With palms held high against crisp blue sky, we raised our voices as folk passed by

As we negotiated bin lorries and caused consternation amongst the Cambridge visitors, the congregation of Great St Mary’s steadily made its way around the market square. Blessed with blue sky and sunshine and with a constant proclamation of “all glory laud and honour”, on this Palm Sunday, we processed around the parish. When outside the Guildhall, a piece of pavement that experiences the full diversity of politics and protest, the gospel was proclaimed to all in a hearty voice by our curate.

I was touched to be told later that one of the traders had been pleased that we had walked around the whole of the market and I look forward to continuing to deepen that relationship with our market through chaplaincy.

It is believed that whilst Jesus was entering Jerusalem riding on a young donkey, a very different kind of leader of Pontius Pilate was on the other side of the city, also entering Jerusalem with all the pomp and pageantry of a Roman governor. Perhaps it is my own love of theatre that has always made this day in the church’s calendar particularly appealing and I am always moved that we are invited as congregation to join the voices of an ancient crowd in both welcoming the Messiah with praise and then demanding his execution.  

The changing dynamic of the crowd seems to me to have an even deeper resonance this year as a British Citizen.  I cannot help but see a parallel between the fractured and volatile politics of first century Jerusalem under Roman occupation with the hostility, division and volatility of Britain, post EU Referendum.

On Sunday as we played out the Passion narrative, I found myself reflecting on how quickly the ‘Hallelujahs and Hosannas’ of the London Olympics had turned to the ‘crucify’ of Brexit.  

In a sense I am less concerned with the machinations of the EU debate as to where this has come from and what it says about a nation’s sense of self. I can see no greater time, than now for the need of the humility of leadership that goes beyond the breast plates and spears of rule to the gentle strength of a servant King.

Icy winds may blow…

Like many I was profoundly shocked by the awful news of the violence in the Christchurch Mosque in New Zealand last week.  I was however sadly not completely surprised.

I have been aware for sometime that there is a concerted and global effort to threaten our diversity within community. Sadly, this has been magnified and disseminated by western media. Coupled with the wilful and sometimes unintended polarisation and even demonisation by groups and individuals on social media.

Whilst this hatred may appear to be aimed at specific groups, I think it speaks to a deeper malaise in our society of fear and ignorance of difference.

I was therefore pleased to join with friends and colleagues at Great St Mary’s Church on Sunday evening in helping to host a vigil for those who lost their lives in the shooting. In partnership with the Muslim students & residents and the wider Cambridge community, we met outside the doors of the church ,which were open to the community for warmth and welcome.

As with any public event, there was apprehension and uncertainty of who and how many would turn out for the occasion. Not least because this was outdoors, in March, on a Sunday evening, barely above freezing. I was moved however, to witness some 350 people coming together in solidarity for speeches, prayer and silent reflection.

The mood was a heady mixture of anger, grief, love and fear.  But within the messiness of humanity and its complex response to violence, there was an opportunity for coming together.  

This Lent I am helping to lead a study group on the personal response to God’s call and as I stood buffeted by the chilling wind, handing out candles with my Christian colleagues, there seem to be no better example of gentle witness in the world.

Alongside the eloquent words from students and faith leaders of the city, I was particularly touched by the action of a lone New Zealander who has lived in this city for a number of years and felt that Cambridge is home, as it reminded them of New Zealand. They tentatively wanted to share a song of their homeland and as they did they were joined by other New Zealanders who came from the crowd to form an impromptu choir, who grew in confidence and volume as the cold night air was filled with the warmth of the Maori blessing.

One of the challenges of an outdoor event is the efficacy of candles and on Sunday night we struggled to light and keep lit the hundreds of candles held at the vigil. If it was needed, it reminded me of the fragility of peace and love. Whilst the icy winds of terror and division may well be blowing in our times, my prayer is for us, more than ever, to stand together and recognise that harm to a particular brother and sister, harms each one of us.

Barriers and blessings

On a blustery March evening, under gloomy skies, combined voices lifted sublimely into the ancient stonework as the people came forward to be marked with the ashes of the past.

Admittedly, being daubed with soot is not everyone’s idea of a good time, but last night the congregation of Great St Mary’s joined with millions before, in an ancient and powerful ritual of repentance and hope.

As I sat in the pew awaiting my turn, I reflected on these basic needs of humanity and with my recent experience of a modern day funeral home in my thoughts, the phrase ‘remember that from dust you came and from dust you shall return’ was in sharper focus than ever before.

