Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Hope in Difficult Times

Those of you who watch Songs of Praise may have seen Loretta Williams, one of the retired Readers from Ripon Cathedral, being interviewed by Aled Jones, last Sunday. In a fascinating snapshot of broadcasting 70 years ago, the programme showed The Revd J.G.Williams (Loretta's husband) leading daily prayer from Trinity Chapel in St Paul's Church, Bedford, to which city parts of the BBC service had been evacuated in the early years of the war. Loretta speaks movingly of the dedication of the clergy who kept daily worship broadcasts going in the most hopeless and difficult days of the war. If you didn't see it, it's at
Loretta's interview is about 4 minutes 30 seconds in.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Reprieve for England's Forests!

Congratulations to the government for listening to the howls of protest about proposals to sell off forest estate!  The Forestry Commission has stated that the consultation on the future of public forest estate in England has been halted. Their web site says 'it is clear that people cherish their forests and woodlands and the benfits they bring' and admits that the proposal to sell off forests with the risk that public access might be curtailed has not met with public approval and is a 'wrong turn'. It is refreshing to find a public body willing to admit that they have had their minds changed by public opinion. The Woodland Trust is now asking people to go on campaigning to save ancient forests.


Thank you to everyone who supported the campaign!

The English Parish Church

I thoroughly enjoyed Richard Taylor's insights into the significance of the English parish church (BBC2 Friday evening Churches, How to Read Them.) Searching behind our Victorian and post Reformation history, we find inspiration for returning parish churches to the centres of life that they once were, embracing every aspect of daily life and offering protection and assistance from the cradle to the grave.

St Michael's Downholme
 How does this sound - games, children playing and drama in church, sports and fayres in the churchyard, business transacted and courts held in the porch, cartoons (in their time) of bible stories and theological truths in the frescos on the walls, and areas of the church given over to special uses - for children, for baptisms, for churchings (women giving thanks after childbirth) and for trading and holding meetings. In particular, Taylor showed us a marvellous font in a Herefordshire church which depicted the whole story and theology of Jesus' baptism. He also showed us an area of a church with beautiful images of mothers and of St Margaret, the patron saint of chidbirth, where women had come to pray for strength and safe delivery before giving birth. Apparently, unidentified corpses were laid out in some church porches so that families could claim their mssing dead. The church was the place people naturally came for help, advice, support and in times of personal difficulty.

Some parishes are beginning to return their churches to the community in exciting new ways and to welcome a rich diversity of events to take place there. A few have never stopped being places of gathering for the whole community.  Others are more cautious and the fragrace of 'reverence' and severity pervades at all times - there is not a square inch without a pew in which to do anything! In the last parish where I worked as a parish priest, we used to hold our annual church festival in the churchyard in and among the graves. One or two people commented that it seemed a bit irreverant but most people welcomed the convivial atmosphere and thought that it was good to mix life with a remembrance of those who had once lived and enjoyed such events in their village. We also had games sessions for toddlers in church, often pausing to marvel, through a three year's eyes, at some of the artefacts in the church. Again, not everyone approved but the number of young families attending church improved dramatically! Many of the churches I visit now have special places set aside for prayer with candles, prayer trees and other prayer aids. Spaces for young children (some more convivial than others) are quite common, as are areas for exhibitions, infomation, art work and local photography. One or two churches even have places where visitors can make themselves a cup of tea. And I'm glad to say that a very large number of our country parish churches are open in the daytime.

In our generation, we tend to be rather shy of using churches for business (unless they are redundant and have been turned into carpet warehouses or pottery shops!) But medieval churches were places where a lot of business was carried out and where people came for justice and for education and information. People also caught up on gossip and ate in the nave. If you walked to a morning service and stayed for the evening service, you needed somewhere to shelter and eat in between. Personally, it always gladdens my heart when I discover churches that offer services the community needs, values and enjoys, even where this leads to money changing hands and crumbs in the transepts! It is also great to see churches used for lectures and meetings and these do not always need to be religious ones! It is all about balance and the PCC retaining proper control of the building so that at times when the building needs to provide a quiet, dignified and reverential atmosphere, this can be achieved.

