“As mysterious as love” – Fr Robert Teare: Sermons at the Sodality Retreat 2018

At our retreat this year at Aylesford Priory we were privileged to have Canon Robert Teare as our chaplain. Fr Robert was available for conversation, confessions and he preached at Mass each day.

Here is the text of Fr Robert’s sermons:




Monday. St Matthias


It seems totally appropriate that you should begin your retreat under the patronage of arguably the most anonymous of the apostles. With the possible exception of Jude, whose name even is in dispute, Matthias is only known because he took the place of Judas, before that and after that not a whisper.

In saying that it is an appropriate day, I am not making an allusion to John Betjeman’s poem – ‘Blame the Vicar’ after the verse in Acts ‘the lot fell upon Matthias’ but because our calling as priests is essentially anonymous. However wide our own vision, however great our experience of life or of witness elsewhere, however deep our reading, what exactly we do, let alone achieve in our parishes or colleges or hospitals, or schools is known only to God. and perhaps our greatest reward is to feel a little less inadequate than usual.

Except that to probably far more people certainly that we can manage or even know, we will be that wonderful old-fashioned person – the parson, the holy person, the holy presence. The one who rings the bell because they are about their prayers, the one to go to in crisis, the one for whom we can scribble a little note on the newspaper that the corner shop keeps for them.


That might be what it says on the tin – this is the job of the parson, the priest. But it doesn’t quite fit the reality. Years ago, a Church College had had a chaplain who was a total disaster – whatever his vocation it was not to be a College Chaplain, and the college was determined that when he left the same mistake should not be made again. So instead of their being just three people on the interviewing panel there would be ten, but seven of them, mainly students, would show the candidates around and chat informally. The panel, the Bishop, the Principal and the Vice-principal, alone would see the papers. The panel knew immediately who they would appoint and he [it was in the bad old days] interviewed immaculately. They were surprised when they found that the seven were also unanimous but for someone else and they were equally sure that the panel’s suggestion would be disastrous. To give them their due, the panel offered the post to the students’ choice.

But the Bishop remained unconvinced and half way through the first term he asked that the Chaplain be an item on the Governors’ agenda. How is he doing? He asked the Principal, fine, I like him, he said. ‘Well get some solid evidence’ said the Bishop. The following day the Principal had one of the meetings he hated most. It was the termly meeting of the non-academic staff, the catering officer, the house-keeper, the matron, the head gardener, the Bursar, the head porter, the manager of the students’ union and old Uncle Tom Cobbley and all. He was more than surprised that all of the people present knew the Chaplain – he felt sure that that had never happened before – but the things they said were friendly and very positive, but nebulous. Then finally the Bar Manager spoke up: his takings had improved considerably. There was laughter, but the Manager went on, he certainly comes to the bar a couple of times a week, and he has a drink, but the reason the takings have gone up is that the little first-year girls feel safe enough to come in and have a cup of tea. He affirms the Community.

And that is what we are about, affirming the Community in which we are privileged to work. The joy that we have in Christ should be contagious. We may be anonymous where we work, but with our partners, with our friends, with Matthias, with Mary with Christ himself, we are both known and deeply loved. But quite what we have done and are doing, God alone knows.


Tuesday. Requiem


I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three ways of responding to the Mass of the Chrism. First, we can be so focussed on ourselves and our vows and on meeting our Saviour in Word and Sacrament that we barely notice anyone else around us. Or secondly, we can look around us and understand for the first time the meaning of the phrase, the see gives up its dead. Or thirdly, we look around with total awe and wonder that this bizarre collection of people, of very age and shape and seeming disposition have all heard the call of Christ and responded.

It is part of our ambivalence, our confusion about our fellow clergy. I was most shocked and others have said the same to me, that whereas when I was an ordinand they were universally kind and helpful and reached out to me, as soon as I was ordained it all seemed to change. As though here was a whipper snapper who would show them up by knowing the Definition of Chalcedon – and before you ask, don’t it was way after I left College, or who had read the last book by the latest bright-eyed child of a theologian and who thought that they, my elders and betters, were not only dinosaurs but ought to be extinct. I well remember my first chapter meeting in Winchester when ‘clergy expenses’ was an item on the agenda. When we reached that point, an old Canon said ‘gentlemen don’t ask for expenses.’ There was a murmur of agreement and we moved on. Apart from me and one other young priest, the ‘gentlemen’s’ lives were cushioned by naval pensions that were three times the stipend.

It seems that only in death can we truly value and appreciate them, those who have bought us to Christ, those who have nourished us, those who have given us magnificent examples. Of course, the example might not be one that we follow, on the contrary. I had a neighbour in Bournemouth who was a Conservative Evangelical whose faith was simple, if you were enjoying it, it was sinful. So, the chairs in his house were especially uncomfortable and his wife ruined the food – I could not even admire his garden – which was not difficult, naturally – but I learnt to weep for him and for all those who don’t find the world a truly wondrous place filled with beautiful people. And he did remind me something about confession, if he felt that he had offended me during the week, he rang me on a Saturday evening at 10.30 pm to apologise.

Or the old priest who turned up at one of my churches in Winchester. It took me a week of two to find him, he wore lay clothes and was quite self-effacing. And about the time that his name was fixed in my mind, the Bishop rang to say that he had heard ‘we had got him’ and that I should be warned and then he told me sub Rosa, an enormous lists of sins that the wretched man was alleged to have committed and I could assure him that I had seen no evidence of anything like that and no he hadn’t taken any services nor asked to do so, and he had hadn’t asked for money from me or from the treasurer, and as far as I knew he hadn’t contracted any relationships that caused me concern and so on and so on. Perhaps the old man had retired from sinning. Then one day I had a phone call from his house-keeper, could I come around immediately. I went. He wanted to make his confession. It was extraordinary. The Bishop didn’t know the thousandth of it. I blushed for the Bishop is his innocence and rejoiced for him in his ignorance. I pronounced the absolution. We said the penance together. I anointed him. He said ‘Amen’. And by the time I got home, there was a message to say that he was dead. Of course, he taught me about the dangers of leaving things to the last minute, but more important he taught me that in the end nothing can come between us and the love of God made manifest in Christ Jesus our Saviour. And even in this battered old man there was still the image of God, there was still someone whom Jesus had chosen and called, still someone who had heard that call and responded.

I could go on, but the message seems to be that as pray for the repose of the souls of priests who have died that their goodness, the wonder of their calling strengthens and inspires us even more than it did when they were alive. It underlines the Resurrection for us, but it gives us hope that the work that we are doing now will continue after our deaths as we live on in those whom we have influenced and whom we will still be able to hold in our prayers as they will hold us.

Rest eternal grant unto them and let light perpetual shine upon them.

Wednesday. St Simon Stock


When the priest who baptised me died, the Bishop’s one and only line about him in the Diocesan paper said that he was the best judge of long-backed sheep in the County. That was all. He’d lived in the parish all his life, being born and brought up in the Rectory and at ordination he became his father’s curate until the old man died and then he took over and stayed there until he died. He had no stipend, he farmed the glebe, which was the largest single farm in the parish. And when he died, the Church Commissioners took over the glebe and the village lost its parson. It’s now one of 12 parishes in a group, their Rector lives four and a half miles in one direction and their team vicar lives 14 and a half miles in another.

We all know the reason why, there just are neither the people nor the money to have one priest for every perhaps two hundred and fifty people. But what has been lost is more than that. Parson Wrenford lived among his people, he shared all their hopes and joys, their disappointments and their anxieties. He was truly a compassionate pastor, he knew exactly how and where his people were. He too prayed fervently in Rogationtide and watched his crops grow with natural farmer’s anxiety. The parable of the sower could have been written by him. He too rejoiced at Harvest home and since the whole village had had to get into the fields to help with the harvest he too would have known that state of their harvest as they knew the state of his. To say that he was the best judge of long-backed sheep in the county was no idle compliment, it the supreme accolade of one who was totally involved in his community. He was close to everyone and everything, blessing that which was good and challenging what was not.

And it is so easy not to be involved: Diocesan committees, synods, trips Overseas to see the Church in action, all so tempting – so good for us, they widen our horizons, they take us away from petty parochialism. And if we want further excuse to escape there is always Facebook and twitter and all those other distractions of modern technology. But we can only be compassionate if we are with our people connected with them, in touch with them weeping, as they weep, dancing as they dance, and knowing why they are weeping or dancing.

Parson Wrenford knew exactly where all his flock were at any time of day, and they knew where he was, without mobile phones or I-pads or, for most of them, land-lines, but we, when we live in an Urban environment, soon find out where and how we can bump into our charges. The food hall in Marks and Spencer on a Monday morning, the market on Wednesdays and Saturdays and the school gate if you have the excuse of collecting children at the end of the school day – I found my relationship with my parish subtly changed when I no longer had children to collect from Primary school. I had to change my behaviour. They were all places where people could bump into you and then have the freedom to leave, places to talk about baptism or to tell me that Gran was still missing Grandad, could I call. It wasn’t as confrontational as a house call, when they would have to invite me in.

And should you ask what as this to do with St Simon Stock? I would want to hope that it had nothing and everything. Nothing in the sense that it was another time and another place. Everything in the sense that there is the same passion, passion for God, passion for neighbour. The Basque Philosopher Xavier Zibiri summed it up when he said, we don’t do mission, we are mission. In our very being we are told to be Christ-like that is our passion and that is the only certain way that those in our care will know about Jesus. We preach the Gospel, not with words, but by the way that we live. Indeed, that may be the only way that most of those whom we meet with will ever know Jesus as their Lord and Saviour. As another Carmelite, Theresa of Avila, put it:

‘Christ has no hands but our hands,                                                                     no feet but our feet,                                                                                               no voice but our voice.’

And he has chosen us to go out and bear fruit, fruit that will last. Alleluia. Amen.

Thursday Christ our Great High Priest.


I had an email last week from Janet, a neighbour, who told me that her two sons, born and brought up in the Church had now lapsed from it. They were scientists, would I suggest a book that would bring them back to Christ? The short answer was no. I had never met the men, both, I think, now in their forties. I had no idea whether they read books or not and no idea at what stage their theological education and understanding ceased. I emailed back to suggest a couple of novels and to underline that stark truth that they, the boys, even now, will get the surest picture of Jesus from the love and steadfast witness of their parents. The problem is that the demeanour of their parents, the wife especially, is of unparalleled gloom. Had Janet lived in Dickensian times, she would never have got a job as an undertaker’s mute, because no-one would be able to cope with a funeral that was that dismal and hopeless.

I suppose that it would be charitable to imagine that she is self-preoccupied with the wickedness of her sins and the pain that is all around her in the world, but neither of these things seem likely it is just that she really does see the worst in everything and everyone. Good Friday is the day where it all ends and I can just hear her saying ‘I told you so.’ Except that.

St Bernard of Clairvaux said: Sorrow for sin is indeed necessary but it should not involve endless self-preoccupation, you should dwell also on the glad remembrance of the loving kindness of God. and it is amazing how dwelling on the glad remembrance of the loving kindness of God changes everything. And we find this glad remembrance of the loving kindness of God most powerfully in every Eucharist. I have always tried to have the next Eucharist in my mind before I leave Church after the preceding one, so that my thanksgiving for the first is my preparation for the next. But also, I know full well that in every Eucharist I will always meet Christ in his Word and in the Bread and the Wine. And if I don’t it is my fault, for he is there.

I am sure that all of us have favourite passages from the Bible that we return to again and again, that are written not necessarily totally accurately in our minds, but definitely in our hearts, but what is so powerful is the way that the Spirit opens the Scriptures for us in ways and at times that we could never expect. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews tell us that:

‘the word of God is something alive and active: it cuts more incisively than any two-edged sword: it can seek out the place where soul is divided from spirit, or joints from marrow; it can pass judgement on secret emotions and thoughts. No created thing is hidden from him; everything is stretched and held fully open to the eyes of the one to whom we must give account of ourselves.’ [Hebrews iv:12-13]

And we know that is true when suddenly we are ambushed and I think that that is the only word to describe it, when we are ambushed by a word from the readings, as we stand to preach and realise that what we have prepared is rubbish, or when a verse from the psalms stops us in our tracks and makes Mattins fifteen minutes longer than usual.

And the bread and the wine: as human beings we find it very difficult to leave things simple, we want to dress things up, either literally or with fine words and great titles. We only have to think of the likes of His Royal Highness Charles, Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall, Duke of Rothesay and so on seemingly ad infinitum and the fact that he has to have two flunkeys to dress him and the reality is that it still doesn’t make any difference he is still an aging 69-year-old beholden to Mummy. And whatever we say about the Bread and the wine, they are still bread and wine, symbols of the staples of life, except that they are given us by Jesus himself and we believe that he is present in them when we do this in memory of him. It is as mysterious as love, it is as mysterious as love because it is love and those of us who are blessed enough to share love with another, know that we cannot define what we have. We can look back at important points in our relationships, at especially precious moments, but the whole is a mystery that cannot be analysed or defined or even made comprehensible to any other then us, us two.

So too with the Eucharist. The two things that I miss most in my retirement are first, no longer having a Church, I hadn’t realised how often I popped into mine every day, first thing to open it and say my prayers and last thing for Evensong and to lock it and then at various random times each day to say hello. And then secondly, I miss the House Masses, where we used to communicate each other round the circle and I could arrange that the most vulnerable member present had to communicate me, to remind me that they, as well as Jesus, were feeding me.

And it is these encounters in love with God and my neighbour that bring me joy, joy to take out into the world, joy that is Christ in me Christ flowing through me like the life-giving sap of the vine. Joy in knowing Christ’s love. Joy in knowing Christ has chosen me, as he has chosen you. Joy that conquers the world.


Superior’s Address 2018

The Superior’s Address to General Council

The Sodality meets for our General Council at the end of our retreat each year.

This year the Superior’s Address was given by Assistant Superior Mother Imogen Black:

Assistant Superior’s Report

Aylesford Priory, 17th May 2018

As I read Fr Richard’s report from last year my heart sank – there is no way that I can match his bubbling enthusiasm, and I’m not going to try.

So what is there to say? Well, we continue to grow. We have made inroads into the Seminaries, and have a number of Aspirants to be ordained this Petertide. Do please pray for them, and attend ordinations and first Masses if you can – some of them have already advertised their ordination details on our Facebook page, but we will endeavour to produce, as last year, a Sodality Ember card providing a complete list. Such growth is very promising, but we can’t rest on our laurels – the turnover at Seminary is very quick, so each year we will need to develop new contacts.