As if the B word wasn’t enough to bring constant consternation and worry, the good people of Cambridge our now being confronted with closure of Kings Parade. This week at a committee that as a former Councillor I was a member of, a decision was taken, that on the grounds of counter terrorism a trial closure should be enacted of this most historial of streets and the possible erection of security barriers or bollards. I believe one Councillor was heard to say at the committee, that we can’t approach the threat of terrorism on a wing and prayer. However, I would suggest that the prayer is both desirable and essential.

There is a risk that in a laudable desire to prevent or limit such acts of terror, we limit our own freedoms and way of life. I believe at the meeting, many raised concerns that such barriers could make access to Great St Mary’s church difficult, particularly for those who are more vulnerable

It occurs to me that in a growing atmosphere of uncertainty and turbulence, there is a real danger of responding with barriers of the heart and mind, and indeed concrete and steel. Far more than a democratic openness of spirit.

The Ash of this special Wednesday in the church’s year is created from last year’s blessed palms of Hosanna as we celebrated Jesus’ arrival into Jerusalem. It is my prayer for this Lent that we take the opportunity to seek forgiveness for our narrow thinking and narrower doing and look for a more generous way of encounter with each other, as we journey through the pain and uncertainty to the joy of Easter.

A cross I passed on the Camino, last September on a misty morning

Fireworks and final curtain

I start this blog with my usual caveat : these are my personal reflections and sharing of my experience and despite my continuing endeavour to approach a topic holistically, this will always be informed by my perspective.

On this occasion I also feel the need to offer a second caveat : that what follows includes some graphic description of death and treatment of the deceased.

I therefore completely understand for those who do not wish to read further , but I feel I have a responsibility to advise the reader at the beginning of this post……

As we glided through the busy streets of Ipswich, in the swish comfort of the black Mercedes limousine on a cold January afternoon, I became aware that passers by were glancing at us with a particular look of quizzical solemnity, reserved for those in this most particular of circumstances.  

However, the chatter and tone within the vehicle would have perhaps revealed that we were not in-fact mourners, but rather about to enter the physical and emotional journey of those who are.  

If you have followed other entries in my blog, you may recall that I have recently undertaken a course on Cultural Diversity and Spirituality in Pastoral Care. Amongst participants on that course at Suffolk’s new interfaith centre (www.eefa.net), were those in the funeral services profession, and they kindly offered us the opportunity to gain an insight into that critical service of care .

I must admit I hesitated before taking up this offer, not least because of my own recent health experiences, which for the first time had brought me rudely in touch with my own mortality.  However, I prayerfully considered that if I was to be serious in my continuing desire and call to serve and care for others , I owed it to those that I was ministering to, to gain a deeper understanding of the private, and indeed professional responses to grief.   

So with a few of my colleagues, I spent a day in the care of the East of England Co-Op Funeral Services’ Area Manager, Michael Davies. Our first stop on this journey was a recently fitted out Suffolk branch of East of England Co-op where we were shown into a very comfortable and neutral meeting room, it’s furnishings not being out of place in a contemporary hotel lounge.  

There we were given the scenario of being a bereaved family and we experienced the reality of bewildering decisions that one is guided through at the death of a loved one. I was reminded once again of the complexity of life; that it is so easy to hold onto a fixed view of what is right – in this case, should mum be buried with the ring, or should it be given to one or other of the daughters both of which had apparently been promised it – and yet each of those fixed views can have profoundly damaging and emotional consequences. It also struck me that what was once a uniformed and universal scenario of a funeral, has become individual and personalised with the choices ranging from motorbike with bespoke sidecar for the coffin, to rings that can be made encapsulating the ashes or a firework display for family and friends including the ashes.  Whilst I found the opportunity of the bespoke funeral touching, I wondered what it speaks of in our relationship to both the communal and to death.

Next we travelled to the premises of a substantial funeral home. From the exterior you could be forgiven for thinking that it was a call centre for insurance.  If it wasn’t for the sign ,a casual observer would have no idea that it contains chapels of rest, rooms of preparation and a substantial mortuary.  All nestled alongside buildings of the mundane and ordinary commercial life.

However, the inside of the building was very welcoming and it was heartening to hear that the spaces had been designed with East of England Children’s Hospice and Suffolk Interfaith community to ensure that it was not only as familiar and comfortable an experience as it could be for the bereaved, but could meet the needs of people of all faiths and none. For example, the woodland mural in reception and the chapels of rest being comfortable carpeted rooms, with bean bags for children – all far removed from the gothic drapery and candles that many have traditionally associated with those final moments of respect and farewell.  

Another innovation is that pets were welcome and our guide shared with us how helpful and good this can be for both pets and family to say goodbye together.

In one of the chapels of rest was a coffin awaiting the bereaved family which added a somewhat surreal element to an otherwise almost hotel like room lay out.  

