Thursday 16 November 2023

Synod speech November 23

 This is the speech I gave at General Synod on the debate on Prayers of Love and Faith. I was opposing an amendment to the main motion which sought to enshrine ‘firm provision’ for those opposed, in terms which sounded likely to be similar to the arrangements for women bishops. So it is quite specific!

I oppose this amendment on three grounds: from my experience of the women bishops debates and the operation of the five guiding principles in practice, from the experience of our ecumenical colleagues, and from our historical ecclesiology.

And I’m baffled by 3 things so far in this Simon  I’m baffled by my more protestant colleagues seeming to argue for a theology of salvation by works. Like Amanda I’m baffled by more Biblically focused colleagues seeming so willing to take their fellow believers to court. And I’m baffled by all this talk of canons seeming to set aside Canon A8, Of Schisms.

Because it’s not as if there has ever been a time when the Church of England was not divided. We were designed to be a church that would hold together deeply, even violently opposed theologies, in peace, for the common good.

That’s why Our ecclesiology is not founded on confessional statements beyond the creeds, but on a radical commitment to the people of a particular place - a parish, a diocese, a country - ALL the people. Whatever their religious or ethical views.

This is the radical vision of the parish that I want to save.

Those of us who sat through the women bishops debates will know first hand how often and how clearly this synod rejected any suggestion of structural differentiation, of a third province or so on. 

I’m afraid I’m increasingly of the view that those who were disappointed by that are still fighting that battle on this front instead - indeed, that the real end game, for some, is to cynically use this issue to achieve  major change in our Ecclesiology by the back door.

(As an unscripted aside I then added something like - we have heard a lot about transparency in this debate. Can I suggest that if you want to change our ecclesiology that should be brought to this synod as Article 7 or 8 business, not pushed through as some sort of back room prisoner exchange.)

 I have seen this happening already, I’m afraid, as a member of the House of Bishops Standing commission on the 5 guiding principles. Resolutions are, sadly, in some places being used to pick a theologically acceptable bishop, and declare UDI  from everyone else - very much not the original intention.

This summer I was one of ten Anglican delegates to a Roman Catholic consultation on synodality. My fellow Delegates from the Baptist, Methodist, quaker, URC, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic Churches all used this issue of same sex blessings in reflecting on their own synodical processes. And I heard from all of them, repeatedly, that the one thing they knew was that they weren’t going to do what we had done over women bishops. They told me they had learned from our mistake in enshrining the sort of thing the Bishop of Durham is now asking for in our structures. 

THEY were baffled that we might not learn from it ourselves.

Our structure for holding together is the gift of our parish system. Our unity is based on geography, it will not be achieved by further distinguishing our divisions. 

I beg you to resist this amendment, and to support the main motion.

Thank you.

Sunday 10 September 2023

Sermon on my collation as Archdeacon of Liverpool

 On Saturday I was collated as Archdeacon of Liverpool. This is the sermon I preached: the readings were Deuteronomy 6:1-6 and the Magnificat.

The one question everyone has been asking me since my appointment was announced has been – what actually is an Archdeacon? It’s a good question, and one that I had myself when I first took on the acting role back in January.  What I’ve discovered in the last few months is that its not surprising that the role of archdeacon is a bit of a mystery, as so much of what we do is behind the scenes.  It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that when we’re doing our job well, you’d hardly know anyone was doing it. There’s a lot of law, a lot of paperwork, a lot of HR processes and procedures, and a lot of meetings. I can see some of you glazing over already!

But there’s a much sharper-edged version of that question that I’ve also been asked repeatedly these last few months. More than one person has said to me something along these lines – that they love who Jesus is and what he stood for, but they’re not at all convinced by the church as an institution. [‘Not at all convinced’ might be a euphemism]. How can I possibly, the question goes, be comfortable becoming so closely identified with the institutional church in a role like this? Is it a compromise too far?

Again, it’s a good question. When I first began exploring Christianity at university, what started it all off was the Magnificat, those words from Luke’s gospel that we’ve just heard sung – and by the way, let me say a huge thank you to the girls’ choir for being willing to come back from their summer break a week early to sing for us today.