We’ve also had noticeable growth in the Church in Wales; they’re less well-known to many of us, having been, for the most part, admitted in Wales, but we look forward to seeing them at our major events in the year ahead. There have even been some admittances in Australia, with interest in the States as well. We have yet to work out quite what these will mean in practice – it is all very well to call ourselves dispersed, but as there is little likelihood of Australian Sodalists attending Sodality events in Britain, and vice versa, there needs to be some thought as to how we can remain one community with one charism, rather than simply going our separate ways. As I speak, Fr Michael Bowie is in Australia, hence his absence from this gathering; and it was his intention to make contact with our brethren while he was out there.

We continue to grow, also, in more than simply numbers. We have given away so many Manuals that we have none left, so the Council have decided to produce a second edition, correcting a few mistakes, and rewriting those paragraphs which no longer apply – chiefly our Admissions rite, which has gone through several versions, as we have acquired first badges then scapulars. In case you are worried, the changes are not vast – and it is, in fact, the new edition which is already being published daily on Facebook. Mentioning Facebook, the daily publication of sections of the Manual and the Prayer List has been an excellent development, and thanks are due to all those who have made this possible.

There is still, however, much more to do. The question of lay involvement in the Sodality has been around since the beginning, and is not yet satisfactorily answered. You will have seen Fr Richard’s suggestion a while back; and Fr John-Francis has another idea to bring to the table today. It is a matter which requires some serious thought; and there are quite a range of possibilities. I would encourage you, particularly if lay people have spoken to you about wishing to be involved, to speak to them about exactly what they are looking for: it’s easier to work with real people and their real desires (which is what, of course, we were when we first met) than with theoretical possibilities.

There is also, in all this, quite a serious question of charism. We have established ourselves, from the outset, as a community of priests, and though our focus is holiness, we see that through a priestly lens. What would a group of lay people, who have no sense of calling to ordination, have made of our talks this week? Would they have enjoyed them as much as we, or would they have felt that it was all very interesting, but a bit tangential to their own lives?

Speaking of charism, it is probably fair to say that our self-understanding as a community and our aspirations are not yet totally fixed. We are still discovering who we are, which is no bad thing. But as we develop, we do need to keep returning to our Manual as it stands, reminding ourselves why we came into existence, and what is truly important to us. This matters, because there are already those who seek to draw us away from our stated aims. I am not, I hasten to say, speaking of any Sodalist – but only a week before I came here I was contacted by someone out of the blue, who wanted me to speak on behalf of the Sodality on an issue. That may sound fine, in fact it might sound just the sort of publicity we want, until I tell you that the person was trying to draw us into a parochial conflict, to get us onto a particular side. We don’t play politics – there are other places people can go if they want to do that. We are in the business of holiness, not of taking sides.

It remains just for me to say thank you: to our speaker, Mthr Marjorie, for her excellent talks – a great resource for us as we continue our pastoral ministry. To Fr Robert, for his thoughtful homilies and wise presence. To Fr Richard, who has given us the vision to be what we are. And to you all, without whom our Sodality would not exist. Unus Christianus, nullus Christianus.

O Jesus, living in Mary,

come and live in thy servants,

in the spirit of thy holiness,

in the fullness of thy might,

in the truth of thy virtues,

in the perfection of thy ways,

in the communion of thy mysteries.

Subdue every hostile power in thy Spirit,

for the glory of the Father.


Mthr Imogen Black SMMS

Assistant Superior

“The Church needs holy priests because we need priests who can radiate joy” Retreat Talks 2018

We were privileged to have Preb. Marjorie Brown, Vicar of St Mary’s, Primrose Hill as our retreat giver this year. Here is the text of her talks – noting that the spoken talks were partially ad-libbed:

What drew us into ordained ministry and how do we keep going? Self care, stability zones, Sabbath

When Fr Richard did me the great honour of inviting me to address you on this retreat, I demurred at first because I am not a typical Sodality priest. I’ll nail my colours to the mast immediately and confess that I serve the parish of St Mary the Virgin, Primrose Hill, where the principles of good English religion as taught by my distinguished predecessor Percy Dearmer still guide our corporate worship. I may fumble my lines and gestures a bit as I join your worship this week. But I am enormously delighted to among you, with many here who have been my friends for years. And I applaud the seriousness with which you take your priestly obligations. The growth and success of this Sodality demonstrate the need for such a fellowship in the life of our Church.</p>

I believe the reason I have been asked to speak to you is a simple one. I am a survivor. It seems only yesterday that I was ordained, but in fact it was 23 years ago, and I have been doing parish ministry throughout that time. Some of you will have been ordained much longer and I am not claiming any seniority of experience or wisdom as a parish priest. All I can say is that I remember the joy with which I woke up nearly every morning of my curacy, and I still get out of bed most days with gratitude for the calling I have been given. Parish ministry makes me happy.</p>

Perhaps I have just been lucky. I have certainly been blessed in the contexts where I have served. I was an Edmonton Area ordinand in a time when being female was an automatic exit visa. Bishop Richard Chartres, then the Area Bishop of Stepney, offered me the best title post in London, in the Poplar Team Ministry with team rector Alan Wynne, a team vicar and a parish assistant. Every day for four years our team laughed and prayed, worked and played, and modelled for me the joy of the kingdom.</p>

Then I moved from the rapidly changing East End to another extraordinary community, when Bishop John Sentamu asked me to go to the parish of St Thomas, Clapton Common in Stamford Hill. For the next ten years I served a faithful Afro-Caribbean congregation set amongst the largest Haredi Jewish community in Europe. We were the third religion in terms of size, because the parish also had a strong community of Muslims from the Indian subcontinent, several of whom became real friends. During those years I was also involved in leading POT, helping to introduce Common Worship, and later serving as Dean of Women’s Ministry. I also did an MA in systematic theology and took a sabbatical break to walk the Camino of Santiago de Compostela with my daughter.</p>

The time came to move, and an ad in the Church Times for the parish in Primrose Hill became an annunciation for me. With complete trust that this was where I was called to be, I applied and was appointed to the role. Those who know Primrose Hill mostly through Hello! magazine have no idea of the diversity of this parish. A quarter of its young people and a fifth of the elderly live in poverty. We host a winter night shelter and a community youthwork programme that mentors young people who are at considerable risk of involvement in the deadly gangs of Camden. Recently we opened a craft brewery in our crypt, the profits of which support our youthwork. But of course we also have a wonderful tradition of music, liturgy and preaching to maintain, and a well-educated and diverse congregation to keep the clergy on their toes. I have the privilege of working with outstanding colleagues, and of serving as the Area Director of Ordinands, meeting the next generation of clergy at the earliest stages of discernment and formation.

I’m giving you this potted CV because I want you to know some of the influences that have shaped me. Of course I have left out the most important one of all, which is my family life. I’ve been married for 40 years and I have three children in their 30s, so I was a wife and mother long before I was a priest. I believe deeply that God called me to this state of life, and I have tried to give those commitments the priority they deserve, even in the midst of the conflicting demands of parish ministry. I can claim only very mixed success in this, and even that would be subject to the judgment of those nearest and dearest to me. My memories of parenting teenagers with the ups and downs that are part of adolescence at the same time as I was trying to learn how to be the incumbent of a parish are by no means entirely happy or to my credit. But those experiences have deeply shaped my ministry. And they probably help to explain my discomfort with the priestly titles of Mother and Father, which I am happy to expand on if anyone wants me to.

And going back even further, I have been shaped by my upbringing in the American Midwest by devout Presbyterian parents. My imagination was formed by obsessive reading from as far back as I can remember. The stories of Winnie the Pooh, Dr Doolittle, Narnia, Charles Dickens, the Brontes and Jane Austen gave me a longing throughout my growing-up years to come to England. I could say with my hand on my heart that the conviction that I was meant to live here was as strong as the sense of calling I had to Primrose Hill. God often leaves me guessing, but not in those two cases. So I had a very significant year at Durham University as an exchange student, which led ultimately to my marriage to a Yorkshireman and an adult life spent entirely in London.

My Midwestern upbringing was something I wanted to escape for many years, but recently I’ve come to appreciate what a gift and an essential part of me it is. That really came about through reading Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead and the sequels Home and Lila. I know you have been warned that I may be referring to these books. If you don’t know them, I can tell you that they are set in a little town in Iowa in the 1950s and Gilead tells the story of the final days of a Congregationalist minister who has spent his whole life and ministry in the church where his father and grandfather served. We learn about his childhood and his late marriage and fatherhood. The two sequels tell the story of his best friend’s troubled son and the appalling poverty suffered by his wife in her earliest years. I know how downbeat this sounds as an abstract. But these books are simply luminous. They are written by an author who strives to see the purposes of God in everything, without any sentimentality. And to me they are the best fictional representation of Christian ministry that I have ever read.

Gilead, pp. 50-1: “A great part of my work has been listening to people, in that particular intense privacy of confession, or at least unburdening, and it has been very interesting to me. Not that I thought of these conversations as if they were a contest, I don’t mean that. But as you might look at a game more abstractly – where is the strength, what is the strategy? As if you had no interest in it except in seeing how well the two sides bring each other along, how much they can require of each other, how the life that is the real subject of it all is manifest in it. By ‘life’ I mean something like ‘energy’ (as the scientists use the word) or ‘vitality’, and also something very different. When people come to speak to me, whatever they say, I am struck by a kind of incandescence in them, the ‘I’ whose predicate can be ‘love’ or ‘fear’ or ‘want,’ and whose object can be ‘something’ or ‘nothing’ and it won’t really matter, because the loveliness is just in that presence, shaped around ‘I’ like a flame on a wick, emanating itself in grief and guilt and joy and whatever else. But quick, and avid, and resourceful. To see this aspect of life is a privilege of the ministry which is seldom mentioned.”

Marilynne Robinson also writes thoughtful and learned essays about philosophy, politics, education and theology. I commend her to you as someone who will keep your mind and spirit as well as your imagination stirred and nourished.

And that brings me at last to the themes I want to focus on throughout this week. What Fr Richard suggested was that I should reflect on the ministry of the occasional offices. I have interpreted this fairly widely to cover the ministry of care at special times throughout people’s lives – birth, baptism, First Communion, confirmation, discerning calling, marriage, illness, dying and death. Nothing ambitious then! I’ve grouped them into four topics: initiation; landmarks on the journey; dealing with pain; and letting go. What I want to share with you is my conviction that engaging with these life events can be not just a routine but a joyful sharing in the narrative arc of people’s lives, the sort of experience that the narrator of Gilead is talking about. We are witnesses to the profoundest moments experienced by the people we serve. We will have at least a bit part in the memories they treasure or mourn over for their whole lives. So we need to be comfortable with our own narrative arc if we are to be genuine in our ministry. We need to embrace our own mortality, and the changes that life inevitably brings.

This requires realistic self-acceptance and self-care. You will all have been advised countless times in your formation and early ministry about sustaining yourself for the long term. I hope you have had role models as good as my training incumbent to help you learn patterns of ministry that would keep you healthy and happy. Occasionally I am alarmed to discover that some curates are expected to live as if they are characters in Call the Midwife rather than the Poplar I knew in the 90s. My predecessors in the old days, always single young men, occupied spare rooms in the Rectory in order of seniority – there were a lot of them – and the latest to be ordained had to stoke the church boiler before dawn every day. From Morning Prayer until Compline they were expected to be doing parish visiting if not engaged on other duties. Their intercessions at Evening Prayer provided the boss with a list of the people they had called on that day. Private life was a luxury for their one day off, which I am sure they must have spent in a state of exhaustion.

We have learned a few things since then. One of them has been to look at the model Jesus gives us of ministry. He surrounded himself with friends, readily accepted hospitality, enjoyed meals, took time out by himself, delegated tasks to his team, sought and gave feedback, and withdrew with his closest associates for times of R &amp; R. He often answered questions with a question rather than telling people what he wanted them to hear. They had to work out for themselves what they really desired. He was honest with God about his fear and loneliness. At the heart of his human interactions, always, were words of peace and forgiveness.

It has been wryly pointed out that Jesus’ public ministry lasted for three years whereas we may be in a dog collar for 50 or more. And of course there are limits to the kinds of comparisons we can draw between the work on earth of our Lord and our own feeble discipleship. But the gospels give us good grounds for some basic self-care guidelines, and here are the ones I think we should all observe.

First, and you don’t need me to underline its importance, is faithfulness in prayer and engagement with the Scriptures. I have found that the Daily Office and the Bible have become more important to me with every passing year. Of course there are times when it is sheer drudgery, or when I rush through distractedly or make an excuse to skip an office. But the slow, faithful, lifelong building of this practice in our lives is the skeleton on which everything else depends. You have had other speakers on this subject and I’ll leave it there.

Again, I am sure that it doesn’t need saying to this group that the regular reception of the sacraments we administer is vital. Whatever your personal pattern of celebrating the Eucharist and Reconciliation is, it is vital to keep to it. And that goes for the annual retreat – and here you are! – as well as the other spiritual disciplines that you have made your own. I’ve certainly found that having companions on the way, whether it is my spiritual director or fellow members of a society such as this one, have also been an enormous help.

And then we come to the gift of the Sabbath. Now I’m going to quote shamelessly from a speaker, Mark Scarlata, who addressed the Edmonton Area clergy a few months ago on this subject. Our starting point is the imitatio Dei as we model our practice on that of the Creator who rested from labour on the seventh day. The Israelites in the wilderness had to learn how to structure the rhythm of time. Even before the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt Sinai, they had been instructed to gather a double portion of manna on the sixth day so they could cease from work on the seventh. Our day off, as clergy, is not a day of religious duties. It is a day to stop, to get off the roundabout and receive the gift of free time. By accepting and observing the Sabbath principle, we model for those we serve resistance to the relentless economic pressures of our society. It becomes a day, not for housework and shopping, which belong to the working week, but for rest and relaxation with friends and family or on our own. It’s a time to reflect, to reconnect with creation. It is a celebration of time rather than space and things. Abraham Herschel says that when we observe the Sabbath we build temples in time.

The early Church, until the time of Constantine, observed both the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday and the Day of Resurrection on Sunday, a day of rest followed by day of rejoicing, the culmination of creation followed by the new creation in Christ. As someone who has normally had Saturday as my day off for 23 years, I see the beauty of this. I was the observer of hundreds of Sabbaths in Stamford Hill, and I recall the hectic activity of Fridays turning suddenly into quiet and peace before the sun went down. Men carried home flowers for their wives in preparation for the great weekly feast. The next day there would be virtually no traffic. People in their best clothes walked to shul, dignified bearded men in huge hats holding the hands of their elderly fathers, small children being encouraged by their mothers to toddle along because pushchairs were forbidden, single-sex groups of teenagers laughing and talking together. This was the day when no phones would be used, no money would exchange hands, no business would be discussed.

The Jewish practice is to light candles on a Friday evening to mark the gateway into holy time, and another candle on Saturday evening as darkness falls, giving thanks for the day of rest and preparing for the new week. For a Christian on a Saturday this could mark preparation to celebrate the Lord’s Day, but the same practice could be extended to a day off on another day of the week.

