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ASHES TO GO

7.15am Ash Wednesday and the Rector, Curate, retired priest, 2 Readers and half a dozen church members walk down the few yards from St Michael and All Angels, Houghton Le Spring to the bus station. Robes are being worn; small pots of ash are in the hands of the 3 of us in priests orders. Only Sue, the Rector, has done this before and that was in Washington DC, a very different social setting.
Over the next 2 hours we have quite a number of people who ask to be ‘ashed’. The sign of the Cross is placed on their foreheads and they are reminded, ‘Remember that you are to dust and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and follow Christ / know the forgiveness of Christ.’
Everyone does so with proper seriousness and reverence. They potentially carry the sign of the cross through everything that they do for the rest of the day. People will ask them questions about it. So I later had a conversation with 2 Muslim boys about the cross on my forehead. There was no antagonism; plenty of bemusement and also clear indifference. Some simply wanted to talk; others asked for prayer. The latter was largely with lay people not the clergy.
Inevitably there has been criticism from some within the church (I haven’t yet had any from outside it). There is the accusation of it being a stunt. There is also an accusation of it being cheap grace.
In one sense it can be seen as a stunt but I think rather it is us trying to take out into the public realm the truth and reality of the good news. I struggle to see how this is cheap grace when the emphasis lies on our frailty, mortality and sin. Too often I think we may be in danger of underplaying the reality of sin, but not here. No one could go through this unaware of acknowledging human sinfulness and the need for turning from it to find forgiveness in Christ.
I am happy to admit that it was experimental for me. Would this work as a way of taking something of the good news out into the streets? Well the people involved have already said that they cannot wait for next year. They say they have had their confidence in the gospel strengthened; they feel more able to talk about their faith. I saw ordained ministers offering something that enabled the people of God to share their faith and minister the good news to others.
I am certainly ready to do it again in 2016 and hope others will join in.

