THERE WAS a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day. And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate full of sores, and desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. St Luke 16.19

THERE’S AN EXTRACT from a sermon by Dean Jeffrey John of St Alban’s in the Back to Church Sunday Special that arrived with this week’s UK Church Times. In it the Dean tells of visiting the Cathedral, a week before he was to be installed as Dean, “in civvies to see what it was like.”

At that time, though, there was still quite a fuss about my coming here at all. And, on that first Sunday, there were people who had come up from some churches in London, who were trying to collect signatures for a petition to stop the installation.

So, on my first Sunday here, I had this wonderful experience of being asked to sign a petition against myself.

There was laughter in Bramhall Parish Church when I shared this story this morning. Thankfully, however, and a cause for joy in me, many spoke to me afterwards of their being appalled to hear of such a thing happening in a church, to anyone, anywhere, for any reason.

For much of my adult life I’ve witnessed sections of the Church meting out torture (and torturing herself in the process) to those deemed, by them, unworthy of a full place. It has been a most unseemly spectacle – and surely extremely painful for some kind souls in leadership positions, to whom we all too willingly abrogate our own responsibility for the well-being of others, leaving ourselves free to pelt them with negative judgments whenever the fickle mood takes us. We can hardly be surprised that it has also been a period of decline and loss of faith in the Church – even at the same time there’s been a rise in interest in the things of God.

We won’t be pushed around any more

Two World Wars left millions worldwide wondering whether they’d been sold a pup. Millions more absolutely knew that they had been. People all over the world are rising up to this very day and – peacefully – showing bullies that they won’t be pushed around anymore. Thank God for the “feet of them that bring good news” – “for the poor.”

I’m minded to pray for a world, and for religious communities of every tradition within that world, that have learned something of lasting value from the tragic divisions of the past. I’m minded to wonder what might be the nature of the “hell” to which “a certain rich man” allowed himself to be carried off? Isn’t hell a lasting sense of burning shame here in this world before it’s anything else? Shame, in the light of the loving presence of God, because we not only failed to help “a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at [the] gate full of sores” but we compounded the injury, steadfastly pretending that we hadn’t even noticed he was there.

Many will have heard, some will have read, and more will hear of Dean Jeffrey’s story in days and months and years to come. I shall continue to pray that the Church in every corner of the world lives to recognise the absolute shamefulness of “people who had come up from some churches in London, who were trying to collect signatures for a petition to stop the installation.” Let s/he who has the time and funds to draw up petitions pray instead “Father forgive them (those hell bent on crucifixion and exclusion “outside the city wall”) for they know not what they do.”

Jeffrey John concludes, writing, of course, about adherents of Christian faith

We are Catholic, in the sense we mean in the creed: “I believe in one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.” Catholic implies universal, for everybody — young, old, black, white, male, female, rich, poor, gay, straight, married, single, and whatever other categories you can think of.

We are all here on an equal basis,which is that none of us qualifies to be here. We are all here because we are all sinners looking for forgiveness; we are all wounded in one way or another, and looking for healing; and we are all children of God, looking to be strengthened by his love, so that we can go out and live a decent life as his people in the world.

It’s a message that doesn’t apply only to the Church though. We live – and ought to rejoice in – a “catholic” world.


THERE’S A LOVELY PIECE by Liz Dodd in The Tablet this week about the “anti-Jubilee resolve” in her that hadn’t yet considered what two archbishops (Canterbury and Westminster) had: the Marian-like “fiat” or “yes” uttered by Queen Elizabeth II sixty years ago, and the resolve, perseverance and dedication with which Her Majesty has fulfilled that promise.

Impressed by

“Prince Charles’ speech at the end of the concert (‘my father has been taken unwell’); the Queen, accompanied only by a Lady in Waiting to the Service of Thanksgiving; Archbishop Williams’ brave words about ‘ludicrous financial greed’ at that same service – [which] will stick in my memory long after I’ve forgotten the hymns, the hats and the pearly sword”

Liz writes of the importance of the humanity revealed in the celebration, and of how

“My own anti-Jubilee resolve eventually crumbled when I found myself stuck in a pub in Hackney that was showing the concert. As the national anthem brought the event to a close everyone – every hipster, drinker and cynic in the bar – stood up. Including me.”

