Prayer and worship has been offered at St Mary-le-Bow, Cheapside, for over 900 years. Whilst the church has been destroyed twice (in the Great Fire of London and the Blitz), the Medieval crypt survives and, in recent years, has become home to Café Below; a splendid restaurant offering wholesome food to City workers from surrounding businesses. It was this candlelit crypt that provided the auspicious venue for a Sion College Seminar Supper on the question of whether eating is a Christian vocation.
During the course of a delicious vegetarian meal (it was Lent after all), the speaker, Dr David Grumett, entertained those gathered with a varied talk on the history and theology of food in the Christian tradition. Asking what food has to do with theology, Dr Grumett noted that food is at the heart of the Christian tradition: not just in the centrality of our worship in the Eucharist, but also the part that eating and drinking plays in the Gospel; indeed he quipped that were it not for the small food business the Gospel would not have been spread, for at least seven of the Apostles were fishermen! Clearly food is also much in the public mind at present, around questions of the environment (pollution and sustainability) and health. In attempting to build a bridge between the theology of food in the Christian tradition and public concerns, Dr Grumett took the listeners through a history of what the Christian tradition has to say on how we treat animals, and the fact that up until the 1660s Lenten abstinence (from meat and dairy) was legally mandated; indeed abstinence was required on Wednesdays, Fridays and other days throughout the year.
The speaker argued that we should recover something of our Christian tradition as regards food, around the promotion of local eating, abstinence which can encourage social levelling and equality, and finally in noting that the intrinsically relational nature of the Eucharist speaks to society about the importance of the settled community working together in a co-operative manner for the production, distribution and consumption of food. Lively questions and discussion followed, before the evening concluded with those departing feeling satisfied by both food of the body and food of the mind.
Thanks to the generosity of Sion College and the Diocese of Southwark, I enjoyed my first ever sabbatical in 2016. It started on Easter Monday, and I was back in time for the pre-ordination retreat in June which, as DDO, is an important part of my role. I spent roughly a month each in three countries: Israel, Cyprus, and the UK, and had a wide range of experiences including ecumenical encounters during Orthodox Holy Week, gaining my International Certificate of Competence as a sailor, and witnessing first-hand the political complexities of living in Israel. It was a rich and rewarding time which will stay with me and inform my life and ministry for many years to come.
I have a long-standing interest in iconography, and some years ago went on my first icon-writing retreat at Alton Abbey, under the watchful eye of Dom Anselm Shobrook. I wanted to write an icon during my retreat but wished to remain open to which image I might use. So I packed an ‘icon travel kit’ of pigments, brushes, gold leaf, and various accoutrements, and a gessoed board, and waited to see what might transpire. During my time in Jerusalem, I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre several times, at different times of day, having been struck by it during my previous, fleeting visit. I was particularly moved by the devotion around the ‘anointing stone’, just inside the main entrance; I sat there for a while, and noticed the large mosaic on the wall behind it, of the Lamentation upon the Grave (‘Epitaphios Threnos’), or Lamentation of Christ, based on John 19: Jesus has been taken down from the cross and laid on the anointing stone to be prepared for burial. His mother cradles his head in her arms, John the beloved disciple holds his hand, Joseph of Arimathea his feet, and Mary Magdalen wails, her arms outstretched. It was not an imagine with which I was at all familiar, and I found it compelling. I started to search for icons of the lamentation, to see if this would be a possible subject for my icon.
I thought about it a lot while in Jerusalem, and decided to start it immediately I arrived in Cyprus. So, in Larnaca, I found a print shop to get a high-quality print-out of the icon I wished to use, bought some fresh eggs for the tempera, took a deep breath and made a start. I am not very experienced – this would be my third icon, and my first without supervision – and I confess I was nervous. I said some prayers, and began work.
I am sure there are set prayers for before, during, and after working on an icon; however, I found it helpful just to be as attentive as possible to the task in hand. I found it interesting to reflect on what came to mind as I focused on this image and how I might best replicate it, and I was always surprised how quickly I was able to forget my surroundings – and everything else – and become entirely consumed by the image, and my response to it. I started and ended with an articulated prayer, but in between I just tried to remain as open and alert as possible. I found that this works for me. Also, I find this slow work, which is also spiritually helpful. I could not rush this even if I’d wanted to, and I knew it was going to a be a long job. There was some peace to be had in accepting this, and I found it freed me to be receptive, attentive, careful.