We then approached the end of the corridor with trepidation and through a series of doors left the cozy carpeted environment behind.

It had been explained to us that we would have the opportunity to visit the mortuary, but of course we wouldn’t have to go in there if we weren’t comfortable to. Perhaps not surprisingly this was the part of the journey I was most apprehensive about, but again I felt that it would be helpful both personally and professionally to witness that place.

A number of thoughts struck me as we entered the mortuary, it was very different from what we see so often in the plethora of crime dramas on television.  Firstly there were no cabinets, just open racks of trays containing the deceased, and secondly how cold it was, but it was that ability to manage the temperature of the entire room that removes the need now for individual cabinets. Of course the modern technology means that the individual is more obviously confronted with death as soon as one enters the room, as there are rows and rows and columns and columns of the deceased.

I was also struck by how small the individuals looked – even the tall adults in life, seemed frail and shrunken in the, tightly shrouded in sheets. With bags of possessions at their feet, one such collection in a humble and humdrum supermarket bag, which were there to be buried or cremated with their owners.

We were then privileged to meet with the head embalmer who shared a variety of stories of going to considerable care and dedication to enable loved ones to have a vital opportunity of farewell to the deceased who had died in extreme violent or dramatic circumstances.

I was touched by this young ladies obvious sense of calling to such difficult work to give back dignity and respectful farewell where both had been so violently ripped away from a family.

As I stood there, to the left of me, banks of the dead and to the right of me, coffins at various stages of preparation for funerals, I became overwhelmed with my own experience of heart surgery. Now on this side of the surgery, given what was found in theatre, it is now certain that without such timely intervention, I would not have reached many more birthdays before finding myself in such a place.

Our final stage of this extraordinary journey was to visit a crematorium. As we arrived to the beautiful wooded surroundings there were a number of services taking place and because of that we didn’t experience the chapels themselves. However, we met with the former manager of the crematorium who took us through the office and to the crematoria itself.  As soon as we walked through the doors, we were immediately confronted with the reality of the place’s purpose , as a coffin was coming through from the chapel next door.

Perhaps I am not alone in originally thinking that coffins immediately go from the chapel direct into the furnace, where in actual fact the curtain has a purely a symbolic function, as the coffin is then taken from that chapel to the crematoria.

I was interested to learn that apparently at the vast majority of funerals, families no longer request for the curtain to be closed. Once again I found myself wondering what that says about our understanding and acceptance of death, as a modern society.

We were then shown the furnaces, their computerised management and very careful monitoring of temperature and emissions. Indeed, the modern crematoria has zero air emissions and is externally monitored by the Environmental Agency.  

All the time our guide was talking us through extensively the management of the furnaces and the cremation process, he was overseeing the work of the furnaces and we watched as an ornately carved oak coffin was maneuvered into its final place.  We were privileged to be able to watch how quickly the ferocious heat ignited the coffin and within minutes the substantial cabinet was no more and the contents were consumed in fire.

We then witnessed in another furnace at the end of the cremation process, the remains being prepared ready to be given back the family of the deceased.

What I felt in both the mortuary and crematoria that day, was that whatever essence and character those individuals had manifested in life were no longer there. Whilst strengthening my own belief and understanding of soul and resurrection, I came also to a deeper understanding of what is ministered to in the funeral services, is the respect and dignity of the individual that is now represented by the body, but that the body of itself is not the individual.

My worry and prayer is that we have lost sight of this and a healthier understanding and conversation about death, would give us a healthier understanding and conversation on life in its fullness.

Latte & Liturgy

Currently I’m sitting in the lovely Stir cafe in Cambridge (other lovely cafes in Cambridge are available 😉 ) recovering from a dental check up…

You may or may not know , but if you have a heart condition, dental health becomes even more important as dental infection can quickly reach the heart.

It’s nearly two years since I had heart surgery and whilst my recovery has been very good & very tough, I’m still affected by it in many subtle and not so subtle ways.

Since surgery, for example visits to the dentist are much more difficult .I think it’s a combination of vulnerability and the lights & instruments coming towards me.

Something that I have found very interesting is that in two years I have yet to meet a single person who has had the same heart surgery as me- and I’ve met and spoken with people who’ve had a variety of cardiac procedures. Indeed my experience is that gyms are full of chest scarred folk!

I have come to the sobering and stark conclusion that sadly the majority of people with an aortic aneurysm don’t discover it until it’s too late.

Whilst I can’t and won’t attempt to explain or justify the cruelty that befalls people , though I firmly believe that Christ is always with us in our suffering and carries our scars , I do believe it wasn’t just luck that gave me the timely opportunity of surgery. My doctors now believe given in theatre what condition they found my aorta in , I would’ve been having non elective surgery within two years….. I guess there was more for me to do.