This is really important stuff. A theological college Principal recently suggested to one of our ordinands here that “I would really have to see the whites of their eyes before I preach.” The way we feel about people, and their celebrations and circumstances, and the way we speak with and to and amongst them, is changed irrevocably when we’ve truly met them as human persons, as “one of us”. That, of course, involves a very particular kind of “fiat”, a very particular kind of commitment to the persons we presume to know, address or speak about. Preachers and would-be teachers in the life of the Church (or any institution) absolutely owe it to their hearers to make some real effort to know WHO it is they’re addressing, to know something of the issues going on in the lives of the human persons seated before them. (And actually, whether you’ve a congregation of 20 or 2000, or a Commonwealth of billions, that’s really not an easy thing to do).


Once upon a time I worked with a church council who were exceptionally unkind and discourteous to one another and to the people they were called to represent and serve. Meeting in a cavernous ecclesiastical space, all parties felt at liberty to “slag off” any and all others at will. So we moved to a much smaller space and we sat round a table that made for a tight fit. Behaviour improved immediately. Falsely inflated opinions about persons are deflated by proximity to them.

Still, however, we all find it easier to be rude about others than to them. Proximity ordinarily makes us more civilized (and we really are pompous buffoons if it doesn’t). Close up, one can almost hear the heartbeat. Close up, one can feel warmth and loving kindness, or isolation, illness, anguish or pain. Close up, one can feel one’s own falsity and neediness, and hear one’s own balderdash and blustering. Close up, we wonder, embarrassed, how we ever came to be in possession of such grandiose ideas of our own importance in the scheme of things. (Sight of Archbishop Rowan’s desk and study in the recent Lambeth Palace video left me thanking God for a gentle, humble, scholarly GIANT of an archbishop, at around the same time as I spotted an account of his reading The Gruffalo to playschool children). Close up, the idea of inclusivity feels a better idea than we’d hitherto imagined (and we’re acutely aware of our own longing to be accepted for who we really are). Close up, a particularly vociferous and homophobic “Christian” of my aquaintance, suddenly saw, in the Bishop Gene Robinson he’d hitherto despised, a loving, warm, kindly and Christ-like human being – and repented of his former arrogance and “theological and doctrinal certainty.” Close up, we’re faced, and others are faced, with the reality of our character, values, and virtues – or the lack thereof.

Shaping society

Moving, forgive me, from one ecclesiastical journal to another, I was delighted to read the Church Times account of the University of Birmingham’s having been given “a multi-million pound award” by the Templeton Foundation (great videos) “to support [The Jubilee Centre] the first UK centre dedicated to research into the character, values, and virtues that shape UK society” … The director of the new centre, Professor James Arthur, said:

“In the aftermath of the August 2011 riots, there have been many calls for the renewal of public and private virtues. As a country we appear to want to change people for the better and so improve the quality of public life. However, there is very little definition of what these changes might be and how they might be made. The Jubilee Centre will not simply research past and present attitudes to character, but help to develop new knowledge and understanding of character that will benefit civil society.”

The same edition of the Church Times carries an extract from a sermon of Dean Jeffrey John who, attending St Alban’s Cathedral as “an ordinary worshipper” a week before being installed as its Dean, was approached by someone who didn’t know him and invited to sign a petition protesting his own appointment! That’s nearly as odd as one of my own, more straightforward – if impatient – parishioners who complained directly in my first week: “but we don’t know you …

Liz Dodd’s article in The Tablet, some reflection upon the Queen’s “fiat” – and her 60 years of absolute commitment to making real effort to know her peoples, together with an ever more widely adopted willingness to “see the whites of their eyes before I’d preach” would make for a really encouraging, exciting start to the Birmingham project. Well done the Templeton Foundation (again). This is research I’d really love to be involved with in depth. But, then again, I am. We all are. Her Majesty the Queen, the governments of the nations, the faith traditions, the philosophers and thinkers, the peoples of the world, we’re all involved. And I do not doubt that yet further grace will flow from Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee. Magnificat! There’s real hope.

” … every hipster, drinker and cynic in the bar – stood up. Including me.”