CHRISTMAS DAY SERMON

Every second 4 babies are born around the world. By my calculation that means that in our Christmas Day thus far around 168,000 have been born. They have been born in so many different circumstances; smart hospitals, less smart ones, refugee camps, birthing centres, street corners, the back seats of cars, and even some at home. There have been water births, Caesarian sections, forceps deliveries and straightforward ones. Some have arrived unexpectedly in a rush, others after long arduous labour. Sometimes Dad has been present, or close by, at other times he has even been unaware that he has just become a Dad. Midwives and birthing assistants have been very busy. A little over 7,000 of these babies will not survive until their first birthday. The majority of all these new members of the human family, all bearing God’s image, have been born into poverty; many into extreme poverty.
I always have mixed feelings for anyone born on Christmas Day in our nation. Just what is the best way to celebrate such a birthday with everything else that happens around Christmas Day? But that is a question from a rich person in the rich part of the world. For many there will be little capacity to celebrate either Christmas or Birthdays though my experience of the poorest is that they will do all that they can to do so.
Rosemary and my 4 were all born well away from Christmas. I remember each of their births well. It was a privilege and joy to be there; although seeing my beloved wife in such agony did not make it a pleasant time throughout. We were fortunate; we had fabulous support from what is still the brilliant National Health Service and wonderful midwives. The births all went safely and our 4 have grown up healthy. We all know that this is not the case for everyone; particularly for those who are poorest where alongside the 7000 born today who will not make it to 1 year old another 750 will die before they are 5. This is a dramatic improvement since 1990; over this period child mortality for under 5s has improved by around 50%. The prospects of living for every child in almost every nation on earth are much better than they were just a few years ago. But the task of improving the life chances of every child, and indeed every birthing mother, continues to be one that has to be pursued.
Of course the life chances of a baby born 2000 years ago in the Near East were worse than they are for most babies born today. This was not enhanced by being born away from home, and not having the best medical care available in Bethlehem at the time. We can safely assume that everything possible to make Mary’s labour and delivery will have been done within the limited circumstances. The new born boy may have been laid in a cattle feeding trough but I think we can safely assume that attempts would have been made to make it as clean as possible, and that fresh straw or hay would have been provided. After all Joseph and Mary were deeply aware that this child was very special indeed and that God had given them an awesome responsibility to fulfil. Many questions must still have remained in their minds about why they had been chosen. They must have wondered why on earth God had added to the complications by making them have to travel all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem so late in the pregnancy. And surely God could have arranged things a little better to ensure there was room in an inn? But no, God apparently wanted His Son born into difficult circumstances not easy ones. God was determined to face life with its difficulty not in its ease.
Mary and Joseph will have been full of hopes, and of fears. The hymn writer made a clear point with ‘the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight’.
Indeed the birth of every child comes with a mixture of hopes and fears. The mixture will vary from parent to parent and circumstance to circumstance. For some there will be many many fears and few hopes; for others it will be all joy and hope with any fears being minimal and pushed away. However for all there will be a mix.
Every child is a sign of hope. They indicate life continues; they offer a future beyond ourselves; they will be here after we are gone. They can bring about new things in our world. Here might be a future inventor like James Dyson, a sports star like Katy McLean or Rory McIlroy, a politician like Baroness Maeve Sherlock or a church leader like Libby Lane; or simply, as it will be for most, a future good citizen serving their neighbour well.
For every child as a sign of hope there will be hopes. Parental and grandparental hopes particularly. But we do well as a society to help children as they grow have hopes and aspirations. It is the responsibility of every community and of us all to encourage and engender hope for every child; whatever their background or ability. Here in the North East there is a need to raise the aspirations of our children and young people, especially of those living on our large estates and in some of our villages. It is the responsibility of us all to make it clear that cycles of deprivation can be broken; one generation can be different from another. It is particularly the role of the church to encourage hope and aspiration for Jesus coming into the world tells us that everyone is valuable and everyone can be fully the person God made them to be. Jesus came to give life in all its fullness. His coming is good news for ordinary people like the shepherds of Bethlehem to whom God first announced the arrival of His Son.
There are always fears at the birth of a new child too. Fears about their health and development. Fears about our ability to cope as parents. I can still remember the fears of not hearing Caroline breathing and wondering if she had stopped completely. I remember the fear of wondering if I could have enough love for a second child when all my love was focussed in one; not realising just how much love expands when the second arrives; and indeed the third and the fourth. Love is not a limited commodity it can just keep growing which is why I can love them even more now than when they were first born. Fears are understandable and inevitable but it is love that drives out fears. It is hope that overcomes the darkness of despair.
We need as a society to help parents with their fears. Parenting support matters greatly. We need to help parents give their children the time and love they need. So wage levels and employment patterns are important so that parents do not have to work every hour they can to make ends meet or have to leave their child in the care of others for too long. Good child care is important but good parenting even more so. The Christmas story also reminds us that both mothering and fathering matter. Children need good role models from women and men. Fathers need to be encouraged to take their full responsibility for children alongside mothers.
Yes Mary and Joseph would have had many fears alongside their hopes. They would have had the same fears as every parent with their first born child. Perhaps their fears would have been heightened by the particularity of their son. But they had also been given insights into the hopes for him in a way that none of us could ever experience. So many hopes for the baby Jesus; although just what these would mean Mary and Joseph did not know.
This Christmas let us reflect on the value of every child. Let us celebrate the hope that every child brings. Let us encourage and support parents in their great calling. This Christmas let us reflect again on the birth of the child in Bethlehem.
For this child, named Jesus by the angel Gabriel (Yeshua in Hebrew; he who saves), this child is the one who brings hope to every child born today. This child is God with us; God alongside us in our humanity; in our frailty. This is God submitting himself to the total dependency of a foetus and then a new born baby. This is God committing himself to experience humanity from the inside, with all its risks and oddities. This is the God who will learn to sit, stand, walk, talk, control his bowels, learn to read and become a carpenter. This is the God who will face death and triumph over it; the God who will take into himself all of human sinfulness and rebellion and restore us into his life and family. Every child is unique; there are no repeats ever in God’s creation. But this child is unique in a very special way for He is God incarnate, enfleshed, embodied; God as a human being. As such Jesus is the hope for every child born today.

