, for too many of today’s clergy are clunking amateurs when it comes to liturgical theatrics — these new congregants may leave church altered. They may find that for an hour or so they feel less stressed, more secure, not quite so hemmed in by the hassles of 21st-century life. They may even, heavens above, smile at their neighbours and stuff a tenner or more in the collection. For at least a short while, all will seem a great deal better in the world. Church can do that for you."

David Fay, in his piece on carols in The Big Issue, quotes anthropologist Daniel Miller as saying that Christmas "works best as a unifying festival, connecting people with their own traditions of celebration and with past generations. Simultaneously, it connects the domestic family, the region and nation through to an ideal of global humanity, celebrating the same festival at the same time."

Building on this theme, he also quotes Andrew Blyth, a bandmaster and assistant musical director in the Salvation Army, as saying that "The familiar tunes bind people together, young and old."

Angus Farquhar, again in The Big Issue, writes about the power of music in sacred space:

"I went to a service for All Souls after losing my Mum earlier this year; you light a candle, a full choir was singing. I took enormous comfort from that sound of the pure voice focused on ritual intent. The deeper qualities of pure and focused though have an impact, that sense of creating a heightened atmosphere in a building that is either is or was a church, mosque or synagogue. Something has often been imbued into the walls ...

I don't subscribe to the dogma of Christianity or Islam but they got the ritual right. Music in a dedicated ritual space, it's very powerful. There's nothing like it."

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God at the Centre

Here is my article for the Parish Newsletter at St Martin-in-the-Fields this weekend:

One of the unique aspects of my role at both St Martin and St Stephen is the opportunity to celebrate the Eucharist from two artist-designed altars made from travertine marble; Shirazeh Houshiary and Pip Horne’s altar at St Martin and the Henry Moore altar at St Stephen.

The Moore altar, measuring 8ft across and weighing several tons, was at the centre of a controversy and court case as a result of objections and this, eventually, was resolved by going to the highest ecclesiastical court of the land, the Court of Ecclesiastical Cases Reserved where the judges ruled that the Moore altar was acceptable as an altar for the Church of England!

Moore’s altar, made of travertine marble cut from the very quarry which provided the marble for Michelangelo’s work, now stands at the centre of the church under Wren’s dome surrounded by dazzling kneelers by Patrick Heron. These commissions sensitively combine modern and baroque art and architecture contributing to the interplay of circles and squares, light and dark, in the space to create a stunning harmonization of old and new.

Moore’s design was intended for people to gather as a community around the altar where God can be found at the centre. God at the centre of our lives and communities; that is what the Christmas story and the carols we currently singing are all about. At Christmas we celebrate the belief that, in Jesus, God has moved into our neighbourhood, entered our world and come to be with us by becoming one of us. That is why Jesus was called Emmanuel, which means God is with us.

Jesus is the greatest gift that any of us can receive, both at Christmas and any other time in our lives, because by receiving him, we receive God himself.

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Belle & Sebastian - O Little Town Of Bethlehem.

Windows on the world (371)


London, 2015

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Deacon Blue - Your Swaying Arms.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

If Christ is born in you, the whole story will be transformed

At St Stephen Walbrook we have been hosting concerts, parties and services over the Advent and Christmas season for: Arthur J. Gallagher; Central London Samaritans; City of London Magistrates; Columbia Threadneedle; International Animal Rescue; Michael Varah Memorial Fund; Christ's Hospital Old Blues Association; Sir Robert McAlpine; and The Worshipful Company of Gardeners.

Tomorrow at 12.30pm our Organist, Joe Sentance will give an Organ Recital. On Christmas Eve (Thursday 24 December) at 11.30pm we will celebrate Midnight Mass by Candlelight with the Choir of St Stephen Walbrook with Organist, Joe Sentance. The setting will be Schubert in Bb and the Choir will sing 'The shepherd’s farewell' by Berlioz. The service will be followed by mince pies and hot drinks.

Here is the reflection I shared at tonight's Carol Service for Arthur J. Gallagher:

At the beginning of Monty Python’s Life of Brian there is a great scene where the Wise Men overlook Jesus’ birthplace and worship the baby Brian before, realising their mistake, they take back their gifts to give them to the actual baby Jesus. Although an amusing scene setting sketch for the rest of the movie, it is, nevertheless, based on the reality that, surprising as it seems, Jesus has always been overlooked at Christmas.

Think about the Christmas story for a moment; Jesus spent his first night sleeping in an animal’s feeding trough because there was no room for him in the guest room of the home in Bethlehem where his family were staying, the Shepherds needed a fanfare of angels before they knew of his birth, while the Wise Men looked for him in a palace when he was actually to be found in an ordinary home. So it is no surprise that today many people still overlook the person at the heart of Christmas in the busyness of life and Christmas preparations and others overlook him by creating supposedly PC festivals like Winterval.

Jesus has always been overlooked at Christmas and one of the reasons for that is that he came to be one of us, God with us, which is what the name Emmanuel means. Born in an obscure village, working in a carpenter’s shop, never writing a book, never holding an office, never having a family or owning a house, never going to college, never travelling two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He did none of the things we usually associate with greatness. He is God become an ordinary person just like us. And therefore he is easy to overlook.

But just as the Shepherds and Wise Men did seek him out and find him, those who genuinely look for Jesus this Christmas will find him. And if you are prepared to seek him out, I can guarantee that you will find he is the greatest gift that any of us can receive, both at Christmas and any other time in our lives.

As a result, the story of Jesus’ birth that you have listened to today will have real meaning as you take it to heart. The 17th century German mystic, Angelus Silesius, warns us:

Though Christ a thousand times
In Bethlehem be born
If he’s not born in thee,
Thou art still forlorn.

If Christ is not born in you as you listen and sing, this time together will be pleasant but not life changing. But if Christ is born in you then the whole story will be transformed. It will become your story. You will be able to say:

Christ born in a stable
is born in me.
Christ accepted by shepherds
accepts me.
Christ receiving the wise men
receives me.
Christ revealed to the nations
be revealed in me.
Christ dwelling in Nazareth
You dwell in me.

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