I can still remember standing in a pew hearing the words of the Magnificat for what seemed like the first time and thinking – wow. Is that really what Christians believe? I had no idea. It would be too much to say I became a Christian at that point – that took another couple of years – but I can clearly identify hearing the Magnificat on that early October day 31 years ago as the start of my calling.

The Magnificat opened my eyes to the cutting edge of Christianity. Mary sings of a God who invites us to join with him in turning the social order upside down – and it blew me away. So at the heart of my sense of calling is this revolutionary, radical, manifesto for change.

Mary proclaims these words just after she’s had the encounter with the angel Gabriel which begins the incarnation. Luke’s gospel tells us that soon after that, she went with haste to a small Judean town in the hill country, to visit some elderly relatives. Perhaps she was running away from gossip and censure; perhaps she was just taking some time out to process what had just happened. Perhaps she knew that Elizabeth and Zechariah had had their own miraculous encounter with God just a few months before, leading to Elizabeth’s pregnancy, and thought that this older couple might be the only ones who would understand her experience.

Elizabeth was a few months further along than Mary, and when Mary arrived at their house Elizabeth felt her child leap in her womb – a movement she interpreted as being a leap for joy at the presence of the embryonic Jesus within Mary. Elizabeth’s exclamation of this made her the first person in the world to recognise and acclaim Jesus as the Messiah, and the first person to honour the young Mary as the mother of God.

And its in response to Elizabeth’s joyful greeting, Elizabeth’s joyful and welcoming affirmation of her calling to work with God, that Mary proclaims these words.

Because neither the child growing within her, nor the astonishing spiritual experience that she has just had, are simply for her own personal spiritual enjoyment – they will change the world. Mary sings of a God who has already been changing the world, who has repeatedly challenged the status quo through the recorded history of Israel, and who is doing it again now, and who invites us afresh, in every generation, to join with him in the continual work of bringing new things to birth.

The incarnation is at the heart of my faith. Jesus holds together in his person being both fully divine and fully human – not half and half, not a weird hybrid, but the fullness of God and the fullness of humanity united in a fully holistic being and identity.

One of the things that I love about the Bible, and about our faith more generally, is the way in which they hold together in this incarnational way the sublime – our highest aspirations, the vision of a changed world, the supreme holiness of God – with an unflinching realism and pragmatism about the messiness and details of real human lives.

Which takes me to our reading from Deuteronomy. The book of Deuteronomy is perhaps better known for its long lists of laws and regulations than for aspirational sayings. There are laws and decrees about everything from what to do if your neighbour moves the boundary stone between your land, or if your ox gores someone, to the importance of fair weights and measures. One moment God has made a covenant with his people, the highest calling – the next, the reality of the fact that people will fail to live up that calling is being acknowledged.  But here in chapter 6 we have this:

‘Hear, O Israel; the Lord is our God... You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.’

They’re words that are perhaps more familiar to us from the gospels. They form the introduction to perhaps the best loved story in the Bible, the parable of the Good Samaritan, and they’re quoted in three of the four gospels, each time with the addition of a second phrase – ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’

In adding that second phrase Jesus isn’t contradicting or altering what Deuteronomy says. What he’s doing is effectively summarising all the detail of the laws that make up the second part of Deuteronomy, into a more general principle. That loving God with all your heart, mind and strength isn’t just a nice theological idea; it’s something needs to be worked out, fleshed out, in all the details of day to day life. The specific details of how to live in a nomadic society that Deuteronomy gives were centuries out of date even by Jesus’ time. But the principle that Jesus summarises as ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, is that our religious beliefs aren’t just a matter of personal spirituality. They should influence the whole of how we conduct our common life.

The overarching purpose of the laws in Deuteronomy is to ensure that that application of our faith to everyday life is done fairly. So that - as the Magnificat puts it - the poor and meek don’t get a rawer deal than the rich and mighty. Our context might have changed radically from then, but the danger of the rich and powerful manipulating things in their own interests is as relevant today as it ever was.