St Edmund's, Marske
A few months ago, I took services at Downholme and Marske and I was moved by a deep sense, in both churches, that here were about 16 or 20 of us worshipping very much in the way that people had worshipped at the Reformation and even before it. Yes, some of the words had changed and, yes, the music had changed but, essentially, there had probably been a couple of dozen people from these villages saying their prayers together, celebrating Holy Communion and marking the joys and sorrows of people's lives in these sacred spaces for the past several hundred years. Box pews, pulpits and sanctuary spaces had changed, but the sense of the life of the community flowing through the church had not changed and nor had the expectation of meeting with God here. Nor, I suspect, had the fact that most of the village were not in fact present!

Let's find every way we can to open our churches up to people, to make them welcoming, interesting, enjoyable places to be!

You can view Richard Taylor's program on


Thursday, 10 February 2011

To Belong or not to Belong?

I have often been asked, 'Why don't you join the Mothers' Union?' To which my answer has always been, 'Well, I'm not a mother!' The response, these days, is usually, 'Well anyone can join if they support family life!' So why don't I join this band of folk who work and pray so hard? The answer has to do with something my father taught me - namely, that, if you join something, you should, at some level, work for it. You should try to do something that makes a small difference. My life, so far, has mainly been about supporting working people and people in education and health care and about work place issues and relationships. I married in my late thirties and much of my focus has been on being single, whatever that means, on being a two adult unit and on being the one in the family who doesn't have children but relates to nieces and nephews and godchildren and elderly relatives and friends. That gives you a different but complimentary perspective on the place of the family in society. I have also worked a lot in parishes where many families were single parent units. I have helped to deliver babies and taught children and loved doing this, but I have always felt called to relate to those outside 'traditional' family structures and I am much more at home with youth work than with school gate culture! But that doesn't mean that I don't value family life and appreciate the fundamental difference loving, nurturing and supportive parents make to their children - there can surely be no greater gift than to give your children the love they need to face life. I am also amazed at the work teachers undertake!

The Mothers' Union do a job which is often undervalued and underpublicized. When I worked in an area of great poverty, it was the Mothers' Union that sent whole families on seaside holidays, organized respite for carers, and ran 'mother's help' services for mums who just needed that bit of assistance after a new baby was born or when a child or parent was in hospital. In the parish at Nuthall where I was priest, Lady Day was always a big celebration and it was moving to see the support and friendship groups of women had given to each other over many, many years.

But, did you know that the Mothers Union has special consultative status at the United Nations? They attend and contribute to the yearly worldwide gathering of the Commission for the Status of Women (founded in 1946) and there are members present from many of the 192 states across the world?  Topics debated and therefore brought to the attention of politicians and governments since 2000 include the elimination of violence and discrimination against girls (eg. the 'leaving to die' of female babies), the role of gender equality in making poverty history (the advancement of women in health care and education meaning that poverty will be more effectively tackled in families), women's particiaption in peace and international security initiatives and politics, the prevention of violence against women and the eradication of poverty and HIV.

The Mothers' Union are well placed, globally, to campaign for the UN Millenium Goals and to report on the causes of some of the problems these goals seek to address
  • the elimination of extreme poverty
  • universal primary education 
  • reduction in child mortality
  • improvment in maternal health
  • combating HIV and other preventable diseases
  • ensuring enviromental stability
  • developing global partnerships.
Added to this, I would say that, from the many students, ordinands  and women priests I  have taught from Africa, Asia and Melonesia, they would urge the MU to further develop its stance against domestic violence and the denial of educational opportunity to women. This sometimes means taking on the governing structures of their own churches and they need our prayers and active interest.

Find out more on http://www.themothersunion.org/ 
or go to the Ripon and Leeds MU branch newly launched site at www.muriponleeds.org/default.aspx

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

St Wilfrid Lectures 2011


This year's St Wilfrid lecture series at Ripon Cathedral looks exciting. Entitled The Question of God; the Role of Faith in Contemporary Society, the speakers are all national if not international figures - a retired bishop, rabbi, literary critic, post-Christian and Muslim academics and a religious newspaper editor. Sponsored by Ripon Cathedral, the Methodist District of York and Hull, the Diocese of Ripon and Leeds and York St John University, the lectures seek to stimulate cross disciplinary and cross faith discussion and thought. The 2011 programme promises some unique angles on the pressing questions not only for faith but for a multi cultural society.