I am now beginning to explore what that may be, but it certainly seems to continue to be about ministering to the Venn diagrams of life.

I have written before about our constant use of heart imagery and symbols – it’s almost impossible to go through an Anglican service without some instruction or desire to lift them up or let them swell ( a particularly poignant one for me ! ) and as if to prove the point this is what arrived at my perch in the cafe just now

I’m grateful to God & the medical professionals every day for the surgery I elected to have .

Whilst I may look fully recovered, I don’t mind at all if you ask how I’m doing – the impact of major surgery runs deeper than the physical scars I have learnt myself & have had shared by others.

One of the many things that surgery has taught me is not only to be thankful for all our blessings in life, but to seek to act with kindness and compassion to others ; we never know what scars each of us are carrying on the path.

Marketing the Magi

Whilst many were regretting that extra helping of Christmas pudding and contemplating another day on the sofa, I found myself instead occupied with another annual tradition of reflecting on the year passed. It has certainly been quite a year; from dog collar contender, to pilgrim and artist www.instagram.com/pocket_of_art.  My physical and spiritual journey have both been strengthened greatly by walking some of the steps of the Camino.  

In the cold grey liminal time of late December, I found myself walking other steps, this time following some Ethiopian wooden figures around the market square.  

‘leeked’ photo from behind the scenes!

Allow me to explain; to help promote the season of Epiphany within my church of Great St Mary’s, I was invited to temporarily adopt our Magi (Wisemen) and travelled around part of the parish with them as they journeyed towards the stable and Jesus on Epiphany Sunday.  I captured their daily adventures on camera to share on social media with the church, Cambridge and beyond.

Much has been written elsewhere about the role of social media in the descension of society to the lowest common denominator of discourse.  I agree that for some, particularly in political circles, it has been used as permission to treat others as they would not have them treated themselves, it is nevertheless, neutral and open as much to building up as destroying.

As an example of this building up, as I reflect now on my experience of travelling with three foreign figures, I can say that they brought to me three gifts of insight:

Weighing up the options of which way to go next

1) We only need to ask –   I was somewhat nervous about how people would react to the project and yet I was delighted when I did ask people, how positive they were to engage.   – As you can see from the warm smile of Jo from Harvey and Son and her lovely fruit, veg and bedding plants on the market.

One moment they were here the next they were scone!

2) A sense of humour is vital – my penchant for a good or bad pun, (depending on how you want to see it), helped to connect with people as the Magi went on their wanderings.

3) Different does not have to be scary or wrong – it seemed very apt to be travelling with these strangers in a city with a proud history of welcoming the stranger and showing the unfamiliar in familiar surroundings.  Whether it be the Marks & Spencer’s cafe overlooking the market square, the railings of Senate House or the beautiful teleportation machine sculpture between the red telephone boxes, there is beauty to be seen with fresh eyes.  

As I followed and documented the Magi’s progress around the market square, I was very much aware of concern, energy, passion and the unknown that was surrounding emerging proposals to improve the market space. Whilst the Magi were still travailing the parish, I was delighted to help host a meeting in the church for this conversation. It was a privilege to continue a rich tradition of centuries of my church offering a neutral space in which a variety of voices can be heard and listened to.

It struck me that this was also a liminal time in our national politics, a hiatus before the next scene in an improvised play, as Britain directs its way in an unwritten drama.

My hope and prayer is that as we journey together into perhaps unfamiliar landscape both locally and nationally this year, we take with us the courage, imagination and wisdom of those three strangers.

Day 9: Glory comes in many forms

The day started early: I woke up at 6 in the anticipation of what lay ahead and decided to get my kit together.

I considered leaving before breakfast but partly as I felt I’d used up a few of my nine lives crossing the national roads on the day before, and partly because I thought it would be good to walk into Santiago with my fellow pilgrim friends, I decided to wait and take on some fuel for the day at breakfast.

As our guesthouse was a few km from the start I worked out a route to rejoin it. What a joy to be on the road early enough to witness the sunrise and to share it with others.

We arrived at the half way point in good time. Monte Gozo – the Mount of Joy – so called as it’s the first point on the journey that the pilgrim sees the destination, the cathedral of Saint James.

We first went into the chapel of San Marco , not for the first time on the journey I felt a little like a knight of old laying his sword / trekking poles down in the pew next to him to pray for the battle that lay ahead. And with God’s grace, gosh what battles I’ve faced: the decision of elective heart surgery, going through with it and recovery and the bitter disappointment of not being considered at the right point for ordained ministry and now I was about to complete a 118 km journey through the hills of Northern Spain to the tomb of one of Jesus’s first followers.