Consecrate time. Take breaks. One useful practice I’ve come to depend on is to plan stability zones throughout the working week. Depending on my current enthusiasm, this could be an early morning run or an evening of communal singing. On a daily basis, coffee breaks feature strongly, and I am a devotee of taking a proper lunch time, preferably with the cryptic crossword. For some people, time is consecrated by taking the dog for a walk or going to the gym or having a regular phone conversation with a friend or watching a favourite programme. Don’t neglect these little oases. Don’t go to bed exhausted, feeling like a martyr. The best advice a spiritual director ever gave me was to read fiction before sleeping. Entering into someone else’s imaginative world enables us to slough off the preoccupations with our own working day. Of course Compline or the Examen also help us lay down our burdens before going to sleep, but that extra bit of going outside ourselves is spiritually very healthy.

In a previous life, when I was training to be an antenatal teacher, I was encouraged to write a list of ten things that I loved doing that brought me joy and relaxation. When I had completed the list, I was told to note the last time I had done each of them. I’ve never forgotten how surprised I was when I realized how long it had been in some cases. I commend that little exercise to you as well, with the follow-up: start ticking that list!

This has been a long talk and we’re all tired. The first day on retreat, I was told once by a wise monk, is like setting down a glass of beer on a table. The glass stops moving, but the beer continues to slosh for a few seconds. For the first 24 hours on retreat we’re usually still sloshing.

So tonight I urge you to rejoice that you have consecrated this time to rest. Accept the gift of this week of Sabbaths. Be thankful for whatever gives you joy in your ministry and in your life. Remember the last words of the old narrator of Gilead, echoing King Lear: I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.

Sacraments of initiation: baptism and admission to Holy Communion

I hope you have all slept well and the sloshing has begun to settle. You’ll be relieved to hear that I don’t propose to speak as long in any of these subsequent addresses. Today we are beginning at the beginning, with birth, baptism and admitting children to Holy Communion.

This part of parish ministry came very naturally to me when I was first ordained. I had had three children of my own and gone through the whole business of organizing their baptism. In the case of my first child it was an emergency ritual at midnight in a special care baby unit, with a medicine glass full of water, the hospital chaplain, a very kind nurse, and me in a wheelchair, feeling terrified. Her heart rate had been erratic during labour and I simply had no idea whether she was seriously ill or not. After a long and draining labour and the emotion around her safe delivery, my husband had gone home to weep on the phone to friends while I tried to sleep. I remember saying that if my baby was in any danger I wanted her baptized, and to my surprise and slightly to my alarm I learned that the chaplain would be summoned forthwith.

Why did I feel this was so important? It certainly didn’t come from my Presbyterian upbringing. In fact my mother rather disapproved, in retrospect. But for me it was instinctive. I wanted to claim this little person as a child of God, with a name and an identity and infinite value. I had known her intimately for nine months, though she was quite new in the eyes of the hospital staff. And I have to say that it brought me great peace to hear her named as Alison Mary Lydia and welcomed into the family of God. Everything turned out well, and when more senior doctors arrived on the morning shift she was declared perfectly healthy. A few months later we organized a liturgy of reception for in our parish church, with anointing and a candle and the presence of her father and godparents. It amuses me to remember that I had to explain to the vicar how this should be done, because I had researched it. He had never done such a liturgy before.

Then, and years later when I had amassed experience as an antenatal teacher at home and on the Mother and Baby Unit in Holloway Prison, I came to realize that parents rather than priests are the experts when it comes to spiritual needs around birth and baptism. Giving birth is usually the profoundest and most frightening and exhilarating event a couple have shared. The joys may be obvious but the fears and griefs are often hidden from sight. Many apparently happy mothers are struggling with depression and anxiety. Many partnerships undergo terrific strain around the time of birth because of fertility troubles, financial demands, medical problems, family circumstances or emotional changes. It is an immensely grown-up experience to become a parent, and yet people often feel desperately unprepared or ambivalent about this new role. Memories of their own childhood and upbringing will surface, relations with parents and in-laws will be affected, questions of identity and purpose will come to the fore. When there has been a recent bereavement, whether of a family member or a previous pregnancy, everything becomes even more complicated.

So what part does the vicar play in all this? I am not talking here about the theology of baptism, which you are all well versed in. I’m suggesting that the pastoral role is especially important in this sacrament. It must start with listening deeply to the circumstances surrounding this birth. Often, nowadays, christening is delayed until a year or two or three after the birth, when the highs and lows of the birth experience have receded but other considerations have become important. But every family will need appropriate responses to their own situation, and perhaps a liturgy that is shaped to be apt for them.

Here are some of the situations I have faced as a baptizer over the years. Several times I have baptized a baby whose older sibling had died at birth. This has required careful consideration of how the earlier loss can be acknowledged at the same time as the present joy. A candle burning for the previous baby, with or without specific words, may help. Understanding how deeply fearful and anxious the parents are feeling is important.

Other special circumstances have involved the child of a lesbian couple who had received a very cool welcome to their enquiry at another church, and a toddler who had been baptized and chrismated in a Russian orphanage before being adopted in the UK. Here’s where the liturgy of reception came in useful again!  A baby who has been born after intensive fertility treatment is highly likely to have a mother who subsequently suffers from postnatal depression – it’s important to be aware of this risk. And I am sure we have all had cases where one parent has been absent or hostile to the whole idea of baptism. There can of course be theological challenges. In the East End, christening, as it was always called, was often seen as a sort of magic vaccination against anything bad happening to the child. And I’ve had families who were uncertain where they stood on the subject of God and didn’t fancy a Common Worship service of thanksgiving, but they definitely wanted some words of welcome and blessing to be said over their baby, perhaps in a non-church setting.

This is where who we are as representative people of God becomes significant. We do something with authority and assurance that marks a landmark in the life of this child, and it changes us too. We know instinctively the importance of it. Even children know it. John Ames in Gilead recalls how, as children, he and another serious-minded boy decided they ought to baptize a litter of barn kittens. He writes, [pp. 25-7] “Their grim old crooked-tailed mother found us baptizing away by the creek and began carrying her babies off by the napes of their necks, one and then another. We lost track of which was which, but we were fairly sure that some of the creatures had been borne away still in the darkness of paganism, and that worried us a good deal. So finally I asked my father in the most offhand way imaginable what exactly would happen to a cat if one were to, say, baptize it. He replied that the Sacraments must always be treated and regarded with the greatest respect. That wasn’t really an answer to my question. We did respect the Sacraments, but we thought  the whole world of those cats. I got his meaning, though, and I did no more baptizing until I was ordained… I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays in the mind. For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to me to be a real question. There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation is of really knowing a creature, I mean really feelings its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time. I don’t wish to be urging the ministry on you, but there are some advantages to it you might not know to take account of if I did not point them out. Not that you have to be a minister to confer blessing. You are simply much more likely to find yourself in that position. It’s a thing people expect of you. I don’t know why there is so little of this aspect of the calling in the literature.”

I can’t leave the subject of baptism without one more short extract from the same book. This one is a gentle reflection prompted by the sight of the old minister’s son jumping with a young friend in the spray of a garden sprinkler: “When I was in seminary I used to go sometimes to watch the Baptists down at the river. It was something to see the preacher lifting the one who was being baptized up out of the water and the water pouring off the garments and the hair. It did look like a birth or a resurrection. For us the water just heightens the touch of the pastor’s hand on the sweet bones of the head, sort of like making an electrical connection. I’ve always loved to baptize people, though I have sometimes wished there were more shimmer and splash involved in the way we go about it.”

Whatever Anglican shimmer and splash we can provide, let’s go for it. If we’ve been to the Holy Land, we can add a few drops of Jordan water to the font – people love this symbolic gesture. We can certainly use more water than a reticent Congregationalist does. We can invite the parents and godparents to repeat the anointing we do on the child’s forehead with the oil of catechumens. I have seen expressions of awe and delight as people have done this. We can invite older children to ring the church bell if we have one or pull the plug from the font and watch the water drain into the ground. We can invite parents and godparents to choose music, read a lesson, introduce the family to the congregation, bring some sparkling wine to change up the after-service coffee. None of this is rocket science and I am sure you can all add many ideas to the list. And I’m sure you’ve all been sent photos afterwards of yourselves baptizing a baby whose name you will not remember in a year or two, but your presence and action on that day will forever be a part of a family narrative.

I’ve included in this section not confirmation, which perhaps controversially I see not as a sacrament of initiation – baptism is complete in that regard – but as a landmark in a journey towards Christian maturity. So I’ll save that until this afternoon. Instead I want to conclude this morning by considering the admission of children to Holy Communion.

This is a development that seems to be sweeping the Church of England, at least in its more Catholic expressions, and for very good reasons in my view. I remember that we tried to bring it in during my curacy in Poplar, and I tried again when I was the incumbent in Stamford Hill, but in both cases the resistance of the congregation made it unworkable. Finally, when I came to Primrose Hill in 2009, I set out my reasons for wanting to introduce it, and after consultation with the PCC and then the wider congregation, we were able to apply to the Bishop for permission, which was granted. Every year since then we have admitted a group of six to twelve children on the feast of Candlemas.

You’ll be familiar with the arguments. Baptism is our complete initiation. How can we unite someone to Christ in his Body and then deny them a place at his Table? The Eucharist, like Baptism, is a gift and a mystery and not an exam to pass or a reward to earn. We are fed by the Lord as a mother bird feeds her chicks or a human mother suckles her baby, because we need this nourishment to live and grow. And there is the psychological argument too – children of eight or nine are full of awe and wonder, and they want to be part of the community and do what adults do. When they are 12 or 13, their task is to question and argue. We all know from experience, perhaps our own or our children’s, what a passing-out parade confirmation can be at that age, and yet children are often pushed towards this sacrament in order to be able to receive Holy Communion.

Feeding a little one hand to hand or hand to mouth is another profound experience for both parent and child. Back to Gilead and John Ames. He remembers a rainy day in his boyhood when the whole community helped to take down a ruined and burned-out church. “My father brought me a piece of biscuit for my lunch,” he writes, “and I crawled out and knelt with him there, in the rain. I remember it as if he broke the bread and put a bit of it in my mouth, though I know he didn’t. His hands and his face were black with ash – he looked charred, like one of the old martyrs – and he knelt there in the rain and brought a piece of biscuit out from inside his shirt, and he did break it, that’s true, and gave half to me and ate the other half himself. And it truly was the bread of affliction, because everyone was poor then… It is not surprising that I remember that day as if my father had given me communion, taking that bread from his side and breaking it for me with his ashy hands. But it is strange that I remember receiving it the way I do, since it has never been our custom for the minister to place the bread in the communicant’s mouth, as they do in some churches. I think of this because, on the morning of communion when your mother brought you forward and said, ‘You ought to give him some of that,’ I broke the bread and fed a bit of it to you from my hand, just the way my father would not have done except in my memory. And I know what I wanted in that moment was to give you some version of that same memory, which has been very dear to me, though only now do I realize how often it has been in my mind.”

Speaking now as a parent as well as a priest, I think this passage says something deep and true about our longing for children to be fed with the sacrament. We want them to remember being fed, when they were too young to fully understand the significance of what was being offered to them and by whom. I love the tradition we have of bringing children to Communion on the feast when we remember Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the Temple. Somehow it connects our action to the whole community – the old rejoice, the parents give thanks, the young are welcomed and recognised as unique and precious in God’s eyes.</p>

All of this goes beyond rational explanation. It is part of the mystery of love and grace.

Confirmation / ordination / marriage

This afternoon I want to think about discernment. This is a gift of the Spirit that we all need. The landmark sacraments that I would like to group under this heading are confirmation, marriage and ordination. Perhaps it is odd to place them together in this way. But they are all adult commitments and threshold experiences. All of them involve lifelong vows.

I invite you to think for a moment back to the time when you decided to take two or three of these particular steps in your own life. Were you surprised by the decision? Did it seem hard or easy? Was it timely? Did you ever regret it? Who influenced you, and who helped you to prepare?

My decision to be confirmed as an Episcopalian was made in my early teens, but while I lived at home in my Presbyterian family I delayed acting on it. When I was 18 years old and away at college, I sought confirmation and was prepared by a lay reader who happened to be my English professor. His special subject was Milton and I have more vivid memories of our seminars on Paradise Lost than of my confirmation prep. But I do remember him saying that he and his great hero Milton had been on opposite religious journeys – Milton from the Church of England to Puritanism and then to Separatism, while Professor Coolidge had journeyed from his Congregationalist youth to a settled commitment to the Episcopal Church. I remember also asking about Episcopal church polity and how it differed the Presbyterian structure. That’s the kind of nerdy teenager I was. In due course I was confirmed alongside a group of twelve-year-olds and a couple of middle-aged men and it was a moment of deep significance for me.

At St Mary’s, with our policy of admitting children in Key Stage 2 to Holy Communion, we have made a rule that the minimum age for Confirmation is now 16. Every year we have a number of adults coming forward for Confirmation, or for reception into the Church of England from the Orthodox or Roman Catholic traditions. Many of them are entirely new to the Church and are baptized as part of the same service. This year, for the first time, our policy of admitting children has begun to bear fruit in adult commitments. Several of those who were brought to the Sacrament in childhood have now chosen to be confirmed. And some of our youthworkers, who mentor young people who are in danger of being recruited by Camden gangs, have also asked for Confirmation, to our astonishment and delight. I am more convinced than ever that Confirmation is for those who have reached adulthood and decided to follow Christ, and who are prepared to see it as the beginning and not the end of a journey of faith.

The challenge for us as clergy is looking out for and inviting likely candidates to come forward and surprise us and say yes. But nearly all of them need a repeated personal invitation. And the ideal preparation in my experience is a faith-sharing group over many months. I suppose because of my background in antenatal courses, I am strongly of the view that groups of people sharing a profound liminal experience don’t need a crash course on the Creed but rather a long-term group that builds mutual trust and offers a safe space in which to explore questions and share stories.

Some years ago a friend of mine underwent the RCIA programme to be baptized and confirmed as a Roman Catholic. I was deeply impressed by the liturgical landmarks during the long period of formation. In the past I have used the somewhat similar Emmaus course, with 16 or 17 sessions, and we observed some of the rites along the way, which were very effective. In a bigger and busier parish, it has been tempting to do the Confirmation prep in a more off-stage manner. And chasing up busy people with family and work commitments often means that six or eight sessions is all that we can manage. My curate colleague this year did a heroic job of tailoring confirmation preparation for four different constituencies – young mums, community youthworkers, older teenage girls, and an outlier who was a young professional man. It wasn’t until the vital quiet day and rehearsal the day before the Bishop came that they all got to meet each other.

