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Sunday, 28 October 2018

Windows on the world (418)

Pollença, 2018


Nanci Griffith - I Wish It Would Rain.

Christian service: transaction or gift?

Here's the sermon that I preached at St John's Seven Kings this morning:

Bob Dylan wrote, in ‘It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’, that ‘even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.’ Now, you may well have an understandable aversion to picturing the Donald in the altogether (you might prefer to picture him as Diaper Donald, the blimp that was flown during his visit to the UK), but the point that Dylan makes is that we are all fundamentally the same despite the position, prestige, wealth or power accorded to some.

The Church is, of course, not immune to the temptations of position and prestige. At St Martin-in-the-Fields last week the sermon began with a story about a minor canon in a Cathedral and the position she occupied in the processions that began and ended services. Woe betide her were she to stray from her allotted position. The story came with a wry acknowledgement that, at St Martin’s, we do not always avoid such issues ourselves.

Churches are formed of fallible human beings and so the seeking of and holding onto position and prestige is something that features in every Christian community, while being something which the example and teaching of Jesus’ leads us to try to eschew.

Jesus’ teaching that all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted (Luke 14. 1 - 14) connects with his regular use of the phrase the first shall be last and the last first. He also taught that anyone wishing to be great should be the servant of all and provided a visual example of this in washing the feet of the disciples at the Last Supper. There he said that his disciples were to follow his example of serving others. St Paul notes that Jesus provided the ultimate example of humble service which has no personal benefit, by becoming a human being and, as a human being, becoming obedient to death on a cross.

The connection between all of this teaching about humble service is the call for us to act in ways that are not transactional, but instead are about gift. As human beings, we generally act on the basis of transactions, you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. We generally charge for products and services and when we do volunteer often expect to receive some benefit for our contribution, generally in the form of recognition, kudos or thanks.

At the end of the final parable in today’s Gospel, Jesus says you will be blessed if those you invite to meals or banquets cannot repay you. In other words, if you receive no benefit yourself from your invitation, then it is a genuine gift. Among the benefits he thinks we should aim to eschew is that of recognition and kudos. That is why in the Sermon on the Mount he consistently teaches that our giving, our fasting and our prayers should all be in secret so that God alone sees. If we receive the acclaim of others for our giving or serving, then we have already received our reward. Jesus encourages us, as Christians, to go beyond transactions into acts of service that generate no benefit for us in order that they are simply acts of love and generosity because that is how God relates to us.

This is what is called the Gift economy. Lewis Hyde writing about the gift economy says that ‘a gift that cannot be given away ceases to be a gift’ and ‘the spirit of a gift is kept alive by its constant donation’: ‘a cardinal property of the gift: whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away again, not kept. Or, if it is kept, something of similar value should move on in its stead … You may keep your Christmas present, but it ceases to be a gift in the true sense unless you have given something else away.’

Hyde explains that our ego is bound up with transactional exchanges: ‘In the ego-of-one we speak of self-gratification, and whether it's forced or chosen, a virtue or a vice, the mark of self-gratification is its isolation. Reciprocal giving, the ego-of-two, is a little more social. We think mostly of lovers. Each of these circles is exhilarating as it expands, and the little gifts that pass between lovers touch us because each is stepping into a larger circuit. But again, if the exchange goes on and on to the exclusion of others, it soon goes stale.’

Hyde goes on to say that, when giving is reciprocal: ‘The gift moves in a circle, and two people do not make much of a circle. Two points establish a line, but a circle lies in a plane and needs at least three points.’ It is only ‘When the gift moves in a circle [that] its motion is beyond the control of the personal ego, and so each bearer must be a part of the group and each donation is an act of social faith.’

Hyde suggests ‘we think of the gift as a constantly flowing river’ and allow ourselves ‘to become a channel for its current.’ When we try to ‘dam the river’, ‘thinking what counts is ownership and size,’ ‘one of two things will happen: either it will stagnate or it will fill the person up until he bursts.’