As I’ve reflected on this role over the last few months, a role which can often seem quite legalistic and process-heavy, it seems to me that this is at the heart of answering that question of what is an Archdeacon. It’s a role which operates in the often uncomfortable space between, on the one hand, our vision of the holiness of God and our aspirational calling to change the world– and on the other hand, the mundane, pragmatic details of the mess and complexities of everyday life. It’s a role that involves trying to change the world, whilst at the same time trying to make sure that things keep running smoothly before we get there.

And it seems to me that this poses a challenge to every one of us. So many of us want to see a different world; but we are often in danger of being swamped by how impossible the task seems. The challenge is to be willing to live in this space and tension between our high ideals, and having to deal the reality we see around us.

The fact that we find this uncomfortable doesn’t mean we’re doing it wrong. Jesus declared blessed those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for justice. Blessed are those who are willing to experience the discomfort of longing for a world, and yes a church, that is not yet here, and working to bring it to birth in the midst of our present reality.

So I’ll end with this Franciscan blessing:

May God bless us with discomfort

At easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships

So that we may live from deep within our hearts.

May God bless us with anger

At injustice, oppression, and exploitation of God’s creations

So that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace.

May God bless us with tears

To shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger, and war,

So that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and

To turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless us with just enough foolishness

To believe that we can make a difference in the world.


Friday 10 February 2023

No, the doctrine of marriage is not fixed

 Speech given at General Synod on Thursday 9 Feb 2023

As a historian, I want to challenge this idea that we have heard repeatedly expressed, that the church has always had one fixed doctrine of marriage.

Our debates today are part of a very long and ongoing tradition of debate about our relationship to sex, sexuality, and different patterns of relationship and family.

In the scriptures, we see three, not two, gender identities: male, female and eunuch. And there is much debate about how that last category might map onto the categories that we speak of today.

In the early church, marriage did not mean sex per se, but the socio-economic status of being a householder. Slaves could not get married. And there were serious debates about whether Christians should marry at all, since it involved participating in civil society.

For most of Christian history, we had no marriage service. For elite families, marriage was primarily concerned with property, inheritance and alliances. In the medieval period the church began a programme of reform, which involved greatly annoying the aristocracy all over Europe by insisting on the radical notion that the couple at the heart of these alliances should both give their consent – hence the ‘I will’ and ‘I do’ vows in the marriage liturgy that developed.

‘Man’ and ‘woman’ was often a misnomer. Child marriages were common at this elite level, as political alliances were cemented. And at the popular level, practices such as betrothal, handfasting and ‘bundling’ were commonplace, all socially sanctioned and sometimes liturgical ceremonies which celebrated the commencement of pre-marital sexual intimacy, rarely condemned by the church.

In the nineteenth century there were protracted legal debates about whether women counted legally as ‘persons’. Until the Married Women’s Property Act, married women could not legally own property in their own right. (My own mother in law tells me indignantly that as a married woman in the 1970s she couldn’t buy a sofa on hire purchase without her husband’s signature).

Theologians and church dignitaries frequently weighed in on all sides of these debates. Legally, the view that we are all ‘people’ won the day – and the 1938 report of the first Doctrine Commission in the Church of England spoke of marriage as being between ‘two Christian persons’.

So as a historian – no, the church has not taught consistently for 2000 years that all sex outside of marriage is a sin, and has not had one unified doctrine of marriage for all that time.

One of our pastoral principles is to pay attention to power. So let us be honest that for most of our history, discussions about marriage have not been about sex per se, but about power.

Jesus himself said that whilst we start from the Scriptures, ‘the Holy Spirit will lead us into all truthSo we shouldn’t be surprised or afraid to see doctrine develop and change  as we learn more about the world and one another. It took the church 300 years to develop the doctrine of the Trinity, so lets not be dismayed that as we are learning more now about sex and sexuality, we are having this debate. 

Sunday 15 May 2022

All Things New

 A sermon preached at Liverpool Cathedral, Sunday 15th May 2022.

See, says God. Look. I am making all things new.