Parish ministry, as we all know, is the art of the possible, and we mustn’t make the best the enemy of the good. We are currently trying yet another model, with a whole year of fortnightly meetings after the parish eucharist, and we have a core group of six adults – French, Italian, Korean, Iranian, and a couple of British – who hold lively discussions based on the material in the Pilgrim course and ask really hard questions. We’ve used the Pilgrim booklets for several years and find that the framework of beginning and ending with liturgical prayer and starting each session with a period of lectio divina has worked well.

So how do adults discern that they should join a Confirmation group? I have never attended or led an Alpha course so that is not a route I can speak about. What I have found is that our church school is where many parents get to hear about us, and coming to the school services in church is the first step of the journey. Half our places have no church attendance requirement for admission and so rather than lose families once they get a school place, we meet and encourage those who find themselves at the school. Our community projects also bring people in. Others are invited by their own children. Some have been sitting on the sidelines for years, waiting for an invitation. And some seem to appear in a completely random way.

In the Gilead novels, Lila, with whom John Ames enters into a late, unexpected and happy marriage, simply steps into his church on a Sunday morning to shelter from the rain, and on that tiny decision the rest of both their lives become transformed. What was it that drew you into an adult commitment to the Lord? Perhaps spend some time today remembering and giving thanks. I’m sure that for many of us it was a connection with a faithful Christian, in person or through a book, that tipped the balance. Could you be the one who issues the challenge or invitation? Do you have some good mentors and role models among your congregation?

Of course the same approach goes for ordination as well as confirmation. London clergy are heavily focused this year on encouraging vocations to ordained ministry. We have all been asked what we are doing to spot the unrecognised vocations among our congregations and beyond. As an Area Director of Ordinands, I have been struck by how often candidates tell me of a sense of calling in childhood. But it is the encouragement or discouragement they had from clergy and other Christian leaders that determines when or if that call is responded to. This year I have been working with a woman who believed she heard a clear invitation to serve God when she was at Lourdes at the age of eight. More than 40 years later, she is finally being invited to test her vocation. In the intervening years, too many clergy looked at a minority ethnic woman and did not see a potential priest.

We meet candidates from a variety of educational and ethnic backgrounds, candidates with physical or learning disabilities, candidates who have a history of mental health problems, survivors of abuse, people who have been Christians for about five minutes and people who have been faithful since the cradle. All the variety of God’s glorious creation passes through our doors. The discernment and selection are rigorous but we try not to prejudge even the most unlikely candidates at the beginning. I’m sure we all know how the Cure d’Ars was turned down initially as too thick to be ordained. Two of the very best priests I know, with extremely high emotional intelligence quotients, were not recommended by their BAPs and were sponsored anyway by astute bishops. Every human institution, even a selection conference praying for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, can and does make mistakes. Sometimes they may even recommend people who should never have been ordained – I’m sure we’ve all met one or two of those.

We are all strongly encouraged to revisit and renew our ordination vows at a Chrism mass every Holy Week. Many of us also keep the anniversary of our deaconing and priesting as personal feast days, going public at significant moments like silver and golden jubilees. We know how different we felt after the laying on of hands. Something new began that day for us.

Marriage used to be the great threshold moment for young adults, with many customs surrounding the transition from one state of life to another, and in times past a good deal of bawdiness about the sexual experiences that lay ahead for the couple. Nowadays of course people delay marriage or bypass it altogether for a variety of reasons. The vows may frighten them off or seem meaningless. The cost of the expected celebration is seen as a waste of money. No one needs to get married in order to have a sexual relationship. In over 20 years I have never married a couple who didn’t live together before the wedding day. And although the state now recognises marriage equality, we are all aware that marriage is still a distant dream for same sex partners in the Church of England.

The upshot then is that Anglican vicars marry fewer and fewer couples. Those who do marry in church are often our own committed parishioners. I’ve probably officiated at more wedding blessings or renewal of vows than actual legal marriages over the past ten years. While weddings may have been a bit of a conveyor belt in years past – I still have nightmarish memories of a Saturday when I officiated at three weddings as a curate, and the middle bride was 40 minutes late – nowadays they will often be lavished with personal attention and planning. This must be a good thing. The latest development seems to be the portmanteau celebration of the children’s baptism and the parents’ wedding all in one go, to save money on the party. I haven’t done one of those yet but perhaps some of you have.

I love telling engaged couples that they will be the ones who celebrate the sacrament, while I simply witness and bless their exchange of vows. They always seem surprised and delighted to learn this. We speak so glibly of lay ministry and the priesthood of all the baptized, but it is only at church weddings that we seem to enable Christian women and men to claim their full stature as speakers of performative words. We are the ones who get to say I baptize you, I absolve you, God bless you, This is my body, Go forth on your journey. But it is the bride and groom who say to one another, I take you to be my husband or wife, and I give you this ring as a sign of our marriage. I am not trying to be mischievous or anti-clerical. I simply wonder if we may be missing some opportunities.

In Russian Orthodox circles people bless each other all the time. In Roman Catholic cultures – and no doubt in many of your parishes – laypeople lead the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross with natural confidence. In Jewish homes the mother prays over the candles and the father blesses the bread to bring in the Sabbath. Is there perhaps an opportunity to encourage more lay-led domestic rituals? The family worship round a piano that I grew up with was distinctly old-fashioned even in my long-ago childhood, and I have certainly not attempted to recreate it with my children. But the popularity of Advent wreaths and Epiphany chalk and palm crosses all indicate an appetite for bringing the Church year into our homes. We feel the need I spoke about last night to consecrate time and to connect with a larger reality.

And there is a real need to mark threshold experiences, such as weddings. We who are in the business are always ready to hear newly wedded couples tell us of how different it feels to be married. Friends of mine have just tied the knot, for financial reasons, after nearly 25 years together, and they are basking in the joy this step has unexpectedly brought them. People instinctively know when a ritual is needed.

Over the years I have been asked to devise liturgies for a variety of threshold experiences. One was blessing a room that was to have been the nursery of a child who was sadly stillborn and now had to be given over to another use. Another time for someone who needed to let go of rage and shame after years of sexual abuse. A woman who was divorced wanted her friends around her while she marked the end of her marriage in church. Once I passed a holding cross around a group of women so each one could pray with it in her hands before we gave the cross to the husband of a dying young mother, who was buried with it. It has often been necessary during my years of parish ministry to take holy water round a home where an evil presence or unhappy memories afflict the occupants.

I would remind you of John Ames’ words quoted this morning: “Not that you have to be a minister to confer blessing. You are simply much more likely to find yourself in that position. It’s a thing people expect of you.”

Blessing, creative liturgies for life events, spoken prayers in time of need, domestic rituals, encouragement to take a step like confirmation or discernment of a vocation – these are all part of what we are for. The transitions of our lives need landmarks, and we are the people who pile up the stones and mark the spot. We are the ones who give a hand as people step over the stile. We are the midwives who stand beside and encourage those in whom God is bringing something new to birth. There is a wonderful blessing for us too in all of this.

Talk 4

Dealing with pain

Ministry with the sick and suffering

I’m a natural optimist. After all, I am a midwestern American. It’s in my DNA to look on the bright side and to be hopeful about what is possible and confident about the future. I have to remind myself regularly that the Christian perspective is rather different. With God, of course, all things are possible, and we are the people of the Resurrection. But the world is full of pain. Suffering is not an unfair assault that someone needs to account for; it is a normal fact of life. We are not entitled to a comfortable and happy life just because we are people of faith.

I know this is stating the perfectly obvious. But how often we meet this assumption in those we serve, and if we are honest in ourselves too. God is the magician who fulfils all our needs, and if something goes wrong we will punish him by not believing in him any more. When we look at that squarely it is obviously ridiculous, but it is a pattern of response I have seen again and again. God is blamed, and often we too are in the frame. We have let people down by telling them that they are loved by God, when clearly they are not because something bad has happened to them.

We sometimes meet, in convinced Christians, another perspective that also fills me with alarm. That is the attitude that says, God has sent this suffering for a purpose. It’s a test of faith. He doesn’t give us more than we can cope with.

While I am in awe of the trust in God shown by people who say this, I am deeply disturbed by their image of a God who chooses to kill a small child in a road accident, allow a teenager to die from knife wounds on a London street, or take a mother from her young family by giving her cancer.

It is frightening to say that bad things that are contrary to God’s will happen all the time. It makes the world a very scary place. But is there any honest alternative? The good news that we offer to people is not that God will fix everything for them, but that God will be with them whatever happens. Who knows what surprising resurrection may follow the worst experience.

The second book in Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy is called Home, and it is told from the perspective of a woman named Glory. She is the daughter of John Ames’ fellow minister and lifelong best friend. Her brother Jack is his father’s favourite child in a large family and John Ames’ godson. He is also its black sheep. Jack was a boy who delighted in malicious mischief. As a college student, he made a very young girl pregnant and then disappeared, leaving his parents and sister to deal with the aftermath. He has been away for twenty years. When he unexpectedly returns home, to his father’s joy, he is trailing a story of misery and failure. He is an alcoholic who has been in jail and has no steady work. There is a generosity of spirit in him, and his good upbringing shines through in his natural courtesy, but he can’t help wondering if he was born for perdition. Again and again he lets down the people he loves. He is afraid to reveal his mixed-race marriage to his father, and he cannot support his wife and son. At one point he attempts suicide and is interrupted and saved by his horrified sister. He makes numerous attempts to have a meaningful conversation about God with John Ames, but they never seem to come out right, though he does accept the old man’s blessing at last. Jack seems to be a hopeless case.

Finally he leaves home again, just before his siblings assemble around his father’s deathbed. He has given up all hope of saving his marriage. He takes himself off to an unknown and bleak future. It is an immensely sad story. But it ends on a note of hope. Glory sees a car drive up with the woman she instantly knows to be Jack’s wife and with her is a young boy, their son. They have come to look for him and to see the home that he spoke of so often with affection. There is no guarantee that Jack will ever find her, or she him, again in the future. But the child may grow up and come back. Imagining this encounter, Glory thinks, “He is young. He cannot know that my whole life has come down to this moment. That he has answered his father’s prayers. The Lord is wonderful.”

We cannot know from the outside the meaning of events in other people’s lives. It takes us our whole lifetime to find out what our own lives mean to us. But as priests we can listen to the stories people tell. We can ask questions. We can be witnesses and encouragers, midwives if you like, as they make sense of their own pain.

When I was an ordinand I was fortunate to have a long-term placement with one of the best hospital chaplains in the country, Peter Speck at the Royal Free in Hampstead. I remember coming down to the chaplaincy department in the basement of the hospital, time and again, feeling battered by the suffering that I had seen on the wards. And Peter would offer no word of explanation or comfort. He would simply say, Sometimes life is just shit.

But I noticed than when he spent time with people, they almost always felt better for it. I tried to watch and learn from him the pastoral skills that made this possible. There was something about what he represented that was at the heart of his effectiveness, I could see. Sometimes it put him in the line of fire. Once he was called to A&amp;E to meet the parents of a child who had been killed in a road accident, and as soon as the father saw Peter’s dog collar he punched him in face. Peter had no rancour about this; he knew that at that moment he stood in for the God who somehow allowed this terrible thing to happen. Another time on his rounds he met a junior doctor who had not been able to save the life of a young man he was treating. When Peter asked him how he was, the young doctor burst into tears and they went into a side room so he could pour out his feelings.

It was in the early days of the AIDS epidemic when the diagnosis was still a death sentence. There was a ward filled with young men who knew they were mortally ill and who, in many cases, were, like Jack in the novel, estranged from their families. On Good Friday I was sitting, for the last time as it turned out, with a patient I’d visited several times, and I read Psalm 139 to him. In my inexperience, I failed to omit the cursing verses that unexpectedly appear towards the end of the psalm. The man I was visiting looked puzzled and said he didn’t feel like that. He didn’t hate anyone with a perfect hatred, or blame anyone for his condition. Young as he was, he had made his peace with God and life. It was a humbling moment that I have never forgotten.

People must find their own meaning. But sometimes we can help with a question. Another patient in the hospital was waiting for a liver transplant which would not come in time. Her regret, she told me, was that she had not had the kind of experience of God that some people described. She had longed for a vision but never been given one. This time I had the sense to just listen as I asked her to tell me about her life. It seems she had many friends whom she loved and who loved her. I asked her if perhaps her experience of God had come through that gift. And then she recognised this as true and began to weep.

Suffering is only allayed by giving it meaning in our own particular situation. Viktor Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning about his survival in Auschwitz through imagining a future with a purpose that he could live for. He said that we should stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who are being questioned by life. A member of my congregation, whose spouse has died prematurely and whose only child is suffering from the very worst form of ME, is sustained in her suffering by her faith in God and also by the practical application of this approach. We cannot choose what happens to us but we can choose how to respond.

We encourage our confirmands to pray for the gifts of the Spirit as listed in Isaiah, which are all about discerning meaning. If we have wisdom, understanding, right judgment, courage, knowledge, reverence and wonder, we will see things aright and be able to choose and carry through our response with God’s help.

I have seen remarkable instances of all these gifts in people who are suffering, as I am sure you have. It makes me ashamed to think how pathetic my own self-pity is in the mildest kind of pain or anxiety. Although I do not believe that God plans suffering for us, it certainly seems true that God can bring about great spiritual growth in those who suffer and endure.

A book I recently found helpful was Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree. He spent years getting to know families that had to deal with unusual challenges in their children’s lives, ranging from physical and mental disabilities to situations of extraordinary talent or criminal behaviour. What he found, over the years, was that most of the parents concluded that though they would not have chosen to have children with those particular conditions, they would not now change anything about how their lives had unfolded, because they had discovered strengths and capacities for love in themselves that they had never imagined possible. Their lives, as parents of unusually challenging children, had a profound purpose and meaning.

I said most of the parents felt this. Not all did. Some were simply overwhelmed and defeated by the situation they found themselves in. And this brings me back to the mystery of suffering, and my strong belief that evil it is never sent by God but only allowed as the natural consequence of life in a fallen world. Even something that hurts us and those we love can be the occasion of flourishing – that is where God’s loving purpose can be seen. But where no meaning can be found by the sufferer, then we can do no more than sit in silence, alongside the one who is struggling.

I know it is fashionable to talk down pastoral visiting as the expectation of a bygone age, and books like If You See George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him! try to puncture the impossible expectations of 17<sup>th</sup>century parish ministry in a 21<sup>st</sup>century context. But though we may have other things to do than those Poplar curates did in the fifties, knocking on doors from morning to night, we should not neglect to visit the sick and suffering. They may have every care and treatment that is possible. They may be surrounded by family and friends. But what we bring is what we represent, the possibility of finding meaning in their situation. We can listen and ask questions. We can hold hands and pray. We can lay on hands and anoint. We can simply be there.