This is why Jesus wants us to give in ways that don’t involve our ego being flattered or satisfied. He is prepared to be the dinner party guest from Hell criticising all the other guests in these stories in order to get across the point that true greatness consists of service offered as part of the gift economy where we gain no reward for our actions other than that of God seeing what we have done in secret.

So, when we want everyone to know how much time we've given to the church or how much money we have raised or how many people we have visited, Jesus says to us that we have already received our reward. When we expect others to do things our way because of our many years of service or because of the role we play, Jesus questions our motivations for wanting those things and playing that role. When we hold onto our roles or our titles because of what these things mean to us, Jesus asks us to lay them down for the sake of our own souls.

Jesus, in these stories, acts a little like one of those full body scanners at the airport used to detect objects on a person's body for security screening purposes, without physically removing clothes or making physical contact. He can see through the masks that we hold up to prevent others seeing our true motivations. Before God, we are seen as we truly are, with all our underlying motivations made clear. As Bob Dylan reminds us, ‘even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.’ His underlying motivations, like those of us all, are fully revealed in the sight of God.

This is why confession is so important as a regular part of our services. We can easily gloss over that part of the service and think to ourselves that we have done nothing that was significantly wrong in the course of the past week. Jesus, however, is calling us to look more deeply at ourselves than we are often willing to do, because he wants us to examine the motivations that underpin the things we do and these are often more selfish or self-centred than we are willing to admit.

Such self-examination, however, is not an act of beating ourselves up and forcing ourselves to find something to confess. Instead, it is a challenge to move beyond our human love of rewards – whether those are to do with money or with approval – and become more godlike in our exchanges by genuinely gifting our contributions in ways which mean we receive no reward.

Jesus says to us, when you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite those who cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.


Carleen Anderson - Leopards In The Temple.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Revelation: fixed and unchanging or dynamic and evolving

Here's my reflection from today's Eucharist at St Martin-in-the-Fields:

The letter to the Ephesians (Ephesians 3. 2 - 12) speaks of a revelation from God which was based on the work of Jesus but the understanding of which developed after Jesus’ ascension. The eternal purpose that was carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord is that we all now have access to God in boldness and confidence and the realisation which followed Christ’s ascension was that this access applied to the Gentiles as well as the Jews and was therefore for all people everywhere.

This revelation began when the apostle Peter was told in a dream to eat food forbidden in Torah and then went into the house of a Gentile and saw the Spirit of God fall on outsiders. Writing about this incident David Runcorn asks where was Peter to go biblically to explain this? What began with this incident went beyond the received revelation as long understood; something very new was going on and we shouldn’t underestimate how disturbing this would have been.

Peter and the leaders of the church in Jerusalem proceeded in vulnerable obedience under the compelling guidance of the Spirit. What they began to realise was that God was creating a community based on radically new belonging and identity in Christ, one that is yet to be fully revealed – neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female. This was the revelation which came to the apostle Paul and on which he based his mission and teaching. It is this revelation that underpins our reading from the letter to the Ephesians.

David Runcorn notes that this means that an unfolding revelation is evident within the scriptures. This is important in today’s Church because many of the issues on which there is division or debate come down to the extent to which the revelation of God’s will for us in Jesus is fixed and unchanging or is dynamic and evolving.

Those who argue that the traditional teaching of the Church cannot be changed because it is based on an unchanging revelation from God have opposed the remarriage of divorcees, the ordination of women priests and bishops and currently oppose the inclusion and marriage of those in same-sex relationships. Those who argue that there is an evolving and developing revelation as God continues to speak and act in contemporary society are driven back to the scriptures to review whether past cultural understandings have obscured aspects of the original texts which can then lead us into new understandings of God’s revelation. In relation, for example, to the ordination of women, this meant that we recovered an awareness that women were among those called by Jesus to be his disciples and women were to be found as leaders within the Early Church. As a result, our understanding of the necessity for women to be ordained changed leading, in time, to the ordination within the Church of England of women as priests and bishops.