'In spite of repeated media claims that science has disproved God, God has stubbornly refused to go away. Indeed, during the first decade of the third millennium, the question of God has never been more relevant - not least in terms of global current affairs.'

Put these dates in your diary now!  Admission is by ticket but tickets are free and can be booked via judithbustard@riponcathedral.org.uk  Many of the lectures in the past two years have been extremely well atended so book ahead! Each lecture starts at 7pm ends in plenty of time for you to take advantage of one of Ripon's great restaurants or pubs and continue the discussion in convivial surroundings. There is free parking nearby.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Young People Are the Church

Hi! There's a new website


that promises to get bishops and young members of the church talking. It's hosted by a group of young people for young people to get discussing and thinking

ignite change!

It's gonna be an event as well...sometime...somewhere in a city called Sheffield. Go to the site and see. Our own archbishop Sentamu says 'young people are leaders of the church'. Is he right?!

Assisted Dying.

Last night, Debbie Purdy spoke at the Legal, Medical, Clerical dinner in Harrogate. Debbie suffers from MS and campaigns for freedom from prosecution for relatives who help a loved one, at their request, to an assisted suicide. 92 people in Britain have helped a relative travel abroad to die and some have been charged on their return though as yet none have been prosecuted. Debbie views this as a matter of life and is, herself, full of life, asserting that she can only live her life fully if she knows that, should her pain become unbearble, she can ask for help to end her life and know that her husband will not be prosecuted or end up serving a prison sentence. She feels that, without this assurance, she would have to end her life before she wants to in order to be able to take it without physical assistance from her husband who may then be prosecuted. Most of us cannot even begin to imagine being in this position. Everyone who heard her speak was, I think, both struck by her wonderful liveliness and zest for living and moved by the poignancy of her plight. In 2009 Debbie took her case to the law lords and it was refered for appeal. The result? That the Director of Public Prosecutions was required to publish the facts and the circumstances that would be taken into account in the decision whether or not to prosecute someone for assisting a person in an act of suicide. As the law stands, anyone who is found guilty of 'aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring' the suicide of another can be sentenced to up to 14 years in prison.

Debbie's argument is that, because the suicide rate is relatively high among those with progressive debilitating diseases, more lives would be saved by removing prosecution for, particularly, counselling in connection with suicide. She claims that at present doctors, health care professionals and clergy are too constrained by the law and many will not even talk to patients about suicide. She believes therefore that people end their own lives who could in fact be reached and helped by counselling and an honest discussion about suicide. She pianted a vivid picture of the silence that meets those in great pain and fear about their desire to do something to relieve the intolerable situation they find themselves in.

There was an interesting discussion after her talk. This is an ethical dilemma which is truly beyond human wisdom to fathom. It is seemingly impossible to find a law that both protects from intolerable pain and protects from exploitation and abuse of the vulnerable. It is also very difficult to know when an individual has reached an irrevocable decision - there are huge risks of minds being changed and mistakes being made about someone's intentions. Even when there is something like a living will, it is often far from clear when a person has reached the point at which it should be enacted.

Like Debbie, like all of us, I am influenced by my own experience. I nursed for 9 years and I remember patients who clearly wanted to end their lives and who told relatives and staff that they could no longer bear the pain they were in on a daily basis for weeks and months. I know that in a few cases medicine does not have the capacity to control pain. I have suffered from a very painful condition (endometriosis) myself which can temporarily reduce you to feeling that you would do absolutely anything to escape the pain. But I also remember people who begged not to be rescusitated or who said they wanted to die and clearly meant it, only to move to another point in their disease where they fervently thanked God (or the medical staff) that they had not died. I have seen that people with chronic progressive disease, people with accute (very severe but not permanent) disease and frail and very ill elderly people have different vulnerabilities and need different kinds of help, care and protection. And who is to make judgements in all these cases? It seems to me that wherever the law comes down on the spectrum of preserving life at all costs or allowing or assisting death, mistakes will be made. We will not get it right in every case. Medics already have a variety of approaches to the impossibly difficult delineations  between not preserving life and allowing or assisting death. 
What I found very insightful in Debbie's talk was her insistance that doctors, nurses, counsellors, lawyers and clergy must be able to have honest conversations with patients about intolerable pain and other symptoms, about what suicide would involve and about how their disease will progress. There must be freedom to explore whatever the person wants to explore without fear of being reported and prosecuted. Some doctors seem to do this anyway. Others avoid the difficult area of what suicide would mean and the dreaded area of 'too much pain' because of where it might lead. Yet Debbie pointed out that being able to talk about these things was sometimes precisely what enabled people to want to live rather than die. I also agreed with Debbie that clarity in law about what is and what isn't going to lead to prosecution for relatives is important.