And so I did it bit by bit, some days I spent an hour or so, other days it took up most of the day and evening, depending on our location, and other plans. Staying in a beautiful house in Nicosia during Orthodox Holy Week we soon learned that everything was completely closed for the Triduum – so I worked on the icon, and an attended the liturgies at the Cathedral. One of the most moving moments, which made me realize that this image on which I was working was exactly the right one for me at that time, in that place, was to behold the central place of this image in the liturgy of Vespers on Good Friday. This image of the Lamentation is less often found in icons (or mosaics, such as the one in the Holy Sepulchre), but is most familiar as an intricate, embroidered scene on a large cloth which is anointed, and placed on a table sheltered by a bier (to represent Jesus’ tomb) which is highly decorated throughout the day with hundreds of flowers. Near the end of the evening liturgy, this Epitaphios is processed through the church and, in Nicosia, outside the building, where it was held high by the priests as the faithful queued to venerate it by passing underneath it – from the death of the tomb to new life.
I left Cyprus for the UK with the icon more than half-completed. I spent a happy couple of days working on it when staying with a friend in Lincoln and, to end my sabbatical, I had a six-day silent retreat in a convent in Ditchingham, which was the perfect place to focus, uninterrupted.
I am pleased with the result, and it will remain a profound reminder of my sabbatical in all its different aspects. Fortunately, an icon can never be perfect because only God is perfect; mine is certainly flawed, but the gift of so many hours of open attention while I was working on it was precious and helpful to me. I have already started another, though now I’m back in full-time ministry it is progressing far more slowly. But I find the process a valuable way to escape from my own concerns and focus instead on what God might show me through a particular image and the process of trying to replicate it.
On Wednesday 22nd February, Sion College was delighted to welcome The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth, retired Bishop of Oxford, and former Dean of King’s College, London, to a seminar lunch held at the Punch Tavern in Fleet Street. The theme of his presentation, based on his recent book of the same title, was ‘The Beauty and the Horror’. It was a courageous exploration of a central and perplexing paradox at the heart of the Christian faith: given the astonishing wonder and beauty of creation and existence, set against the universal and devastating reality of gratuitous suffering and unspeakable horror in human life, what does faith have to say? In the context of apparent meaninglessness, what can it mean to have faith in a loving God?
Lord Harries rejects two of the traditional theological answers to this conundrum as unacceptable: the notions that God is punishing those who suffer, or that God is testing their faith that they might grow in character. He highlighted the importance of engaging with the full horrific reality of lived experience, resisting the desire to ‘posit an ideal’. Our speaker’s exploration ranged widely, drawing upon literature, art, history, science, and lived experience. The writers he cited ranged from the Orkney poet Edwin Muir, to Simone Weil. He highlighted the fact that, properly understood, the Christian faith takes suffering with full seriousness - neither denying it, nor succumbing to the temptation to glorify it – but retains the capacity to speak of hope by looking beyond tragedy, and maintaining the capacity to affirm what it means to live, even in a world full of horror.
It was a challenging and thought-provoking presentation, which was timely as a preparation for Lent – and it was warmly appreciated by those who participated.
Holy Land ‘The need, and inability to journey’ September 1st-14th
Our two weeks in Israel and the Palestinian Authority gave us the opportunity to explore the constraints imposed by the Israeli security wall. We did this by travelling along the wall, and through various checkpoints on several occasions. We undertook a walking tour of Bethlehem which focussed on the ways in which the wall has divided communities and had an opportunity to meet and talk with a number of residents whose lives are affected on a daily basis by the constraints placed on travel, the length of time they have to wait at checkpoints and the frequent instances of violence which are sparked by fear and frustration. We also met with a representative of ICAHD (The Israeli Collective against Housing Developments), a non-violent pressure group organised and based in Israel which campaigns and takes direct action against illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories. Key moments for me included listening to the often devastating experience of our Palestinian hosts in trying to live a normal life under the pressure and constraints of the Wall; the experience of seeing for the first time the way the wall divides the ancient Jericho Road, scene of the parable of the Good Samaritan; and an encounter with our ICAHD representative and an armed Settler in one of the settlements we visited!
Camino de Santiago The need and ability to journey September 22nd-November 3rd
In hindsight, walking the Camino, something I have longer to do for many years, comes in four stages: a pilgrimage of the body, a pilgrimage through landscape, a pilgrimage of encounter, and a pilgrimage inwards, and each stage is marked also by physical and chronological transitions.