Christmas always conjures up stories and images of children waking up excitedly on Christmas Day to open presents that have mysteriously arrived in stockings, pillow cases and under brightly decorated trees. It is a time of smiles and laughter; of fun and games. Lavishly made TV specials add to many peoples’ and families’ celebrations. For most people Christmas is a time of rest, and of joy. It is good to celebrate and enjoy time together with family and friends. It is also the season of goodwill towards others whom we see as less fortunate than ourselves; charities are well supported at Christmas. Many people volunteer to bring some joy to others through meals, parties, visits and surprise presents. Generous giving to others in need should be part of Christmas for us all. We miss part of the season’s joy if we do not catch something of the joy of giving.
Yet we all know that for some Christmas accentuates loneliness; it heightens grief; it creates unpayable debts and it opens wounds. Sadly it will not be ‘Happy’ for everyone. Some children will go hungry, even on Christmas Day. The rising reality of child hunger in this, still one of the richest nations on earth, causes increasing concern. Child poverty is not just a scandal now it anticipates long term issues for those children’s overall life chances and expectancy. It is not as horrific as scenes of slaughter of children in a school in Peshawar, Pakistan; innocent lives taken away so cruelly. Nor is it as awful as the desperate plight of children in refugee camps in Syria, Turkey and elsewhere; nor the deep long term hunger of children in South Sudan. But it is a serious wrong. All of these should make us weep, cry out in anguish, yearn for justice and some hope in the face of it all, and play our part in bringing about change.
The true story on which all of Christmas is founded speaks both to our joy and our sorrow. It leads us to celebrate and to weep.
Jesus’ birth is caught up in both. There is joy for Joseph and Mary at the birth of the God promised child. A joy shared by angels and shepherds. There is the lack of room for a pregnant mother in an inn and the use of a feeding trough for a cot. There is the anguish at what it might all mean. Later it became worse with the flight into Egypt fleeing the horror of Herod’s slaughter of so many innocent children whilst in jealousy and rage he tried to destroy the most royal baby ever born.
Christmas celebrates this extraordinary birth that changed the world. It is filled with pain and yet also joy. Joy at the good news that God is involved with us; that in and through everything God does care.
May this Christmas be one of much joy but also of deep awareness of where joy is missing. May it be one where generosity marks us all. May it be one where together we commit to a better future, especially for those in most need in our society and across the world.

So at the end it all came down to 62 minutes of secret electronic voting on the text of the Relatio Synodi.one minute for each paragraph. All the talking and debating done; simply Synod Fathers ‘is this paragraph Placet or Non Placet?’. Two thirds needed for it to be Placet. It was a strange experience sat there watching all these men quietly and studiously voting. No reaction at any point, even when a paragraph did not receive the necessary two thirds (3 paragraphs did not do so). The previous day’s cheerful lively discussion on the Message, and the morning’s equally cheery simple majority vote on it seemed a long time past. When all was done there was a stillness; work done. Now for a year of further exploration and a return to the subject at next year’s Ordinary Synod. Then the make up will be different as larger churches will have more representatives rather than the simple 1 per bishop’s conference this time. This could be significant when it comes to voting on formal propositions next year.
The usual thanks for all who had helped then followed and it was time to hand back to the Pope. Some clearly thought he was just going to lead us in prayer as they stood ready to join in. But no, he motioned them to sit and pulled out his papers ready to speak. He had listened studiously for the whole Synod, and now he spoke.
We had already been told that the whole relatio with voting figures would be published. It was not clear if this meant those failing to get two thirds; it became clear it would include these. Openness is to continue; the whole story is to be heard.
The Pope spoke quietly. He spoke of the temptation to live by the rules and the book; he spoke of the temptation to throw teaching and tradition away. He spoke of all the temptations that had been present for Synod members and, as 1 Cardinal said to me afterwards, all those given into in one way or another. It was very powerful. There is no doubt who is leading this church. The applause at the end was very long and very warm. There is a serenity about this man. In the morning I had spoken with him again. He spoke of the Ugandan martyrs, made saints 50 years ago that day. He wanted me to be clear that he knew that Anglicans were martyred too, and that we are bound by the blood of martyrdom. Given my previous reflection you will understand why this was a poignant conversation.
After he left the synod hall at the end of this final session he went over to the Press and chatted with them. He talked with a Mum and her baby. He was all smiles. As a journalist said, ‘He always has time for people.’
I have been deeply impressed by many that I have met here; bishops, archbishops, cardinals, my fellow fraternal delegates and the splendid lay witnesses for whom it has been an up and down ride in some ways. But most deeply I have been impressed by Francis, Bishop of Rome, a saintly man.