However, I think that the law has to maintain the utmost vigilance and there has to be the possibility of prosecution for any kind of coercion towards suicide. I also do not want to see the law changed in any way that requires medical staff to assist death directly; the notion that a doctor or nurse might under certain (even very controlled) circumstances deliberately end life changes the entire patient/medic relationship. It puts health care professionals in the position of making impossible judgements and puts patients in the position of not being able to trust the motives of those who should unconditionally be caring for them. Palliative care and more research into how to avoid prolonging life when this is not wanted seem to me to offer a way forward. However, even as I write this, I can think of patients I have nursed whose conditions and whose suffering make me question what I write. 

I come down in my own judgement in a place where the law errs on the side of stringent protection of life but is exercised in a way that allows for the greatest possible compassion and leniency for those who have been caught up in these terribly difficult places. There must also be extensive training and support for professionals who find themselves having to accompany patients on these kinds of journeys.Twenty five years after leaving nursing, I still have the names and fates of patients etched on my memory because they didn't have a good or easy ending no matter what we tried. Patients, relatives and staff have to be able to talk honestly to someone and even say, 'Perhaps we made a mistake, perhaps we didn't get it right, perhaps you didn't get it right for me,' and to know that there is humane understanding and forgiveness for the extreme places they find themselves in from time to time. 

A very sobering topic and not easy to know how to write about (or even whether to write). But Debbie communicated a love of life and her whole demeanour was that of someone living the gift of her life to the absolute fullest extent possible. And her message was, I think,  'please talk about it.' 

Wednesday, 2 February 2011


Tonight it was great to meet with Ripon cathedral ambassadors and music custodians - many people from parishes all over the archdeaconry and diocese who support and take an interest in the life of Ripon cathedral. In preparation for the Candlemas eucharist (Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple at Jerusalem), we meditated on the meaning of Simeon's song - the words spoken over the baby Jesus on the occasion of his presentation. 
Below is the text of the meditation. If you don't like wordy meditations but you'd like to hear Gustav Holst's wonderful 8 part setting of Simeon's Song (the Nunc Dimittis), listen  to it here
If you  prefer poetry to a meditation, go to the amazing poem of the Russian poet, Joseph Brodsky, with its movement from the physical to the metaphysical realm and its striking image of the power of Christ over death at the end.  

'The temple enclosed them in forests of stone'
from Joseph Brodsky's Nunc Dimittis
24th December 2008
(web site above)


How many times in your life have you heard those haunting words,
'Lord, now you let your servant go in peace,
Your word has been fulfilled,
My own eyes have seen your salvation,
Which you have prepared before the face of all people,
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles
And the glory of your people Israel.'
Luke 2.29-32

What do these words evoke for you? Memories of school? Your favourite cathedral choir? The scents and light of a summer evening? The dark shadows of a winter night? Or you may think of John le Carre's novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the haunting theme tune from the TV adaption. Or T. S. Eliot's rather dark poem A Song for Simeon?

If you're a clergy person then the chances are you've read those words hundreds or thousands of times as you've led the coffin from the church after a funeral. 'For my eyes have seen your salvation..' the hope toward which life is directed.