In fact Being There is the title of Peter Speck’s excellent book on hospital chaplaincy. We may have to endure our own sense of helplessness. We will certainly have to acknowledge that we have no easy answers or miracles to offer. But just showing up is usually enough. One of my most treasured memories of my time as a chaplaincy intern is a bedside chat with a retired priest, who said when I took my leave, I am so glad now that I was a faithful visitor in my ministry, because now I know how much it means to receive a visit. In those few words, he not only found meaning in his own past life, but he gave me enormous encouragement for the work I was about to begin.

In today’s time of quiet, you may want to recall your own experience of finding meaning in suffering, and give thanks for the growth this has led to. Perhaps this is also a particularly appropriate time to focus on intercession, however you perform that priestly task. I find a repetitive tactile prayer such as a Jesus Prayer rope or the Rosary is sometimes the best way to intercede. Or I think of the wonderful description someone once gave of intercession as simply picturing the person you are praying for while sitting in the presence of God. We don’t need words to come before God with someone on our heart. We just need to consecrate the time to share their joys and sorrows.

Let me end, as usual, with another bit of Gilead. John Ames, knowing he will die soon, is writing a letter to his little son that he hopes will one day be read. “For me writing has always felt like praying, even when I wasn’t writing prayers, which I was often enough. You feel that you are with someone. I feel that I am with you now, whatever that can mean, considering that you’re only a little fellow now and when you’re a man you might find these letters of no interest. Or they might never reach you, for any of a number of reasons. Well, but how deeply I regret any sadness you have suffered and how grateful I am in anticipation of any good you have enjoyed. That is to say, I pray for you. And there’s an intimacy in it. That’s the truth.”

Talk 5

Letting go

Ministry at the time of death / funerals / facing mortality

A few weeks ago I went to spend several days at Gladstone’s Library in Wales in order to prepare these talks. If you haven’t been to the library, I can’t recommend it to you highly enough for a combination of retreat and study week, and you may get CME funds or support from Sion College if you’re a member.

Just before I started to work on this subject, ministry around the time of death, I went for a short walk. It was a beautiful warm spring afternoon. St Deiniol’s Church is next door to the residential library, which is based in William Gladstone’s family home, and it was the church he attended and where many of his family members are buried. In fact the church is completely hemmed in on all four sides by gravestones from the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, and inside there are numerous monuments to the particularly noteworthy departed. Praying in this church means truly being surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.

Perhaps those of you in rural parishes still have the experience at least occasionally of leading a coffin out of church and proceeding directly to a nearby grave. I envy those who do. For us London clergy, the doors closing in the crematorium is usually the last time we have any contact with the remains of the departed. Sometimes it’s best not to ask what happens next, but I know that urns sometimes stand for years on a mantelpiece or ashes are made into pieces of jewellery or divided and scattered in a number of places. We say solemnly earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but the reality is often rather more complicated.

And that I am sure is because we are so deeply uncomfortable with mortality in our generation, unlike those robust Victorians. If Grandad is on a shelf at home or in a necklace, or if Granny’s remains have been shared among three or four of her favourite places, then the stark fact of death is covered with a pretence that they’re still here, sharing our everyday lives. We are steering closer to ancestor worship than to Christian faith.

The hard fact is that the Church of England has a rapidly declining share in a shrinking funeral market and  there is plenty of competition. My generation, the baby boomers, are now the people who are dying, and all our lives we have been shaped by the idea that we can throw out old conventions and make our life events creative and personal. Entrepreneurial and often very pastorally sensitive secular celebrants are ready and waiting to help us do this.

But even in these days of shrinkage, we still have something unique to offer, as I expect you will agree. Some years ago I heard Anders Bergquist, the Vicar of St John’s Wood and a former member of the Liturgical Commission, give a list of eight things that a Christian funeral does:

First, the body is decently and reverently disposed of.

Second, the deceased is at the heart of a social occasion for the last time, his or her christening having presumably been the first time.

Third, comfort is offered to the mourners.

Fourth, thanksgiving is made for the life of the departed.

Fifth, the gospel is preached in the context of this particular life.

Sixth, the person who has died is commended to God’s care.


And finally,

As with the care of those who are sick and suffering, articulating meaning in the shape of a life now ended is one of our principal opportunities. As we weave the family’s memories, or if we knew them our own memories, into a coherent narrative in the light of eternity, we offer not that dreadful concept “closure” but the great Christian virtue of hope.

We aren’t shy of talking about death at St Mary’s. We’ve had a good many requiems for long-term parishioners in recent years and many of our older folk have begun to discuss what they want or don’t want for their own service. We keep a folder of funeral service plans in our sacristy safe. Every year near All Souls and Remembrance we host a Grave Talk. Tea and cake are provided while people sit around small tables and pick up cards with open-ended questions about dying, death, funerals and bereavement. We invite contributions from those with special knowledge – a funeral director, a solicitor, a palliative care consultant, even our resident amateur thanatologist whose house is a very cheerful museum of mortality.

We follow the normal practices of providing a candlestand, year’s mind prayers, annual intercessions at All Souls’ Tide, and reminding people about wills and legacies.

All of this is the ordinary stock and trade of a Catholic minded parish. As a curate I probably did at least 150 funerals – the East End then was still traditional enough for nearly every local to believe that hatching, matching and despatching required the services of clergy. I am very thankful for the breadth of that experience. I can still remember vividly the wave of awe and terror I felt the night before I officiated for the first time. A woman who had lived a life of more than 90 years was to be laid to rest by this callow deacon. How could I possibly do justice to the complexity and richness of her entire life?

Over the years the terror has receded but I hope I still feel at least some of the awe. It is an immense privilege to consecrate the time and space for the final leave-taking. Our words will probably be quickly forgotten in most cases, but our manner of conducting the service and relating to the family will be remembered for a long time. We provide a structure for the tasks we need to accomplish, but we also need very sensitive feelers for what is pastorally apt. A clumsy poem or cheesy song or a funny anecdote in the address may be exactly what the family most values, but they will also note the reverence and dignity with which we conduct the commendation and committal. And sometimes the followup visit leads to an ongoing pastoral relationship.

We all do funerals, if not as many as in years gone by. We are less often called these days to minister to people before their death. In the Middle Ages, of course, that was the principal function of the clergy: shriving people on their deathbeds to save them from hell. Priests were judged by how assiduous they were at administering the Last Rites.

But nowadays dying people or their relatives may no longer see the point of calling in a priest, as they have no belief in an afterlife or at least very little fear of judgment. The priest’s old sacramental task has become redundant for the vast majority. But the need for pastoral and spiritual care remains and it is often frustrated by a conspiracy of silence around the process of dying. Medical staff keep offering treatments that may or may not prolong life by a few weeks or days, and no one wants to admit that death is just around the corner. Even if the patient and the relatives are all aware of the true state of things, they protect each other by not speaking of it. And so the vital opportunity to make sense of a particular life, to mend broken relationships and leave messages and say thank you and forgive me, can be lost, and the regrets of the survivors are often bitter.

I know I mention books rather often, but I do strongly commend to you Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. The author is a surgeon in Boston who reflects on the way our physical longevity nowadays often far outstrips our meaningful mental life. He also discusses the difficulty doctors have in being honest with their patients about terminal diagnoses. Instead of acknowledging mortality and helping people complete their narrative and prepare for a good death, money is thrown at treatments in an attempt to extend life just a little longer at all costs. Seldom are the relevant questions asked of the patient: How much are you prepared to endure to live a few more weeks or days? What makes life worth living for you right now? This discussion is often left until it’s too late and the relatives have to take decisions they feel unprepared to make.

Where do we come into all this as priests? I believe ministry to the dying is central to our work. We can make it known in our congregations that we expect to be called upon to visit people who are seriously ill. We can form good relationships with chaplains in local hospitals and hospices. We can emphasize healing ministry in our normal parish worship, which will make it easier for us to be thought of and called upon when the end draws near.

I love to remember a woman in my Hackney parish who had grown up in rural poverty in the Caribbean and then lived for many decades in Britain. When I knew her she was in her late 90s, with almost no flesh on her bones. She lay in bed in her daughter’s house in great discomfort, longing to be at the end of her journey. She said to me several times, “I think Jesus has forgotten about me.”

The time came when she was admitted to hospital and the doctors told her children that she had very little time left. In their distress they panicked and decided to shield her from this news. When I came to visit, I asked if I might break it to her and they reluctantly agreed. I’ll never forget the broad smile that spread across her face when I told her that Jesus was finally coming for her. Everyone’s mood changed and that old lady began to reign from her bed like a queen. The family gathered round and sang and prayed and shared memories. We even had a bedside liturgy of taking leave of her. To everyone’s surprise, she survived not just days but several months. She died peacefully with her family beside her, and she had a terrific funeral with Candlemas readings.

If I were to pick one aspect of ministry over the past quarter century that has been most rewarding, I would instantly say that it is ministry with dying people. It has required me to face my own mortality and my own fears. As a young mother I lived in daily terror that my children would come to harm. Looking back, it was when my faith began to be renewed and my vocation started to unfold that I was able to live with the uncertainty of life. I resolved to talk openly about death and dying within my own family as well as within the congregations I served.

What I have discovered is that young people want to think about the big issues of life and death. The pretence that we will be consumers forever, endlessly buying things we don’t need or even want, is no longer attractive. My generation has tried to ignore the reality of death, but Millennials face it head on.

I discovered this through my hobby of singing shapenote music. This is a folk music tradition from the American South that involves groups of people sitting facing one another in a hollow square and belting out 18th and 19th century hymns fortissimo and in six-part harmony. Many of the words come straight from the Bible or from the pen of Isaac Watts. If there is one theme that dominates the hymnbook, it is death. It’s faced squarely and openly and without any pretence. Often the tunes are very cheerful even though the words may not be. One of our favourite songs that always leaves us smiling because of the joyous tune says “Our youthful days will soon be gone, for time is flying by. Our days and years pass swiftly on, we’ll soon be called to die.”

The people who gather to sing these songs are mostly young and more than half of them are male. It’s like no other singing experience I’ve ever taken  part in – it certainly doesn’t bear much  resemblance to the average church choir! And although people of all faiths and none join in, there is a marked respect for the old religious tradition that gave rise to these songs, so that prayers are said at the beginning and end, and people who are sick or recently dead are remembered in a formal way. I could almost call it a fresh expression of Church, but there is no mission strategy. It just happens because people love to sing the music.

I want to end by thinking about how music can play a part in ministry with dying people. Iain McGilchrist’s thought-provoking book The Master and His Emissary argues that music, a right-brain activity, is evolutionarily prior to the left-brain activity of language. We all know from our own experience how emotionally charged music can be. Whether it’s “our song” that means something to a couple, or the song played at a funeral that turns on the taps for everyone, music touches us in ways that words can’t reach. I imagine we’ve all played the game of choosing our Desert Island Discs, or the playlist for our own funeral.

Our early musical memories are powerful ones. Mine include traditional hymns, Broadway musical numbers on LPs, my father’s favourite operas on the radio, Bob Dylan songs sung to a ropey guitar accompaniment at campfires, and the sheer energy of the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Simon and Garfunkel as they burst onto the scene. When I became a mother, it was the most natural thing in the world to sing nonsense rhymes, pop songs from the 60s and lullabies to my babies.

When I began to attend deathbeds, I didn’t plan to start singing, but it felt completely right. Singing a dying person on their last journey is not so different from singing a child to sleep. We run out of spoken words after awhile, but hearing and touch are the last senses to leave us. Holding someone’s hand and quietly singing Amazing Grace or Michael Row the Boat Ashore can be immensely calming and intimate. When it’s not welcome it is quickly obvious, but often I’ve felt a return grip and heard the whispered word “More” when I’ve paused, and that has given my confidence to continue. You don’t have to be Pavarotti to do this – you don’t even have to remember all the words, because humming is nice too.

I’ll close, true to form, with a vignette from Gilead. “Lacey Thrush died last night… She was a maiden lady. She died promptly and decorously, out of consideration for me, I suspect, since she has been concerned about my health. She was conscious half an hour, unconscious half an hour, and gone. We said the Lord’s Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm, then she wanted to hear ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’ one last time, so I sang and she hummed a little, and then she started nodding off. I am full of admiration for her. She’s given me a lot to live up to, so to speak. At any rate, she didn’t keep me awake past my bedtime, and the peacefulness of her sleep contributed mightily to the peacefulness of mine. These old saints bless us every chance they get.”

Talk 6 (summing up) – much of this was ad libbed so these are just indicative notes.

Laying down the burdens

We are coming to the end of the retreat and getting ready to return to the coalface of ministry. I hope that you have been refreshed by this time of prayer and reflection. I know I have enjoyed having a Sabbath time to give thanks for the privilege of ordained ministry.

It is wonderful, but it is certainly draining too. My hero John Ames writes,

“That’s the strangest thing about this life, about being in the ministry. People change the subject when they see you coming. And then sometimes those very same people come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things. There’s a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt, and so much loneliness, where you wouldn’t really expect to find it, either.”

So we have to find ways to deal with those burdens, or we’ll be weighed down and crushed by them. I’ve been to a great many ordination services over the year, and I always love to hear these words in the bishop’s charge to the ordinands:

“You cannot bear the weight of this calling in your own strength, but only by the grace and power of God. Pray therefore that your heart may daily be enlarged and your understanding of the Scriptures enlightened. Pray earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

How do we keep going in parish ministry for 10, 20, 30 years without being crushed by the dread and guilt and loneliness that is disclosed to us? Only by the gift of the Holy Spirit.

A Yorkshire MP once told a group of clergy what one of his Muslim constituents had said about prayer. Five times a day, he said, I bow down and remember that I am not the centre of the universe. It’s not all about me. God is in charge.

Of course we know that. But the daily office, the presidency of the Eucharist, leading intercessions can all become things we become proficient at, things we train others to do well. The professionalisation of the clergy as leaders and managers is a process that has many advantages for the Church but also some clear spiritual dangers.

We have to remember that we are really just holy fools. The grace of orders is real – I know it for myself and have seen it in others. But it is a grace of discernment, not of empowerment. We have been ordained in order to see clearly, and to help others see, that all is gift. That feeling of being a fraud? It never goes away. Because it’s true and right. In our human rags we stand in for Christ, the one in whom human nature is fully revealed as perfectly united with the divine. The amazing promise is that one day we will no longer be frauds. One day we will be entirely transparent to God and we will shine with reflected glory. But we won’t have earned that day by our spiritual endeavours and successes. We’ll be welcomed as the beloved, diverse, flawed and struggling children whom God loves beyond measure.

Helping people to believe that is the most important task of parish ministry. It’s also the hardest thing for us to believe about ourselves.

Bishop Sarah’s inaugural sermon quoted St Augustine who said “for you I am a bishop, with you I am a Christian” – in the same way we are called to be priests for the people and Christians with the people whom we serve.