The Swiss Guard are a very colourful part of the Vatican. Behind the scenes this week I have seen them relaxing, having a glass of water on a short break, cooling off. When they stand to attention they click their heels very loudly, and their right arm rises in a fixed salute. There have been 2 on the gate, 2 on the main door and 1 inside for every session. They salute every Cardinal, archbishop and bishop on their way in, and way out. This includes the English Anglican. I don’t think I shall be seeking a way to introduce such respectful behaviour anywhere in Durham. These guards act as a clear reminder of the Vatican being a separate state. Whilst ceremonial they also remind us all that the Pope is a vulnerable person, open to attack.
The theme of the cost of being a Christian, even to martyrdom, has never been far from my mind during this Synod. We have heard and spoken of Christians in Iraq and Syria on several occasions. The Archbishop of Iran flew to Jordan to talk with the King there about Christian refugees and their care. We have heard of the struggles in Northern Nigeria with Boko Haram. OMany of us gathered at San Bartolomeo to remember martyrs from all over the world of the 20th century. The English College reminded us of 41 martyrs in their early years. In the Anglican calendar we remembered Latimer and Ridley’s martyrdom. Then in Rome the thoughts of Peter and Paul’s martyrdom and the many other ordinary Christians under Nero and Domitian especially are never far away.
Being a follower of Jesus Christ has never been easy or straightforward. The gospel is glorious good news of freedom, yet it is centred on the Cross and living the way of the cross. This is part of what the Synod has been wrestling with; it is a gospel of mercy and truth. It is good news. It is welcoming to all. Yet it is deeply challenging to any lifestyle that is self centred; to any society that makes an idol of wealth and economics, or political power. God must come first and last. This is not because he is a domineering ogre but because He is the gracious, merciful, loving One who gave himself fully in Jesus for us all. It is a response of love to Love.
This is why Pope Francis gives those around him, including the Swiss Guard, regular palpitations. He wants to model the loving openness of Jesus. This means being with the people, touching them, talking with them. It places him at risk. But this is Jesus’ way.

Rome is hot and humid so I have been very grateful that in our small groups we have not had to wear cassocks. Now to those who know me there will be a wry smile that for all the Congregations last week I was sat in a black cassock, with purple sash, throughout. Yes I even walked through the streets every morning dressed this way.
The more relaxed nature has not lessened the intensity of the work. 17 delegates along with myself as a fraternal delegate, 5 of the lay presenters and 1 priest have been ensconced in our room, along with 2 priests assisting the mechanics of it all, for 2 sessions (6 hours) each day; although we finished our deliberations by lunchtime Wednesday so took the afternoon off. In between some worked very hard as well on alternative wordings. We systematically worked through the text (Relatio post Disceptationem) that was produced as a summary of last week’s discussions. This was done with great care and thought. Every voice that wanted to speak was allowed to do so and was very respectfully treated by all. We were extremely well chaired (moderated) by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz (Archbishop of Louisville, Kentucky). Our Rapporteur Archbishop Stephen Brislin (Archbishop of Cape Town) has patiently and brilliantly worked to ensure the group’s decisions are clear, recorded and reported. Whilst we were all welcome to speak and comment, only delegates could make formal revisions and vote on them. A sign of how well our group worked was that almost all proposed revisions were worked to a place where all with a vote could agree.
It has been wonderful being part of such an international group; every continent has been represented. I love working cross culturally this way.
I have deeply appreciated the warmth with which I have been treated by all.
Now every groups suggested changes go to the central writing group who have to see how much consensus has emerged and produce a final Relatio Synodi. This then has to be agreed on Saturday. It will then become the document from which every Bishops Conference around the world will work with their local churches from which the Instrumentum Labori for next October’s synod will be created. Only at the end of that synod will there be formal proposals voted upon.
This leads to reflecting on the media storm on Monday and Tuesday. It has been common, I understand, for the Relatio post Disceptationem to be published during previous synods. But never before has it attracted so much media attention, or thus effectively be misrepresented in the media as if it is a statement of what Rome now thinks. It is a working document that everyone in the Synod knows will be refined and even changed as that is the process. I think that here the new more open approach that has been happening may not have been fully thought through at this point. I may be wrong but I don’t think there had been the anticipation of quite so much media traffic about an interim, able to be revised and changed, document. As ever the headlines, though not necessarily the articles, shocked many of the participants. Once over the shock I think those in my group were able to simply leave the headlines aside and get on with the task. Whether or not that will be true of the Synod as a whole we shall have to wait and see.
A final note for this reflection is on hospitality. The Italians are famed for their food, rightly. The hospitality at every point has been excellent. However I have to note that the English College (where priests from England train) excelled itself in entertaining around 50 of us at the invitation of the wonderful Cardinal Vincent Nicholls. It is a beautiful college and the food and wine were extremely good. It also offered a great opportunity to talk with a few of the delegates about all manner of issues not being covered by the Synod.