What a wonderful text. You couldn't find a richer one, could you? It's three central themes
  • peace - personal and between nations
  • salvation - the hope that God's purposes will triumph
  • glory - the full slendour of God, the shimmering  presence (or 'shekinah,' the Hebrew word) of God among the people.
Almost too rich a gift for the musical imagination, yet what wonderful things composers have done with it down the ages! So where did these ancient words come from? The Nunc Dimittis is one of a set of three canticles or songs embedded in the narratives of Jesus' birth in Luke's gospel. Three early Christian hymns based closely on Old Testament texts yet pointing forward to the future
  • the song of Mary - the Magnificat
  • the song of Zechariah (John the Baptist's father) - the Benedictus
  • the song of Simeon.
Luke's narrative tells us specifically that Zechariah and Simeon were filled with the Holy Spirit and, of course, Mary had just received the angel's news that her life was to be 'overshadowed' by the Holy Spirit, God's Spirit. These wonderful songs and the characters who sing them represent the turning point between the ancient traditions of the Jewish people and the coming of Christ, leading to the birth of the Christian tradition. They form a link between aspects of the old faith of the Hebrew people (notice the reference to Abraham in the Magnificat and Benedictus - the father and symbol of faith) and the expectations and hopes that surround the comng of the Christ or Messiah - the One who would show the people what God is like. The texts of the three songs together in fact sum up most of the Gospel - the good news that Jesus preached and embodied.

Today is Candlemas when Christians all over the world remember the bringing of the infant Jesus into the Temple for his dedication - the occasion on which Simeon utters the words of the Nunc Dimittis. It's a strange story veiled in the mists of time and half forgotten legend. Who was Simeon? Who was Anna? Where did they come from? Why do they seem to have a special prescience - they know things, they see the future. The text tells us that the Holy Spirit has promised Simeon he will not die until he has seen the Saviour. This strange story is pervaded throughout by the Holy Spirit who is mentioned three times (unusual in that the Spirit is not very often explicitly mentioned in the gospels.) This baby's birth is the work of the Holy Spirit and it is the Spirit who propels Simeon into the Temple this particular day; after a life of payer, he is finally inspired by the Spirit to grasp the moment and to do what his whole life has been leading to, to recognise and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, the One uniquely sent to show people what God is like. And Anna, the old prophetess is also wise, supernaturally wise beyond all knowing. Notice the gift that accrues to the Christ child from her encounter with him in the Temple is that he 'grows in all wisdom'. Simeon and Anna are Spirit and Wisdom. This moment is the culmination of their lives, the moment toward which everything they are has been moving and now they are liberated to 'go in peace'. The Spirit shimmers in the shadows of the Temple; the glory, the shekinah of God is present in the Temple just as our candles all around the cathedral tonight will remind us of God's presence and glory.

And yet...that is not the whole story. The radiance and the peace are shot through with a very real sense of fear and warning. Isn't is true that often our most glorious moments are tinged with an awareness of human frailty and mortality? Certainly these emotions are present here. In Simeon's words, there is an awareness of the struggle in this child's life that will lead to the cross and of the struggle His life will bring to individuals and nations . 'And a sword will pierce your heart,' he says to Mary. 'Many will oppose him' and He will bring division to the world. A moment of painful prescience and luminosity, a fore-knowing and a forth-telling. Just imagine the priest saying something as disturbing as this at a fmily baptism today - Mary, stunned, stored up these words  in her heart and, harsh as they were, no doubt they helped her to make sense of her strange and unique child's life and to support Him through it.  

This text looks backwards to antiquity; it is based on even more ancient texts behind the Greek text that Luke gives us. It connects us to 5,000years of Jewish and Christian history. Yet it looks forward and warns of what is to come in Jesus' time and of what, for us, is still to come yet. But more than that it invites us to live our lives as a part of what will happen within the complexity of God's purposes. In Lutheran churches, this song is sung or read after the congregation have received communion. It forms a dismissal - 'go back out into the world in peace and live as those who expect and are beginning to know God's salvation; show the glory of God in your living, the beauty of souls rescued from the worst excesses of human behaviour and the luminosity of lives given to God.'

No wonder this text speaks so profoundly to our experience, appeals to our hearts and to our intellect. It travels with us from our deepest and most ancient roots to our personal and communal and international futures and it whispers the hope of eternal life. It has been wonderfully set to music down the ages. As I said at the beginning, one of my favourite versions of the Nunc Dimittis is Gustav Holst's setting, written for Easter day 1915 for the choir of Westminster Cathedral. Listen to it here