Rowan Williams remarked once on the difference between holiness and goodness. In the presence of a good person we feel ashamed of ourselves, seeing how much better we could be. In the presence of a holy person, we feel better about ourselves, because we catch from them the joy of the fullness of life. The Church needs holy priests because we need priests who can radiate this joy.

We must never forget the power of story – letting the narratives of other lives, and above all the gospel narrative, shape the meaning we give to the story of our own lives. Return regularly to fictional narratives in order to keep our sense of story alive.

Every day, let’s lay down our burdens where they belong, before the Lord. And every night, let’s remember the example of King Lear and the Reverend John Ames. “I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.

Initial talk that led to the foundation of the Sodality

A talk to the Southwark Chapter at Trinity All Through School, Lewisham on Wednesday 14th January, 2015
Fr Richard Peers SCP

Father David (our co-Rector) has suggested that we reflect on our Rule and life as a Society. I hope you will forgive me for doing so in my usual forthright, headmasterly manner; even though I do feel a little trepidation in the presence of some of our founders. I suggested a ten minute talk which he thought wasn’t quite long enough; so blame him when you look at your watches.

It is not good, the accepted wisdom has it, to label people. Clergy don’t like to be labelled. Or they claim so many labels that they become meaningless, everyone seems to be a ‘liberal catholic with charismatic tendencies and an evangelical love of the bible’ or a ‘liturgy loving evangelical with a celtic hinterland’.

So let me be clear: I like labels, I am happy to claim a few for myself and when it come to ‘churchpersonship’ mine is pretty clear, I am an Anglo-Catholic. That is to say I am an Anglican who looks to the great heroes of our faith in the Oxford movement and the ritualist pioneers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. I delighted in being a parish priest and then school chaplain in the same patch of Portsmouth where Father Dolling had ministered. Where he built the magnificent mini-basilica that was St Agatha’s (now a church of the Ordinariate) and from which he fled when his bishop opposed the erection of a requiem altar. I delighted in serving my title in the biretta belt along the south bank of the Tees, where the Catholic faith was strong and a minibus collected the clergy for all the deanery patronal festivals and delivered us home gin-soaked, following the after-party.

Back in those heady days of the early 90s I fully expected to become a member of the Society of the Holy Cross following in the footsteps of my hero priests. We used the Roman Rite, we prayed the Divine Office from the Breviary and we considered ourselves priests of the latin rite hoping one day to be re-united with the successor of Peter. In addition to daily Office and Mass; daily Rosary and meditation were part of the priestly life we were signed up for. Deep devotion to Our Lady and to the saints were the backbone of who we were.

The ordination of women has forced many of us to take positions. But the positioning of the catholic organisations since then has followed a division in the catholic movement that dates to an earlier period and perhaps has always been present. The division between the Sarum and Roman forms; the division between the Percy Dearmers and the Father Tooths.

For those of us who feel most comfortable with, for want of a better word, the ‘Romanisers’, but who believe profoundly in the ordination of women and equal marriage, there is a key question: Where is home?

SCP has clearly inherited the Dearmer style of Catholicism. All organisations are coalitions; span spectrums of belief and practice; but is this Society wide enough to include people like me? Many of my friends, many members of the Society have said to me in one form or another over the years ‘it’s not catholic enough for me’. I have had a few conversations about forming another grouping of Catholic clergy, a more devotionally minded sodality. Perhaps there is room within the Society for some such sodality? Or perhaps the Society itself can change and grow to provide enough for the needs of those like me who look to a more Anglo-Catholic, even Anglo-Papalist position.

It is well known that in education there has been, certainly since the 1970s, a predominant mind-set that was hugely committed to multiculturalism among other things. Superb work was done that challenged prejudice and ignorance and gave many children experiences of other cultures and faiths that they would never otherwise have had. However, the shadow side of this was a watering down, a secularist led agenda that sought to create a neutral, religionless space. To make everyone the same. I’m afraid that many church schools took a similar route, one book about church schools describing them, in its title, as “An Uncertain Trumpet”.

As many of you know we have taken the very opposite path here at Trinity. My great mentor and time of apprenticeship at this was at St Luke’s school in inner city Portsmouth at the turn of the century where I was Chaplain to an amazing Headteacher, Krysia Butwilowska.

All theology is, of course, contextual, and specific. Anglo-Catholicism is tied inexorably, I believe, to the margins; it is an option for the poor and has always been practised, at its best, among and by those on the edge. St Luke’s was very much on the edge, serving the same area as Fr Dolling had served a century earlier. In the same way I am aware that what we do here at Trinity works because we are a black majority school in Lewisham. It works because of the overwhelming influence of Pentecostal christianity on our families and children.

So I would characterise the form of Anglo-Catholicism practised here in a number of ways:

it is pious and sentimental



The Mass is at its heart and priestly ministry and vocation are unashamedly a key ingredient – as they must be if we are to be properly ecclesial – the church being an ordered, hierarchical society.

Brother Alois the current Prior of Taizé says that “God wants nothing but that we live intensely.” It is a strong catholicism, an intense catholicism that we seek to live out in the school.

Inclusion has taken, I believe, a wrong turn when it becomes a watering down; a lowest common denominator. Inclusion works best when everyone can most be themselves. The more we are ourselves the more we give others the permission to be themselves. Inclusion does not diminish difference but celebrates it.

At Trinity our Muslim and Hindu families have no problem with what we do. We have an Arabic school for Muslim families that meets here every Saturday. When our Muslim children want a prayer room we provide it. The current Head girl is a Muslim – one with a great devotion, as it happens, to Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta – and Muslim pupils have travelled with us regularly to Taizé where we provide a tent for them to use for prayer, although they are also expected to join in the community prayer as well – so a mere 8 prayer sessions a day for them.

I am second to no one in my affection and respect for our former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, but like all of us he is a man of his time and I think he has been unduly influenced by the multiculturalism of the last part of the twentieth century. In an introduction he once wrote for the Society of Catholic Priests he said:

“Anglican clergy identifying themselves as within the Catholic tradition used to have all sorts of ‘tribal’ habits, in dress, speech and style of life, to set them apart from those they thought of as less enlightened. No-one is going to regret that we have begun to grow up a bit in that respect.”

Well, perhaps I haven’t grown up, but I do regret that passing and I think it is to our detriment. The human need to belong is profound and deep. Gangs attract teenagers precisely because they give a sense of belonging. A place to belong is nothing more than a home, a family in which we can genuinely grow and flourish. It is a mark of the Incarnation that all human existence is specific, it belongs to a time and a place, it owns its culture and community.

This is really the heart of inclusion, that we accept and celebrate difference and diversity; we do belong to different groups and clubs; to some extent these are exclusive; but we are richer for that. Inclusion would mean nothing at all if it didn’t involve difference. We might even consider the possibility that the arrangements required to pass the legislation on the ordination of women is itself God’s will, an opportunity to test our inclusiveness.

Perhaps part of the problem – if there is one – is that our Society is just too establishment. One of my favourite and one of the most influential books for me as an educator is Teaching As a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. Anglo-Catholics were always subversive, perhaps we have become too comfortable, too used to promotion and acceptability. Perhaps we need to fight a few battles?

I think we do need to because I don’t think the key battles have been won. In fact I think we have capitulated on some of the victories that our forebears in the Catholic movement won at such a price.

So let me try to be a little more specific in thinking about what would make our Society or some sort of sodality within it a place where I felt more at home:

First and foremost a recognition that Anglicanism is a current that flows within western, catholic, Latin-rite Christianity. We’re not ‘a church’; the Archbishop is not a Patriarch. Lets look forward hopefully to the day when he or she will once again receive the pallium (displayed on the archiepiscopal coat of arms) from the Bishop of Rome.

This fundamental orientation is one shared by the ecumenical community at Taizé who look to the proper exercise of the universal ministry of Peter.

Our liturgy is a liturgy of the Latin rite. Even Cramer’s Communion service is clearly such. So let’s not be afraid of that rite. Like our forbears in the Catholic movement lets use as much of that rite in its current, ordinary form, as we can. The Divine Office is not only a much more convenient way of praying time it also unites us with the whole western catholic church and provides a lifetime of reflection on the catholic faith.

Lets acknowledge that our liturgy is deficient in some ways: all those collects for saints days that treat the saints as mere examples and not as friends in heaven interceding for us constantly. The lack of intercession in the Eucharistic Prayers; the weak sacrificial language.

Lets not be afraid of piety, sentiment and devotion.

Lets not give up our birthright: the daily Mass, sacramental confession, reservation, exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Lets fight for an increase in devotion to the Mother of God.

Lets be radical in our politics.

Lets explore what a healthy priestly spirituality would look like. A truly sacrificial life for ourselves and our families. Here, as in other areas we can learn much from our evangelical brothers and sisters who are not embarrassed to make their homes and families part of their Christian, public ministry.

Lets not be afraid to be teachers of the faith; again, this is another area where I think we can learn from Evangelicals. If we believe that the Catholic faith is the best possible manifestation of Christianity we need to teach people how to be Catholics. The technology of prayer and liturgy: genuflection, the sign of the cross, prayers to be learnt by heart. Catholic teaching on the sacraments and the moral life. We should not be content to leave people as they were but to change their lives and behaviour. I am a great believer in the Religious life and in the vocation to celibacy; but we need to teach that Marriage is the normative and best way to live a life. That marriage is sacrificial and hard, that love is about choices. We can’t be inclusive of every lifestyle. The mis-use of sex damages lives and with money, food and power are the areas where we are most flawed and subject to sin.

A recognition that we are called to leadership and must negotiate the difficult art of exercising power without being embarrassed or ashamed.

I suppose what I am saying is that we do the ‘liberal’ bit quite well. Although I would argue that I am not a liberal and that the ordination of women and equal marriage are highly traditional. I am by nature a conservative and it is that part of what we do as a society, our catholic life, that I am concerned about. All sorts of attempts at renewing the catholic movement have been attempted, Anglican Catholic Future being the latest but none of them have captured hearts and minds, none of them have gained traction because they are simply not devout enough. It is our life of piety that needs renewing so that our public life of radical politics can bear fruit.

In retrospect I suspect that the pontificates of Benedict and Francis will need to be seen together:

– From Benedict we need to take some elements of the reform of the reform. The Roman Canon was of utmost importance for many Anglicans in the Catholic movement, I have often celebrated Mass from Missals designed to interpolate the Prayer Book Mass and the Roman Canon. With its deep chiastic structure in which intercession, sacrifice and the communion of saints draw us into the Eucharistic mystery; we are impoverished if we forget it. The Roman Canon is the prayer of Augustine the first Archbishop of Canterbury, and – although the trendy faux liturgy books would hardly suggest it – the Prayer of the ‘Celtic’ christians.

– Eastward celebration another key aim of the Catholic movement dating back to the 17th century is also something we should not forget as it is re-discovered by many Roman Catholic Christians. A Vatican II Catholic, I didn’t discover it until I was a school chaplain in Portsmouth and had to use the parish church for Mass for a while, that Evangelical Parish only had one altar, pushed against a wall. What amazed me is that children preferred it, particularly the boys. All that eye contact and performance is not what they wanted. I now find it suits my introvert nature and is a calmer and more contemplative way of presiding at the liturgy.

– From Francis we need to be reminded of the political vision of the Catholic movement in the Church of England. We must seek an alternative to the un-restricted capitalism of our time if the planet, let alone the human race are to survive. Francis will soon make protection of the planet a key element of his papacy. We should do the same.

– But also we could learn from Francis a deep, traditional Catholicism full of Latin American piety and devotion. His devotion to Our Lady Untier of Knots is one that we Anglicans who tie ourselves in so many knots could well emulate. I have a prayer card and leaflet for each of you on this important devotion.

The founders of our Society were largely priests who had been formed in the Society of the Holy Cross. I have copied for you the Rule of that Society, many who have joined later may not be familiar with it. I wonder if we could learn a little from its emphasis on personal sanctification and the Mass? Perhaps we could even share with them further development of what it means to be a holy priest. How we seek to convert our own individual sinfulness. Perhaps we could invite one of the brethren of that Society to address us on just that subject; share in the things we can share: Rosary, Stations of the Cross, Office, perhaps even Benediction.

Looking at the Rule of SSC I am conscious of the heavenly patronage it claims for itself: St. Mary at the Cross; St. Vincent de Paul; St. John Mary Vianney, the Cure d’Ars; and Charles Lowder. Yet for us in the Society of Catholic Priests who are our heavenly patrons, who intercedes for us daily at the throne of grace?

One of the phrases I like most from Teaching As A Subversive Activity is that we should teach children to develop an inner ‘crap detector’. I have now spent most of my adult life working with teenagers. It is a total joy and delight. They have so much energy; they cut through so much crap; they have such an instinctive sense of justice and injustice. Before I began work here as Head Master I visited many Pentecostal churches, I saw at once that Anglo-Catholicism and Pentecostalism feed from the same spring. They really believe it. They really feel it. They are unapologetic. They are also intensely ordered and visual communities. I hadn’t seen a figure of 8 procession in church for years until I visited one of our local African churches.

Working with teenagers, vocation is a huge part of what we do. Abbot Christopher Jamison former Head Master and Abbot at Worth once said that enabling children to discern their vocation was the key task of schools.

I worry that the key public models for priesthood are so dire. Which aspirational teenager, let alone which black aspirational teenager, would want to be like the Vicar of Dibley or The Reverend Adam Smallbone?

I think these two dire characters are indicative of a deeper problem with our spirituality of priesthood, and perhaps of the Christian life. It is a spirituality of woundedness or brokeness. I’m afraid the writings of Henri Nouwen are saturated in this. It is ‘victim’ like obsession with the wound and very far from a fully adult acknowledgement of sin; our flaws and guilt; or an adult recognition that suffering, pain and unsatisfactoriness are part of every life, every day. Here we need to turn to Saint Paul, especially 2 Cor 12:9, he makes it clear that in our weakness God is strong, God actually says to him “My power is made perfect in weakness.” The point is not the weakness but the power, and that it is God’s, not ours. Again I think we could learn much about powerful leadership from evangelicals. At Trinity we attempt to teach our young people to be powerful men and women; but never to rely on themselves. I hope one day we will produce powerful catholic priests and Religious.

Many of these problems have their origins in person-centred, Rogerian counselling. One of the things that is at the heart of what we do here at Trinity is to reject ‘child centred’ education. We are a God centred community. This is a totally orthodox theology: human beings only make sense when we are oriented towards God and not to ourselves.

Having suggested some areas which I think we, as a Society, could reflect on, I would like to conclude with three of the things I think we do best:

the monthly prayer list of this Chapter is hugely significant; to pray for one another

concelebration: this really is one of the fruits of Vatican 2; it teaches us that our priesthood is never our own; always derived from our bishop and ultimately from Christ our High Priest

hospitality: our fellowship over lunch or supper is warm and genuine; our fellowship and friendship to one another in the Society is a strength to build on

I am in no way disheartened. In the ebb and flow of the various parts of the Anglican tradition our Catholic movement has been ebbing for some time, but God, as we know, is never unfaithful, in his good time, if we are faithful, there will be renewal.
May we as a Society be renewed in priestly holiness; may Our Lady Untier of Knots help us to deal with the complexities of life in our church and in our world with great humility, simplicity and love.