If we think about these processes in relation to a practice like that of slavery, we see that this understanding of a developing and unfolding revelation of God is accepted in practice by most, if not all, Christians. Slavery was an established practice throughout ancient cultures, including the Roman Empire in which the Early Church was established and grew. Slavery is mentioned in the New Testament but is not condemned and no call to free slaves and eradicate slavery is to be found therein. Slavery continued essentially unquestioned until the 18th century when the campaign for its abolition began. The Church was one of many institutions in society that was involved in the Slave Trade and which resisted the Abolition Movement. However, the Abolitionist’s re-examination of scripture focused attention on the freeing of slaves in The Exodus and St Paul’s support of the slave Onesimus as indicating an understanding of God’s acceptance of all that militated against the maintenance of slavery. This understanding of scripture has become widely accepted in the Church, despite being the reverse of earlier, and therefore traditional, teachings.

This process of change began with the revelation spoken about in today’s Epistle that all have access to God in boldness and confidence and the realisation that this access applies to Gentiles as well as Jews. This revelation is, in essence, one of inclusion that, as Paul states there is no distinction - not Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female – that prevents human beings from having access to God in boldness and confidence. Our Epistle is, therefore, about both the unfolding revelation of God’s will and purpose in our own day and time and the inclusive nature of God’s embrace of humanity through Jesus Christ. Those who seek inclusion in the face of traditional Church teaching are true to those revelations and, therefore, true to scripture.


Peter Case - Words In Red.

Monday, 22 October 2018

A Year Outdoors

The church of the ever open door (St Martin-in-the-Fields) has received 10 painted doors as part of A Year Outdoors, an initiative by conceptual artist Beau to raise awareness of the increase in the numbers of street homeless throughout the UK.

To Beau, a front door symbolises having a place to live – something which many people across the UK do not have access to. “Everyone should have a door and if not we need to look at our own to imagine being without it," he explains. These doors speak of the critical situation of poverty and homelessness found in the UK’s cities today where cuts to housing, mental health and social services are driving more and more people into critical situations. “There are almost twice as many people without a home than there was this time five years ago. This is happening right around us, yet we walk on past. I hope Outdoors will act as a catalyst for conversation. Across the UK, we’re experiencing many of the same problems, in different cities. Hopefully things like Outdoors will help bridge the growing gap between us all.”

The reclaimed front doors were originally exposed to a year on the streets by being hung across the streets of Bristol during 2017. Hung in plain sight on the city streets they were, in the main, ignored by passers-by, although street-art culture did adopt some of the sites integrating them into graffiti artworks. The lack of attention originally paid to these doors is symbolic of the hidden homeless community who are often out of sight – sofa surfing, crashing with friends, staying in squats or communal homes, hostels and long-term B&B residences, all forms of homelessness often experienced for years.

Now, attention from well-known artists from across the globe (such as Ralph Steadman, China Mike, Will Barras, Alex Lucas and Jane McCall) has helped breathe new life into the doors. The doors are being exhibited around the country before being auctioned off in December 2019, with The Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields one of the homeless charities that will benefit from the project.

The Connection at St Martin’s works with approximately 4,000 homeless people every year to move away from, and stay off the streets of London. Central London attracts thousands of vulnerable people, who wish to start their lives over or believe there are more opportunities available to them here. If these do not materialise, people can find themselves at risk of homelessness. The Connection at St Martin’s works with people to overcome their homelessness through a range of specialist day and night services which empower people living on the edges of society to take control of their lives and achieve recovery.

Organisations like The Connection at St Martin’s can open doors to accommodation and work for those who usually have to bed down outside closed front doors, The literal and symbolic resonances of doors mean that this installation is a conversation starter about the real issues facing rough sleepers and the significance of the rise in numbers of street homeless. Catalyzing these conversations is the concept underlying Beau’s installation.

Outdoors is in the Courtyard at St Martin-in-the-Fields until 31 October.