Through it all: all the uncertainty , all the worry and fear and doubt, I have felt Christ’s light guiding, and that I have been held in love and prayer by family and friends. How fitting then that when I asked Maria where the votive candles were at the chapel she said, “I’ve already lit one for you, and for your journey ahead ”

And now I felt the pilgrim’s joy (I believe I said wow) as I spotted the impressive edifice of Santiago cathedral as I climbed the Mound to the stunning sculpture ahead of our final stage.

A few km later, as we entered the city I was reminded once again how difficult it was to be a pilgrim. Firstly, as I grew ever nearer the cathedral disappeared completely behind the last hill and only became visible again when we were mere hundreds of metres away.

Secondly, how out of place we looked in a regional capital, now that pilgrims were the minority, and the Camino signs themselves were much harder to discern amongst the Street furniture of the urban landscape and many of the locals looked on at us with a mixture of pity and irritation.

Nevertheless we found our way to the beautiful historical quarter and entered the archway into the famous Obradourio Square.

Whilst I did of course see the stunning cathedral, my eye was also drawn to one of those tourist “trains ” that was parked right against the buildings facade – I felt God’s sense of humour again…..

I also realised I was myself a tourist attraction when a visitor asked if she could take my photo. I guess I did look the part , with trekking poles, grizzly beard ( I will be trimming it ) and calves even bigger than when I started !

After an afternoon of queuing for a couple of hours for my certificate and chatting with fellow pilgrims and then the adventure of finding my hotels ( a little local difficulty involved relocating! ) I joined my friends for the evening Pilgrim’s Mass.

I’m not sure quite what I expected to find in the interior of the cathedral but I was honestly shocked by the towering gold and rather chilly looking angels.

I did indeed hug the apostle ,but felt much more emotion in the quiet of the small and blissfully relatively modest crypt.

Again , with honesty, I felt somewhat saddened by the service and became visibly moved towards the end. Whilst I understand that it’s a Spanish cathedral, it is also the centre of an international pilgrimage. It was presented as a Pilgrims Mass and so it seemed strange to me to give an eloquent and passionate 20 minute sermon in a language ( and I don’t mean theology ! ) that half of the congregation didn’t understand. I’m sure it would be possible to at least provide a precise if not a complete translation. My point was made all the more poignant when my Spanish speaking friends explained to me afterwards that his whole homily was about the importance of approaching God in his humanity as well as his divinity…..

I was also saddened that the only times I heard English in the service was to tell us not to take any photos and only Catholics in good grace with God we’re to receive communion.

I felt in that service I witnessed all that is currently wrong with the wider church.

God I’ve found on the journey of faith is always one of surprises. I certainly wasn’t expecting to find the beauty of the Camino simply in the beauty of the countryside and the love and faith of those I met along and travelled with on the path.

I suppose He is reminding me that the destination never was a physical place, but a deeper understanding and peace with ourselves and Him and with healed hearts to be better or less imperfect ministers of His love & grace as we journey forward.

I was very touched by this gift from my friends Maria & Celina who said I was their knight on the road….

Day 8 : Woodland wonders

Goodness what a day ! One of my longest on the Camino- just short of 14 miles . It’s involved close encounters with speeding lorries in the rain (thankfully it was only my hat that blew off in the backdraft! ) ; – #caminosantiago please invest in some more paths so pilgrims don’t have to walk along motorways! – lovely conversations; prayer; time; music and as with every day on the Camino for me, some tears as well.

I woke up to very active mist today , mizzle, the kind that gets you pretty wet without you realising !

I was very grateful for the waterproof & backpack cover I’d been carrying for the last 100 km . Infact I was actually rather grateful for the rain itself. It brought out the scents of the woodland : pine and eucalyptus and earth mingled – it was glorious.

There were more examples of the Camino spirit today. I entered a cafe – probably looking somewhat bedraggled- and after ordering a cold drink I went in search of the stamp for my pilgrims passport, when I turned back to my drink there was a slice of unordered Spanish omelette. On checking with the young smiley chap who had served me he said ” yes it’s free, for you. You need energy ”

I can hardly believe that , God willing , tomorrow night I will be in Santiago.

What an extraordinary journey: beautiful people, beautiful scenery , time with God , with His creation and with oneself.

Today was nicely rounded off by joining my fellow pilgrims for a meal, sharing the adventures of our day , our experiences – the ups and the downs.

I think my prayer tonight is that we all try to live the Way a little better : with generosity , gratefulness and grace.

Good night X