The pilgrimage of the body is marked by preparation: practice walks to harden up feet and simply get used to walking 25-30 kilometres a day. The sense of panic that such long distances feel unachievable had to be faced down, along with the consoling thought that we could take the bus if we felt we needed to, although as it transpired, we walked every step of the way! We had to admit to our limitations: not trying to do too many kilometres each day, pacing oneself: taking hills at a reasonable pace, learning to slow down, shorten one’s steps, pause, look around, breathe. The awareness that one’s body could spring a surprise: blisters, tendonitis, one had to listen to one’s body.
A Pilgrimage through landscape. After the body had habituated to the distances, we had the sense of being able to enjoy the landscape. On a clear day, our breath could be taken away at the top of a hill, by the exertion, but also by the views. Highlights for me included ‘The Meseta’; the bleak high plateau which bisects Northern Spain; beautiful towns: Burgos, Leon, Astorga, Santiago, the Leonese Mountains. Awareness of landscape meant also keeping one’s eyes open: directions could suddenly change; there were slippery rocks, steep downhill paths and busy roads. We became aware of walking through the seasons: starting at the end of Summer, when it could be 34° during the day, and, by the time we arrived in Santiago, the nights had drawn in & you could see your breath in the mornings. We became aware of how pilgrims impact the landscape; not only through worn paths, the evident lack of infrastructure on an increasingly popular route but also in the proliferation of impromptu wayside shrines: crosses woven into wire, stones piled up beneath the ‘Cruz de Ferro’, messages scrawled on road signs, prayers on paper folded into stone walls, stone cairns, photos of loved ones left, memorials to pilgrims who had died en route.
A Pilgrimage of Encounter. The next stage, after the body is toughened and one is habituated to the continual change in landscape is that one can begin to notice and engage with fellow pilgrims. The Camino can feel like ‘Quarantine’, not that one is diseased, but that it is time out of normal life, a chance to be quarantined from the world, with the space to reflect, think, listen to others. When you are walking in the same direction as another, not looking at each other, it makes confiding easier. Everyone walked for a reason, the end of relationships, to mark particular life stages, following bereavement, celebrating recovery from illness. Stories were quickly and easily shared, with a lack of judgment, a sense of common purpose seemed to help people be kinder to each other.
A Pilgrimage inwards. Most obviously pilgrimage gives you a sense of space to think, reflect, talk (to God…self…each other). We had to come to terms with a sense of disappointment with the institutional failure of the Spanish Church to respond creatively to the presence of 150,000 international pilgrims each year, whose spiritual hunger was not creatively addressed. Evening Pilgrim Masses took no account of the young & multinational profile of the majority of the usually large congregation in each town for whom a 15 minute sermon is Spanish may not have been the most inspiring way to collect oneself at the end of the day. There were many stories of how a large number of pilgrims had endured bad experiences of organised religion, and what they might be seeking alternatively. However, an experience of the eternal came often through encounters with these people, their kindness, stories, silence, the rhythm of walking. A sense of not quite knowing what we had set out to resolve, nor even that specific questions had been answered, but that, somehow, perhaps imperceptibly, perhaps gradually, something had shifted.
Beneath the glimmering chandelier and the elegant Greek Revival pediments of the Oxford and Cambridge Club – and a thoroughly delicious meal – Luke Harding offered a fascinating and engaging talk on Putin and the New Russia. We heard insights into what life was like as a foreign correspondent, living with his wife and children in Moscow. He gave us some thoughts on the nature of political life in Russia today, and with that background, helped us reflect on the character and consequences of British political decisions in relation to Russia. Our newspapers ensure we are all familiar with the strange mix of policy and ambition, territory and ideology that so complicate relationships with Russia under President Putin; Luke’s address gave us a fresh appreciation of quite how complex the issues are, with a mix of insights which carried us from the domestic to the disturbing, while ending in a way that encouraged us not to lose hope.
The questions were wide-ranging and thoughtful. These covered topics as disparate as Russia’s economic crisis, relationships with President Trump, cyber-attacks and defence spending. We wondered, too, about the Russian Orthodox Church and its links to the Kremlin. Sanctions came up in another question, both their effects and their consequences, along with thoughts about the merits of abandoning or extending them. Varied the questions may have been, but the underlying mood conveyed many similar themes. The session concluded with an appropriate question about the “ordinary” people of Russia, what life is like for them and what the future feels and looks like from their perspective. International issues always have a human face.