NOTES FROM SMMS RETREAT 2017 led by Sr. Gemma Simmonds CJ

Fr John-Francis Friendship SMMS has sent us his notes on the retreat: 



“God can do in 2 days what he can do in 8!” (Comment to a retreatant)

If something irritates you, don’t run from it. It may be there’s something going on that needs attention.
Take note of the different things that attract your attention. They may have something important to communicate.


S. Ignatius taught that the Director of a Retreat is God. How you attend to God is ore important than how you attend to me!


Our primary vocation is found in our Baptism as Prophet, Priest and King. How do you live out of that vocation? How is God’s relationship with you ‘embodied’? How do you live out your social, sexual and connectional self that speaks of God being with you? We’re called to join the failed prophet; the priest who gathered few, and the King crowned with thorns. What of late has been your experience of sharing in this call of Christ (have a conversation with Jesus)? What might His invitation, to you, be?


‘A Sacrament is a sign that makes real what it signifies.’ In what ways do we live, sacramentally?


Exercise: What first called you to Christ – to His love and service? If you and Jesus were sitting together, what might He say to you about that call, that consecration?





All that matters is to be at one with the living God

to be a creature in the house of the God of Life.

Like a cat asleep on a chair

at peace, in peace

and at one with the master of the house, with the mistress,

at home, at home in the house of the living,

sleeping on the hearth, and yawning before the fire.

Sleeping on the hearth of the living world

yawning at home before the fire of life

feeling the presence of the living God

like a great reassurance

a deep calm in the heart

a presence

as of the master sitting at the board

in his own and greater being,

in the house of life.

‘Pax’ – D. H. Laurence


I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”. The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms. (Pope Francis: Evangelii Gaudium 1:3)


“There is not a moment until our final breath when there is not an invitation to conversion.” (Unknown)


With a tenderness which never disappoints, but is always capable of restoring our joy, he makes it possible for us to lift up our heads and to start anew. Let us not flee from the resurrection of Jesus, let us never give up, come what will. May nothing inspire more than his life, which impels us onwards!” (Pope Francis: Evangelii Gaudium 1: 3)



This is the joy which we experience daily, amid the little things of life, as a response to the loving invitation of God our Father: “My child, treat yourself well, according to your means… Do not deprive yourself of the day’s enjoyment” (Sir 14:11, 14). What tender paternal love echoes in these words! (Pope Francis: Evangelii Gaudium 1: 4)


Pope Francis speaks of the ‘revolution of tenderness’ – tenderness towards others and tenderness towards ourselves. It is in prayer that we experience our need for, and capacity for, tenderness. “And what is tenderness?” he asked. “It is the love that comes close and becomes real. It is a movement that starts from our heart and reaches the eyes, the ears and the hands.” (Video speech by Pope Francis to TED 2017 – TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks}


“What you desire you do not already possess but when yopu do desire you have the capacity for it.” (St. Augustine – unattr.) Our life is to be ‘exercised by desire’, to hollow out a space for God. To get in touch with our deepest desire is to get in touch with something of our emptiness. Of our need.  


The desire for God is, in itself, a grace and the opposite of faith if not doubt but indifference – “do I care?”


‘In prayer we discover what we already have. You start where you are and you deepen what you already have, and you realize that you are already there. We already have everything, but we don’t know it and we don’t experience it. Everything has been given to us in Christ. All we need is to experience what we already possess.’ Merton on Prayer and Time, part 1


‘The joy of evangelizing always arises from grateful remembrance: it is a grace which we constantly need to implore. The apostles never forgot the moment when Jesus touched their hearts: “It was about four o’clock in the afternoon” (Jn 1:39).’ (Pope Francis: Evangelii Gaudium 2: 13)


When we die it will be our sins that are our glory. It will be the struggle that is rememberered (att. Julian of Norwich?)


How do we experience the ‘sacramentality of the ordinary’? In beholding the Divine Presence in the Blessed Sacrament do we look beyond and behold the Divine Presence in all things? Give thanks – eucharistos (εὐχάριστο) – in all things?


If ‘eucharist’ is important, so is reconciliation. Reconciliation in all things; to be reconciled with all the dead and broken things in us – ‘like wheat that springeth green’. Where most in my life do I need reconciliation? By His wounds we have been healed – through our wounds comes our healing.


‘I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.’ (Pope Francis: Evangelii Gaudium)





FOURTH ADDRESS – The Sacramentality of the Ordinary: Reconciliation


In relation to the Parable of the Prodigal Son, do we have a ‘good brother’ and a ‘bad brother’ in ourselves? The petition in the Our Father, Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’, places reconciliation on a par with receiving our ‘daily bread’.


Are we merciful towards ourselves? How do we know that we are forgiven or that we have forgiven? Forgiveness is not easily obtained or given; it is a grace from God. What we desire gives us the capacity to receive it. We need, each day, to ‘hollow out’ the capacity to forgive.  


Do we need to re-affirm the Sacrament of Reconciliation in our churches (Yes!) Do we need to create a place which visibly proclaims that this Sacrament, this primary command of Jesus, Forgive us our trespasses, is observed? (We might identify, sacramentally, this Sacrament with chair, stole, kneeling desk etc…)  


The Sorrowful Mother holds her wounded Son – and she holds us, as her children, in Him in our own woundedness.  






The Sodality at a year old: first Superior’s Report to General Chapter

Superior’s Report
Aylesford Priory

May 17th, 2017
Thank you, first of all, to Sr Gemma, for a truly amazing, renewing and inspiring three days. Last year, after Fr Martin gave us such a good start I thought we would never be able to follow that, but wow, Sr Gemma you certainly have. You are a true daughter of St Ignatius, a true daughter of that strong woman, Mary Ward. You have led us with imagination, insight and good humour. This will go down in my life and for us as a community as one of the most significant retreats.
We are as, Fr Olier would say, “priests of Jesus”. Without Jesus we are nothing, without Jesus whatever we do is meaningless, Jesus is the centre, the heart, the solid rock of our industry. Jesus is the home, the refuge, our first love. As the Psalm at the Office of Readings this morning put it “I love you Lord my strength.”

So lets pray together Fr Olier’s prayer, Day 6 in The Manual …
And we end that prayer by commending ourselves to the prayers of Mary, our Mother, the Mother of Priests: Hail Mary …
This is the first ever Superior’s Report so I feel something of a weight. I am not going to waste time detailing what has happened over the last year. You can look at Facebook and Twitter for that.

I am immensely grateful to God for this Sodality and for our friendship in it; for this profound sense of community that is developing among us. Most of you will have seen this piece of jewellery I came across, two Hearts, one inside the other, like the hearts of Jesus and Mary. Without Jesus we are nothing, without love we are nothing. They will know that we are christians by our love; how good and precious it is, brothers and sisters living in unity. 

We are a dispersed community, but we must never let our love seem dispersed. Keep using the private Facebook group to update us on news and to ask for our prayers. Nothing is too small. 

We will grow in love as we grow in knowledge of each other. Keep inviting each other to events, celebrations and parties. Fr Michael Bowie celebrates 25 years of priesthood on July 2nd, if you are able to get to Margaret Street please do so but most of all send him your love and prayers and offer Mass for him. Michael, dear friend, you have been a great blessing to us and to me, we are grateful.

Keep inviting each other to preach as well, as we visit each other, see where we are ministering, see the context in which we each work we will also grow in love.
We continue to grow steadily in numbers, I am emailed by people wanting to know more every week. I have received new members and many aspirants; we are an incredibly young group. I find that enormously encouraging. There is a narrative that the church is in decline; that Anglo Catholicism has had its day. I do not believe either of those things. The young men and women offering themselves in the Sodality are the new life, the new future, the mission priests of the coming years and decades.
The Manual calls us to have universal hearts. As Catholics we must be wherever Jesus is. We must be in Reform and Renewal, Messy Church and Fresh Expressions – how fabulous that the Chaplain of Moot is now a Sodalist. The Manual also calls us to be of cheerful hearts, the spirit of clever cynicism that some in the church adopt, of weary resignation, has no place in the life of a mission priest. Only joy, only love will bring people to Jesus.
They say that the camel is a horse designed by a committee; well our Manual was written by a ‘committee’ but I think it is a beautiful and elegant thing. It demands a lot. Some will not be able to keep it. The Sodality is not for everyone. Some we will have to, in a kindly and loving way, suggest that it is not for them. All of us will fail. 
We are one year old. Compared to the Jesuits or to Sr Gemma’s Congregation of Jesus we are babies. We are still in a process of formation. We are working things out organisationally. We have never sought to be other than small and hidden. Growth in numbers is good. But the most import thing is our growth in maturity, in holiness and love.
This morning I placed Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament on the altar and our reports on observance of The Manual next to him.

What a great offering of prayer, of priestly sacrificial living. A worthy offering. 

One thing struck me for us to work on: the number of us who haven’t got Spiritual Directors. We need to sort that. It’s easy to let it slip. I haven’t got one yet, I moved seven months ago, I put some enquiries out, I met one person and decided it wasn’t going to work with that person; I haven’t done anything since. We need to sort this before next year’s retreat.

Because we live public lives; because we deal with holy things we are incredibly vulnerable; the devil is out to get us. We need Spiritual Directors to keep us real, to keep us grounded.
I am pleased to report a new development: Mother Imogen is going to work on what is needed within the Sodality for those called to single life and especially those who wish to make a formal commitment to celibacy for the kingdom. Please pray for her in that work.
It is a great model of and for the church that we are a Sodality that includes those living the celibate life, those in civil partnerships and those who are married. Fitting our attempt to be extreme Catholics I am sure we will all want to pray for and congratulate Fr and Mrs Hutcherson as they prepare for the arrival of twins in June. For a Sodalist one baby is never enough!
I will end with where I began,with Jesus:

Having spent most of my life working with or for young people I know that they want serious, demanding religion. I became a priest, I have often told them, because it is the closest I could get to being a Jedi knight. There is evil in my heart, there is evil in the world, there are battles to be fought. “Such is the high post of duty” Diognetus told us at the Office of Readings this morning, “in which God has placed us.”

To be Mission priests, as Sister Gemma reminded us in the words of Pope Francis, is not to DO mission but to BE mission.

Fr Benson of Cowley puts it like this:

“The eyes need not to see the power of God, if the heart gazes upon it; and, if the heart gazes upon it, the life cannot but manifest it.”
We inherit a serious tradition, to be priests of Jesus, to live, as Fr Benson of Cowley would have it, serious lives, as St. Paul put it in the reading at lauds (Rom 6:11) to look towards God through Jesus.

Such seriousness takes a lot of imagination, love and playfulness, that imagination, that playfulness is what Sr Gemma has led us in, so gracefully, on this retreat; for which …

Let us bless the Lord: thanks be to God.

Fr Richard Peers SMMS


Support the Work of the Sodality

Dear friends,
We are very grateful for the considerable support and encouragement that we have received from many parts of the church for our work in forming the Sodality and establishing ourselves as a community of priests. We are especially grateful when this encouragement and advice comes from those who hold different theological positions to us. This is mutual flourishing at its best.
We now have a bank account. As you can imagine there are a number of expenses associated with running a group such as this. There are membership fees. However, this is by way of an appeal to those who do not wish to join formally but are glad that we exist.
We would be grateful for any donations small or large to help us establish ourselves.
Benefactors will be remembered at Mass regularly and in the prayers of Sodalists.

Fr Diego Galanzano has agreed to be our Chantry Officer and will maintain a list of the dead to be prayed for and for whom requiem Masses will be offered by members of the Sodality. Gifts to the Sodality may be offered for inclusion of a name on the Chantry List.

Please send cheques (made out to SMMS) to

Fr Sam Korn
109 Margaret Road

Or paid by bank transfer to

Sort code 60-23-36
A/C number 82644608

If using bank transfer, please (a) use your surname as the payment reference and (b) email smmsanglican@gmail.com to let us know.

We are grateful for your gifts, however small, and for your continuing encouragement and prayer.

With my love, prayers and blessings, in the Two Hearts,
Fr Richard

“Sanctify the world”: Charles de Foucauld and our Lives as Mission Priests


–     A paper for a meeting of the Sodality of Mary, Mother of Priests

Father Richard Peers

Leicester, 10th September, 2016




I abandon myself into your hands;

do with me what you will.

Whatever you may do, I thank you:

I am ready for all, I accept all.

Let only your will be done in me,

and in all your creatures –

I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into your hands I commend my soul:

I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,

for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself,

to surrender myself into your hands without reserve,

and with boundless confidence,

for you are my Father.

Blessed Charles de Foucauld

It was sometime in the early years of this century. I was making a retreat with the Jerusalem Community in Paris and had a major life decision to make. The Community, like many French communities of the twentieth century is strongly influenced by the spirituality of Blessed Charles de Foucauld. Knowing this I took as my text for the retreat the prayer I have just prayed known as the Prayer of Abandonment written by Blessed Charles.

Although I had prayed the prayer before and many times since I was determined to really mean it; to genuinely abandon myself into God’s hands; to genuinely let the decision I had to make unfold according to his will.

I spent many hours each day in prayer and reading the Bible – using one of Carlo Carretto’s books as a guide.

I prayed phrases and lines of the prayer, I sought biblical texts and especially psalms to expand the lines of the prayer.

Finally, after five days I felt ready to pray the prayer. The community gathered to pray compline together in the little chapel in their house, a chapel that contained a small icon of Blessed Charles. After they had retired I remained in the dark and prayed the prayer slowly a word at a time breathing between each word, willing God, wanting God to accept my abandonment.

At the end of the prayer I knew that Jesus, present in the Blessed Sacrament had accepted my prayer for what it was. A gift of love; however insincerely I might go on to live the prayer; however much I might in the future abandon him to whom I had abandoned myself I knew that He knew that I meant those words. I knew he was there and for some hours time stood still, before I finally went to bed and to sleep.

God wants every human being to experience his presence. Most of us will have had such moments. They don’t last long; for most of us they don’t happen all the time but if we are living our Christian lives they should be a part of our life.

That, quite simply is our mission as priests. To be people of prayer, which means nothing more, than to be people in relationship with God; drawing others to relationship with God.

Charles de Foucauld has drawn countless souls to God, mostly after his death and mostly through the communities that have been inspired by his example. In some ways it is his life rather than his words that inspire. He is probably best known through the words of those who were inspired by him. I recommend the writings especially of Rene Voillaume and Carlo Carretto. Carretto makes a powerful companion for retreats and quiet days.