Michael McDermott - Shadow In The Window.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Sabbatical Art Pilgrimage: Latest ArtWay report

My latest Church of the Month report for ArtWay focuses on Eton College Chapel:

'A bomb that fell on Upper School in 1940 shattered all the Chapel glass except that in the window above the organ. The east window, which was created by Evie Hone and installed in 1952 as a replacement, is considered by many to be one of the masterpieces of modern stained-glass art. The designs for the windows flanking it, four on each side, are by John Piper and were executed in glass by Patrick Reyntiens from 1959 onwards. The subjects are divided into four miracles on the north side and four parables on the south, each built around a general theme of success and failure.'

This Church of the Month report follows on from others about Aylesford Priory, Canterbury Cathedral, Chapel of St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, Hem, Chelmsford Cathedral, Coventry Cathedral, Église de Saint-Paul à Grange-Canal, Lumen, Notre Dame du Léman, Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce, Plateau d’Assy,Romont, Sint Martinuskerk Latem, St Aidan of Lindisfarne, St Alban Romford, St. Andrew Bobola Polish RC Church, St. Margaret’s Church, Ditchling, and Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, St Mary the Virgin, Downe, and St Paul Goodmayes, as well as earlier reports of visits to sites associated with Marian Bohusz-Szyszko, Marc Chagall, Jean Cocteau, Antoni Gaudi and Henri Matisse.


Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - God Is In The House.

Prisons Mission Prayer Vigil

Churches Together in Westminster's Prisons Mission Prayer Vigil took place at Notre Dame de France on Friday evening and included a sequence of readings, dialogue, testimonies, reflections, music and prayer on the themes of prison reform, rehabilitation of prisoners, needs of victims and the Christian response.

Fr Pascal Boldin welcomed us to Notre Dame de France. John Plummer introduced speakers who described experiences and observations of prisons and the prison system from several very different perspectives:

  • Paula Harriott. Lead Prisoner Involvement. Prison Reform Trust
  • Erica. Ex-offender and Award winning artist
  • Ruth Fogg. Specialist in youth crime and related matters.
  • Marcel McCarron. Managing Chaplain HMP & YOI Bronzefield.
  • Joanna Ex-Offender. St Giles Trust
  • Josie Bevan. Wife of a serving prisoner.
  • Gethin Jones. Care system to youth crime, custody and reformer.

Shirley Vaughan sang pieces by Handel and Fauré, both of whom wrote on themes of imprisonment. This performance was followed by ‘Voices from Prison’, a drama for three voices written and compiled by Richard Carter, Associate Vicar at St Martin-in-the-Fields, based on: ‘Koestler Voices: New Poetry from Prisons Volume One’. This book presents some of the best poetry from the 2016 and 2017 Koestler Awards. Poetry and prose has a long tradition in secure establishments and the criminal justice system. With the only materials needed being a pen and paper, poetry is the most popular type of Awards submission to Koestler Awards – with around 3,000 poems each submitted annually across Poem, Anthology, Poetry Collection and our Themed Category. One prisoners who writes explains the impulse like this: ‘Jail is like purgatory. You are still around, but you have no impact. No effect. The point of your existence is void. You slowly begin to die … In his introduction to ‘The Illustrated Man’, Ray Bradbury says that he writes “so as not to be dead.” And that is it.’

The Prison's Mission Team at Notre Dame de France led by Sister Catherine Jones guided us in our first prayer session based on Desmond Tutu's prayer: 

Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death;
Victory is ours through Him who loves us.
I led the next prayer session based on prisoners & homelessness. Between April 2017 and March 2018, 38% of people (approx 491) seen rough sleeping in Westminster are known to had had experience of prison. 3% (14 people) of those new rough sleepers seen by outreach teams in Westminster were people who had been in prison prior to their rough sleeping. The majority (approx 79%) of these would have had alcohol, drugs or mental health support needs or a combination of these.

We prayed about the issues depicted in ‘Coming out after Fourteen Years’ by P and E (Manager): 'E and I created this piece by using cuttings from today’s newspapers about the complexities of society, which you are shielded from in prison. After 14 years I was that figure walking out into an overwhelming society, full of problems.'