The middle weekend has been free time. So I have had the privilege of seeing some of Rome’s great sites. There has also been space for more informal conversations with priests who live where I am staying; most of them work in the Vatican, some are students. So insights from different angles.
Sunday morning I took up the suggestion of worshipping with the ‘Caravita’ congregation at their english service. They don’t start until 11 so I decided to walk and visit beforehand. The streets are very quiet at 8.30 on a Sunday but by the time I reached the Piazza Venezia a few early starters like me were around. The Victor Emmanuel II monument is impressive but I found myself wondering what bits of it would remain and survive if it were ever to be broken down like the splendour of the Fori Imperiali now laid wonderfully bare for us all to walk by. The colosseum was already busy. Looking down imagining my Christian predecessors fighting for their lives in this vast arena is humbling. Yet I thought too of how little stadia have changed. The shape; the steep sides and steps; the cheap seats high up and the wealthy and powerful closest to the action; the cheering as the ‘combatants’ appear from the tunnels onto the ‘pitch'; the to-ing and fro-ing of the contest and the cheers and jeers from the crowd. Stadia have had a common purpose for millennia. They are designed to entertain. They allow all walks of life to attend but economics and influence keep different social classes apart. The performers have to entertain, or they fail. We may not have fights to the death in our stadia anymore but we still love the contests that are held in them. Stadia remain symbols of strength for those who build them and run them.
Here I was a rarity. The vast bulk of visitors were with at least one other person; many were family groups or large tour groups. Back on the now busy streets large numbers of families were out enjoying time together on this sunny Sunday morning. The Via de Fori Imperiali was closed and a cycle circuit had been established. Young teenagers were racing hard; learning the art of road racing young. There were interval points races and the young gladiators were watched and cheered on by their families. It was exciting to watch. Here were families together. Others were buying at the Farmers Market; many were sat drinking coffee. One of the small churches was being prepared for a wedding.
I found (eventually) San Francesco Saverio where ‘Del Caravita’ worships in English every Sunday at 11am. We were truly an international community, and an ecumenical one. The delegates of the Methodist-Catholic dialogue were all present. Terrific bible exposition from Bishop Donald Bolen (Bishop of Saskatoon and co chair of the dialogue). Well done, simple liturgy, with excellent music and very friendly afterwards. Here was church family together in worship and prayer. Here was God’s family recognising one another, yet living with the pain of not yet full communion.
Then in the evening I joined with a large congregation and ecumenical leaders at San Bartolomeo. This church is looked after by the St Egidio community. It is specifically run to commemorate the martyrs of the twentieth century. The chapels dedicated to each continent are powerful in who they remember and the artefacts used to do so. It was a powerful example of Christians from many nations and backgrounds standing together in remembrance and praying for the suffering church around the world today. United as one family in prayer.
The whole day spoke to me of family. The joy of seeing families out together enjoying being together. The pride of family in their sporting daughter or son, and the willingness to give up time and energy to do so. The family of humanity walking side by side; marvelling at the same historic places and cultures. The extraordinary family which is the people of God bound together in Jesus Christ, in the joy of the morning and the pain and sorrow of the evening.
Family means so many different things to us all. There is an absolute core basis for life and society which is found in the domestic family; built on the covenant love and commitment of the couple to one another, and to their children. The willingness to say ‘I do not come first, you do. I give myself to you for your wellbeing and growth. I lay myself down.’ In this setting children discover who God intends them to be; here in being loved they discover how to love. Here too husband and wife find, not lose themselves.
Yet this family has to be a part of the bigger family of society and of humanity. Here the church family matters enormously. In the church family becomes so much bigger and in a place like the Caravita Community its bigness can be clearer still; it is a worldwide family that seeks to help the whole human family discover how it can love and serve by being loved. Gathered around broken bread and out poured wine we were called afresh to go out to the highways and byways and make known to all that God welcomes us all to his amazing banquet, and into his family as friends, and beloved children.

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