There are plenty of books and much material available on the internet that will give you the details of de Foucauld’s life, so I will just sketch the main events for you before going on to think about some themes and how they might influence our Sodality as a community of priests and how they fit into some of the themes already raised in the teaching we have received, particularly from Fr Tim Pike and Canon Robin Ward.

Foucauld was born in 1858 to a wealthy and noble family, he was later to inherit the title Viscount de Foucauld. His family lived in the disputed Alsace region of France and the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 which we know now from the musical Les Miserables, entailed his family fleeing to other estates. Before that, however, he had been orphaned and was brought up by a doting grandfather.

As a young man de Foucauld’s family despaired of him. He did badly at the military academy he attended; he was profligate with money to such an extent that they appointed lawyers to control his spending. He was promiscuous and eventually had a live-in mistress who he tried to pass off as his wife – which led to his temporary suspension from the cavalry. He ate and drank so much that he became obese and special uniforms had to made for him.

He was stationed in the French colony of Algeria and it was north-Africa, the desert and Islam that led him to return to the Catholic faith of his family and upbringing and to the heroic vocation which eventually led to his death.

Bewitched by the desert he sought and was refused permission by the army to explore the Moroccan desert. Undeterred he resigned his commission and travelled disguised as a Jewish trader accompanied by an elderly rabbi into dangerous non-French territory.

It is clear that he was profoundly changed by this experience. When he returned to Paris he went, in 1886 to see a wise and holy priest known as a powerful spiritual Director. This moment, with Father Henri Huvelin marked his conversion. This is significant for us as a Sodality because although all of Charles’s Catholic upbringing would have been influenced by the French School, Huvelin represented a formal and explicit link with this teaching and one that would continue in person and then by correspondence until Huvelin died in 1910.

Charles writes that his prayer as he approached Huvelin was:

“Mon Dieu, si Vous existez, faites que je Vous connaise!”

My God, if you exist, make me know you.

I think this is an important prayer and one which we need to encourage many of those who lack faith to make.

Fr Aidan Nichols writes:

“It was Huvelin who gave to de Foucauld, and so to the Petits Frères (and Soeurs) who follow him, their spirituality of the heart of Christ as the matrix of prayer.  In this teaching, Christ’s heart is seen as the source from which human beings can be rejuvenated, to the point of finding their own hearts alive with Christ’s love, especially for the wretched, the sick, the poor. For de Foucauld, personal devotion to the heart of Christ is the central and irreplaceable focus of the life of prayer, and, so far from, as is sometimes alleged, leading to a self-indulgent and individualistic piety, it is the essential way in which to affirm the universal scope of the Incarnation.”

Charles went on to make retreats at Solesmes and other French monasteries as well as a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He then entered the novitiate of the Trappist monastery Notre Dame des Neiges, Our Lady of the Snows. The monastery is still an active community and well worth a visit, they have a substantial exhibition about Charles de Foucauld.

Charles had been deeply affected by the abject poverty he had seen in north Africa, by the desert and by his visit to Nazareth – all themes that would remain important to him for the remainder of his life. He believed his vocation was to this community because it was poor; because it had a daughter community in the desert in Syria and because the Trappists were the most rigorous and extreme of the religious orders – he was outraged when, during his novitiate the Vatican allowed the Trappists to introduce eggs and oil to their diet.

But even this community was not extreme enough for de Foucauld. He was given permission to leave and in 1898 became a labourer and hermit with the Poor Clares in Jerusalem living in a shack at the edge of their property. He wrote a Rule of Life for a community of hermits that Huvelin  described as containing everything except discretion.

He studied for a while in Rome then back at Notre Dame de Nieges before being ordained priest – for the diocese of Viviers – in 1901. Viviers itself is worth a visit and they have a remarkable statue of de Foucauld outside the diocesan seminary. He returned to north Africa and although he travelled back to France at times and to the Holy Land this was fundamentally to be his home for the remainder of his life. Although he was joined once or twice by others his life was too rigorous and no one lasted more than a few months. He lived among the poorest and in the most remote areas. He was given permission (needed at that time under Canon Law) to say Mass alone, prayed the Office and Rosary each day and spent many hours in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. This prayer, the celebration of Mass, and the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in his hermitage have become part of his enduring legacy to the communities that have been inspired by him and are I believe key elements that we as priests of the Sodality need to ponder.

During the First World War battles and skirmishes also raged in north Africa. De Foucauld retreated to a fort-like hermitage he had built in the Moroccan desert at Tamanrasset.

On Friday 1st December 1916, having celebrated – as a First Friday – Mass of the Sacred Heart, de Foucauld was murdered in a raid on the fort for supplies.

De Foucauld’s friend Louis Massignon – who was also to become a friend of Thomas Merton – formed an association for friends and commissioned a biography by Rene Bazin that was published in 1921, in the next decades several brotherhoods were formed, some adopting the habit that de Foucauld had worn, a simple white cassock and scapular embroidered on which was a simple heart surmounted by a cross.

In 1967 Paul VI described de Foucauld as “the universal brother, model of charity” and in November 2005 Benedict XVI declared him among the ‘Blessed’. The cause for his canonisation continues.

Well, of course you could have found out any of these facts by reading Wikipedia, but I have tried to highlight some elements that may be of significance for us. And in the end it  de Foucauld’s life that is his witness.

Two years ago when we had just begun the idea of forming a community of priests I remember meeting Mother Imogen for the first time at the National pilgrimage to Walsingham. She was highly recommended by some very unlikely people. Among the phrases we used and that I used that day and many times since about our Sodality was that it was a community for ‘extreme Anglo-Catholics’. It is a phrase I rather like. As we approach the centenary of Blessed Charles’ death this December I hope that we are an extreme group; extremists even. Like Blessed Charles I hope that our extremism is not just in the public things but in the Nazareths of our lives; in our prayer and devotion.

Blessed Charles described himself as a ‘missionary monk’. We are not monks but we are missionaries; among the many communities inspired and formed by the life of de Foucauld are communities of secular/diocesan priests, it is worth Googling them and reading their rules of life.

In a letter of May 1913 de Foucauld described three elements that characterised his mission; I believe that we can adopt them all:

1 imitation of the hidden life of Jesus at Nazareth

2 exposition and adoration of the most blessed Sacrament

3 living among the forsaken and seeking their conversion



As diocesan priests we are called, ordained and licensed for public ministry. But we need to be sustained by a deep relationship with God, by regular moments in which we are fed by the movement of the Spirit within us. We need our Nazareth times. We need an annual retreat and regular quiet days – once a month?

The trouble is we have been indoctrinated by a lax and self serving culture. A retreat, a quiet day, a desert day is not a pampering day. Don’t take pre-mixed gin or a bottle of whiskey. Choose another day to have a lie-in; don’t make your day off your quiet day. This is the work of a priest. Don’t catch up on your reading, emails or writing a sermon. Ideally just have one spiritual author with you. And I can’t recommend Carlo Carretto enough, your Office book and a bible. Ideally arrange to be somewhere where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved and even better where it can be exposed. It may be that we need to offer these resources to one another. Celebrate Mass at some point. Get up early and pray the psalms slowly. Painfully slowly. Chew them. Blessed Charles often reminds me of the Anglican hermit-priest Father William Sirr, often called William of Glasshampton; both were said to pray the psalms so slowly that no one else could bear to pray with them. I don’t recommend this for your usual prayer but try it at least in your Nazareth times.

It was at Nazareth that Jesus prepared for public ministry. In our Nazareth moments God will speak to us; we will hear his Word so that we can preach it to others.


The Blessed Sacrament

This week one of the tweets from Archbishop Justin stated that Renewal was only possible when we have a renewal of prayer. Some Catholics and others have been critical of the Renewal and Reform programme as being too managerial and not prayerful or spiritual enough. To those people I would say, simply, great, get on your knees and pray. As catholic Anglicans we have the greatest gift to our church; because it is the gift Jesus gives all Christians – his Eucharistic presence. No matter how humble the aumbry; how tucked away in a corner it is; Jesus is there.

Our birth right as Anglo-Catholics is the daily Mass and the Eucharistic presence adored and honoured in quiet adoration and solemn Benediction.

It is a wonderful thing to celebrate Mass every day. This is what Blessed Charles calls us to do. It is what Pope Saint John Paul II encouraged every priest to do, seeing it as sufficient reason – if needed – to celebrate alone. But if we offer the Mass the people will come; even if it is only one person.

Celebrate on your day off. It is a beautiful thing to celebrate at the dining table with your family. Henri Nouwen never travelled without a stole and a few hosts ready to celebrate wherever he was, whoever would pray with him. Being faithful to the Office as Blessed Charles was requires planning and commitment but is the basic diet of a priest.


The Forsaken and their Conversion

One of the marks of the Sodality is our commitment to wear clericals; to be dressed at priests whenever possible. This is a wonderful gift. But we must never be seduced by it and the generosity and kindness which people show us when we dress properly.

On the way to a conference this week I stopped at a motorway service station, I bought my Marks and Spencer sandwiches then I went to find a quiet bench to sit and read on as I ate (I had already said Mid-Day Prayer in the car). As I sat down I noticed a distinctly unsavoury character coming towards me. I kept my head down but he sat himself down, preceded by the odour of urine and alcohol. My heart sank. All the other picnic benches were occupied by the young and the beautiful; why didn’t they want to talk to me! Well, I did give him conversation and prayer and time. I am ashamed of my first thoughts and I was reminded of who we wear our collars for …

I do think there is a danger when as a church we have to be concerned about numbers in church and financial contributions that we will market ourselves for the successful. Anglo-Catholics have always had a mission to those on the margins. We need to rediscover that. It is a wonderful thing that it is the Bishop of Burnley who has spoken so powerfully about estates ministry. These are the people who feel disenfranchised by politics. We need to be at the forefront of a new politics that engages them. We need to choose to minister in these places. How horrific it is that a bishop said to me only a few months ago that the Holy Spirit didn’t seem to be calling any clergy to minister north of the Cotswolds …

We also need to believe in conversion. That the salvation of souls is hugely important. This, if we think it’s true will be hugely motivating.


Fasting and Discipline

One of the best books available on the spiritual disciplines is Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. If you don’t know it do read it.

De Foucauld was profoundly touched by his encounters with Islam. He discovered in it a strong piety; he said that it produced in him a profound “bouleversement” – he was turned upside down by it. But he was able to find in Christianity a profound piety of the Sacred Heart; that depth of the interior life of Jesus which was utterly obedient, totally submissive, to the will of the Father.

In Lewisham I was privileged to encounter many Pentecostalist Christians who understood the importance of fasting in the spiritual life and of noticing the effect that food – let alone alcohol – has on prayer. Not infrequently a pupil or colleague would tell me that they were fasting for some intention, occasionally offering the fast for me and my work.

There is a very good book by Charles M Murphy, The Spirituality of Fasting, which aims to rediscover this practice. The great Benedictine scholar Adalbert de Vogue has also written an excellent and very practical book, To Love Fasting, which is essential reading on this subject.

I really hope that as a Sodality we can develop expertise in using the traditional spiritual disciples and so foster a spiritual renewal in our church.


Essential to all this is Spiritual Direction:

I am horrified when priests, often working in extremely challenging circumstances tell me that they don’t have a director, or that they see someone they have been seeing for many years and now see only once a year.

No secular counsellor would be allowed to work at all without appropriate supervision. When I was a Head I had a SD and a professional mentor. This is essential to spiritual and mental well-being.



Authenticity and Integrity

Those of you who celebrated Mass from the Missal this week will have prayed the Prayer over the Offerings on the Birthday of Our Lady, it is a remarkable prayer:


May the humanity of your Only Begotten Son,,

come, O Lord, to our aid,

and may he, who at his birth from the Blessed Virgin

did not diminish but consecrated her integrity,

by taking from us now our wicked deeds,

make our oblation acceptable to you.


I believe that what makes Charles de Foucauld do attractive is his authenticity, his integrity. The spiritual disciples when practised with care, integrate our personalities, so that we become attractive to others. The spiritual life is not a helpful addition to mission, to renewal and reform, it is an essential prerequisite. It does not claim that we are saints, quite the opposite we become evermore aware of our ‘wicked deeds’ our sinfulness and selfishness.

Two weeks ago I received the aspiration of three young men to join the Sodality; they are just beginning their priestly formation. They are doing an heroic thing in offering their whole adult lives to God in service in the sacred priesthood. The Sodality celebrates and rejoices in that heroism; and is unapologetic in acknowledging it, as a sign and symbol for all the baptised of Jesus who is the model for us all. By our commitment to the Sodality we are making an offering, an oblation of ourselves.

I want to end with two things:

First, the sign that Blessed Charles wore and that has become the sign of all those inspired by him, the heart surmounted by a cross. Our society is hungry for authenticity, hungry for integrity. Hungry for heart. The truth is, of course, that the only way to the depth of God’s presence is the cross. ”The more devoted to the cross we are, the greater glory we give Jesus who is nailed there.” Wrote V

Blessed Charles. I am ashamed of the privilege and luxury of my life; of the blessings that God showers on me .. but I don’t want to lose them; that’s why the Prayer of Abandonment is so hard to pray.

It is why, also, as Robin Ward mentioned, the teaching of the French school on annihilation of the self, of slavery to Jesus and Mary is so hard to stomach.


If we are extreme Catholics it has to be because e at least want to be able to say with St Paul that we are “prisoners of Jesus” and that, out of our freedom, we have made ourselves slaves.


What is the purpose of our little Sodality?

the sanctification of priests through the hearts of Jesus and Mary, for the glory of God, and for all people.” The Manual, Day 1

Here is a charge to us from the writings of Blessed Charles:

Jesus speaks: “To souls in silence, I say go and set up your devotional retreats in the midst of those who do not know me; carrying the Gospel by the persuasive force of example, not by speaking but by living: sanctify the world, carry me into the world…”

“Christ’s heart is the source from which human beings can be rejuvenated, to the point of finding their own hearts alive with Christ’s love … personal devotion to the heart of Christ is the central and irreplaceable focus of the life of prayer, it is the essential way in which to affirm the universal scope of the Incarnation.”

May Blessed Charles inspire us to live our priesthood with I boundless confidence.

Aidan Nicholls







Sodality Anthem to Our Lady

Many thanks to Keith Jones for setting the words of Pope Saint John Paul II to music and to Fr Simon Robinson for commissioning him.

Keith was a cathedral chorister, choral scholar of St. John’s College Cambridge and viola player in the National Youth Orchestra. He was Head of English at the West Somerset School, conductor of the MInehead and District Choral Society, founder of the Alcombe Singers and organist and choirmaster of St. Michael the Archangel Alcombe.

Members of the Sodality may wish to use this anthem after Compline and/or before the versicle and response which precede the Sodality Prayer in the Manual and may follow the daily reading of the Manual or the section from the High Priestly prayer of Jesus.