P and E are both at KPH House, a hostel for 20 men convicted of criminal offences who have recently left prison. Their residents come to them from prison under license to continue their sentence within the community. It is one of 12 Independent Approved Premises in the country and is funded by the Ministry of Justice. We prayed for the ministry of KPH House and West London Mission.

The next time of Prayer was led by Major Richard Mingay, Corps Officer Regent Hall Corps. This session focused on Supporting Victims and was divided into four parts-

  • 'The God of our Support'
  • 'The God of Healing'
  • 'The God of Forgiveness'
  • 'The God of Hope'

Each section included a Scripture verse; a thought; prayer time and the song verse 'O Lord Hear my Prayer'.

Finally Prisons Mission volunteers presented their personal stories from prison visits and read contributions from other volunteers. Suggested areas for prayer included: those wrongly imprisoned; those who are depressed or lonely; those held beyond the end of their sentence; those experiencing ill health; and those fearing deportation.


Gabriel Fauré - Prison.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Windows on the world (417)

Kelveden Hatch, 2018


Steve Bell & Malcolm Guite - Descent.

Inspired to Follow: Art and the Bible Story - Advent Courses

‘Inspired to Follow: Art and the Bible Story’ is a free resource produced by St Martin-in-the-Fields in partnership with the National Gallery. The course uses fine art paintings in the National Gallery’s collection, along with a Biblical text and a short theological reflection.

St Martin's will shortly publish two Advent Courses in the ‘Inspired to Follow: Art and the Bible Study’ series. One will explore the Four Last Things – death, judgement, heaven and hell, while the other focuses on Advent Characters – Elizabeth and Mary, Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth, and Herod. Like earlier Inspired to Follow sessions, these use fine art paintings from the National Gallery, along with Biblical story, theological reflection and conversation with others, as a way to explore big questions that we all wrestle with. ‘Inspired to Follow: Art and the Bible Story’ has been produced by St Martin-in-the-Fields in partnership with the National Gallery. To find out more see

The first of these ‘Inspired to Follow’ Advent Courses - the Four Last Things: death, judgement, heaven and hell - will also be used at St Martin's, 12.00-1.00pm on Sundays, Austen Williams Room, 4 & 18 November, 2 & 16 December.

As part of our Advent preparations, this new programme of hour-long gatherings over four Sundays explores the Four Last Things using the following passages and paintings:
  • 4 November Death - Mark 15:33-45 / ‘The Lamentation over the Dead Christ’ Rembrandt
  • 18 November Judgement - Revelation 12:7-17 / ‘Saint Michael’ Carlo Crivelli
  • 2 December Heaven - Revelation 21:1-5, 9-11, 22-27, 22:1-5 / ‘Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven; central predella panel’ probably by Fra Angelico
  • 16 December Hell - Luke 16:19-30 / ‘The Rich Man being led to Hell’ David Teniers the Younger


Bruce Cockburn - Closer To The Light.

Friday, 19 October 2018

Jameel Prize 5: beauty, spirituality, complexity, humour, and humanity

My latest exhibition review for Church Times is on the Jameel Prize 5 exhibition at the V&AThe Jameel Prize is an international award for contemporary art and design inspired by Islamic tradition. Its aim is to explore the relationship between Islamic traditions of art, craft and design and contemporary work as part of a wider debate about Islamic culture and its role today.

In the exhibition review I say:

'this exhibition provides an excellent opportunity to explore contrasts and differences between art inspired by the Islamic tradition and that inspired by the Christian tradition.

Calligraphy, geometry, and pattern traditionally feature significantly in Islamic art. The latter two feature here but, as the judges note, this year’s outstanding shortlist displays real diversity, including beauty, spirituality, complexity, humour, and humanity. Within this diversity, we find much that resonates with expressions of spirituality within the Christian tradition — in particular, use of light and journeys.'