The Court were given a behind the scenes tour at Lambeth Palace Library by Giles Mandelbrote, the Librarian. It was a privilege to visit the workshop where books are being restored, and to meet the restorer working on the Sion College collection. Lambeth Palace Library are currently looking to raise funds to continue their important work restoring these extraordinary books.
A large number of Sion members attended this event at the end of January, eager to learn more about an area of theology and pastoral care in which they were increasingly called to offer support, whether to transgender parishioners, their partners or families.
The event was held in the legendary L’Etoile restaurant in Soho, where we enjoyed a three-course meal surrounded by images of the restaurant’s celebrity clientele from the 1880s to the present day, with the guest speakers’ addresses coming between courses, and questions and discussion towards the end of the meal.
The Revd Dr Christina Beardsley, well-known for her research and writing on this subject, who recently edited the book This is my body: Hearing the theology of transgender Christians, gave us a very helpful overview, setting the experiences of transgender people in a historical context within society, the Church and medical practice. She drew on her own research and that of others, to discuss the spirituality of trans Christians, relating that many have “an apophatic view of God, ‘a God ...too large to be constricted into a single image’,” and she shared with us her own guidelines for effective and sensitive pastoral care, derived from both personal and pastoral experience. (These were distributed and are available to all Sion College members on request from the College Administrator.)
The Revd Robin Pfaff then shared a personal account of his own experiences as a trans Christian, encouraging those giving pastoral care to allow people reflecting on their gender identity the time, space and words to do this without any sense of being judged. The prolonged and heartfelt applause at the end of the talks reflected widespread appreciation of the speakers’ openness and generosity in sharing their stories with us and of the perceptive insights which helped us to reflect, possibly in new ways and with new understanding, into this area of pastoral care.
Questions addressed Christological thoughts, “In Christ there is no male or female”; the pastoral care of partners and families of those transitioning; and the use of correct language. There was a deep sense in the room that people had found the evening both moving and very helpful, and were grateful to Sion College and to the speakers for providing this opportunity for learning and reflection to guide our pastoral practice.
As an escape from the build up to Christmas, on 6 December 2016, thirty fellows and members were transported back to early medieval Europe by the Opus Anglicanum, with its stunning embroidery.
Anne Haworth of the Victoria and Albert Museum unfolded the origin, background and survival of extraordinary pieces of ecclesiastical and secular embroidery including the breathtaking Butler-Bowden cope.
The talk, in a 'behind the scenes' seminar room, was an excellent introduction to the exhibition, helping us to look for stitches, motifs and details we might otherwise have missed.
The exhibition gives not only a vision of how resplendent church vestments were, but also an insight into the lives and work of the many embroiderers, mostly women, based east of St Paul's and south of Cheapside, and the lively figures they stitched.
A beautifully organised Sion trip to The Sleeping Beauty panto on Saturday 7th January was a wonderful way to 'end' the Christmas season (apart from Epiphany Sunday, of course). There was lots of laughter for the children and, as one expects and hopes from good pantos, humour for the adults too (particularly relating to Brexit and Trump!). The ice-creams and mulled wine (the latter for the adults!) went down a treat too.
On St Andrew’s Day forty-five fellows and members met in the intimate surroundings of Bow Wine Vaults for a seminar supper on recent developments in Old Testament Studies. Our speaker was Paul Joyce, Head of Theology and Religious Studies and Samuel Davidson Professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible at King’s College London. Paul began his academic career as Lecturer and later Director of Studies at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, where he had taught some of those present when training for ordination.
Paul began by outlining the way in which Old Testament studies had been taught in previous years. The central focus had been on historicity and source criticism, which, he felt, had greatly reduced the Bible's accessibility and relevance for many. More recently, however, many more avenues of study had opened up, which were enabling people to engage with the Old Testament in new and exciting ways. Using insights from literary fields as well as psychoanalysis and reception history, scholarship has begun to reflect that the Bible is just as much about 'now' as ‘then’. Paul also movingly described the importance of the rediscovery of Jewish insight.
None of this, of course, means that the historical is unimportant, but these developments have changed the study of the Old Testament in such a way that we can now understand much better that Scripture is about the mystery of God, whose depths we cannot plumb.