Rumi - Twenty Poems.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Journey at All Hallows by the Tower

"JOURNEY" - 16-27 October, 10am-5pm daily

All Hallows by the Tower is hosting the contemporary art exhibition ‘Journey’, which comprises a mix of abstract and representational work in a variety of media by 23 artists.

The imagery ranges from the journey of life to geographical journeys, the journey of plastics in the oceans and the Stations of the Cross, among others.

The exhibition is organised by commission4mission, a group which encourages churches to commission contemporary art.

Open daily 10-5 (except during services); admission free.

The above photographs are by David Millidge.


Monday, 15 October 2018

Private View of 'Journey' at All Hallows by the Tower

‘Journey’ is commission4mission's latest group show which opened tonight at All Hallows by the Tower with a Private View. Former Bishop of Barking David Hawkins celebrated 10 years since the initial conversation between Henry Shelton and himself from which sparked into life the idea of commission4mission. He suggested that the development of commission4mission indicates that the good, the true and the beautiful are profoundly attractive characteristics of both God and the arts.

The exhibition runs from Tuesday 16 to Saturday 27 October and can be viewed during the church’s normal opening hours – Mon – Fri 10.00am – 6.00pm, Sat – Sun 10.00am – 5.00pm (except during services).

The title and theme for the exhibition can be understood in terms of journeys that are emotional, pilgrimage, personal, biblical etc. We encouraged our artists to reflect broadly on the theme and 23 artists have responded with imagery that ranges from birth and death (the journey of life) to geographical journeys (including street scenes), plastic pollution (blown or washed around the globe), and Stations of the Cross, among others. A mix of abstract and representational imagery has been created, utilising ceramics, collage, digital illustration, drawing, painting, photography and sculpture.

‘6 years and 26 miles’ by Hayley Bowen depicts the pilgrimage of 15 year old Mary Jones, a girl from a poor Welsh family, who in the year 1800 walked 26 miles barefoot to the town of Bala (and back again) across rough countryside to buy a copy of the Welsh language Bible from The Rev.Thomas Charles after saving up for one for six years. The story inspired the founding of the British and Foreign Bible Society.

David Hawkins and Dorothy Morris both make use of household plastics in their work. David writes: “2018 has seen carrier bags become the latest culprits of pollution. Yet, backlit by the sun they become angels, and remind us to look for ‘heaven in ordinary’. The Celts celebrated the sacred in everyday life. Even our plastic bags ‘caught in a thicket’ can pose as messengers on Jacob’s ladder, in Mary’s parlour or over the shepherds’ fields. As Donald Allchin used to say, ‘the mundane is the edge of glory’.”

Dorothy Morris says of her work: “These little paintings tell the story of the journey of our household plastics ending up polluting our seas. I live in an idyllic place by an estuary and one day I went for a 20 minute walk and collected 3 bin bags of rubbish! From this walk I have created 30 6×6 canvas images altogether, which I combine in sets of 4 images.”

During the period of the exhibition commission4mission have also organised City Art in Faith: A Guided Walk of selected churches in the City of London, 2-4pm, October 25th 2018. Meet at the entrance of All Hallows-by-the-Tower, Tower Hill. Guided by Mark Lewis, artist and lecturer. No charge but donations appreciated. This walk will include seven churches and Mark will give a brief historical context for each of the churches visited and discuss the contemporary works of art to be found there and the artists who produced them. Walkers will also see examples of contemporary commissioned street sculpture while walking between venues. Churches to be visited: All Hallows-by-the-Tower – St Edmund King and Martyr – St Mary Woolnoth – St Stephen Walbrook – St Lawrence Jewry – St Mary-le-Bow – St Nicholas Cole Abbey. All churches feature in the City of London “Art of Faith” walk.

commission4mission's AGM will be held at 2.00pm at All Hallows by the Tower on Sunday 28 October. At the AGM Mark Lewis will provide information about next year’s commission4mission Art Retreat with the Othona Community in Bradwell-on-Sea (7 – 10 May 2019).


The Proclaimers - I'm Gonna be (500 Miles).