Sometimes we might wish that God would make the message we’re meant to hear a bit more obvious. Write it in letters of fire across the sky, spell it out in fireworks, put it up in neon lights.  Working out what God is saying to us can be a frustrating exercise. But the cumulative effect of todays’ readings feels a bit like God has indeed written ‘See – I am making all things new’ in neon lights for us.

A new commandment. A new heaven, a new earth. A new sweeping away of distinctions between what is holy and what is profane,  a new sweeping away of distinctions between who’s in and who’s out.

Newness sounds lovely, but it isn’t all spring blossom and skipping lambs. It can be scary and challenging, upsetting deeply held beliefs and cherished traditions. I tend to imagine the sheet full of animals as rather like an illustration from a children’s Noah’s Ark story, because to me animals, reptiles and birds are lovely things. We can perhaps get closer to a sense of the original shock of this story if we instead try to imagine that sheet filled with the kind of things we might see in a horror film. To Peter, this vision is one of a sheet filled with all the things that he’s been taught to find disgusting being offered to him. His reaction is one of disgust – which scientists tell us is the strongest,  most universally recognisable human emotion.

And the result isn’t that Peter is summoned to a friendly meeting on his holidays. He’s there in Jerusalem being criticised. He’s being told that he has crossed a line. It wasn’t even a controversial line – the sort of thing that people might reasonably have different opinions about, or accept there were grey areas on. Everyone knew that you didn’t eat with the uncircumcised. It would have been self-evident to everyone in that room that it was wrong. It wasn’t just ‘common sense’ , it wasn’t even just hallowed religious tradition. It was disgusting. So they ask Peter – what do you think you’re playing at?

And Peter tells them this extraordinary story of the vision he had of something like a sheet being let down from heaven, full of all the things that it was against hallowed religious tradition to eat, against centuries of religious law to eat. In his vision he is three times invited to eat them, and faithfully resists. Then comes the twist – the startling declaration of newness. ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane’. And then, lest Peter simply think that that was an interesting prayer experience of great theoretical interest, there immediately comes a knock on the door and the invitation to put this startling new approach into practice. And from there comes the summons to Jerusalem to explain himself.

Our 3 readings this morning give us 3 snapshots from different stages of the question of what it means to live out the new commandment that Jesus gives the disciples. In the gospel, the commandment itself – now, at this turning point, as we’re about to move into the next stage of the story – a new commandment. Love one another. In Revelation, a vision of what that might ultimately look like – a new heaven, a new earth, no more crying, no more pain, the old things have passed utterly away. And in Acts – the messy, complex business of trying to work out what all this means in practice in the world we live in for now. That’s very much still the stage we find ourselves in. As Rowan Williams enjoys reminding us, on a cosmic timeline we are almost certainly still the early church.

That might be why this story of a turning point in understanding what it means to live out this new commandment was so important in the story of the early church that the book of Acts tells it three times over! The version we heard this morning from chapter 11; and then the whole of chapter 10 is taken up first with the telling of this story as it happened in the first place, and then with a recap as Paul tells it to Cornelius and as Cornelius recounts his side of the story. Three times in as many columns in my Bible, we are told that these deeply held beliefs and long cherished traditions can be overturned on an instant, because God is doing something new.

One of the most important threads through this whole story – and through all our readings this morning – is the emphasis that this newness is God’s initiative. ‘See: I am making all things new’. ‘A new commandment I give to you’. In the two dramatic visions in our readings from Acts and Revelation, this divine initiative is emphasised visually, with the new thing being seen as if its physically ‘coming down’ or being let down ‘from heaven’.

I’m reminded of another story of Peter being startled by God doing something new and unexpected. Our gospel reading this morning comes at the end of chapter 13, which tells the story of the last supper. In John’s gospel, that meal is framed by two ‘newnesses’. Here at the end, when Judas has gone out to betray Jesus, Jesus gives effectively his last wish – now, now that we are moving into a new stage of things, I give you a new commandment – love one another. That’s like the close brackets, the second quotation marks, that mark out this chapter.

The open brackets, the opening quotation marks, the opposite bookend to today’s reading, is Jesus washing the disciples feet. And the person we see there being the one who is horrified by things not being done properly, by protocol not being observed, by religious and cultural conventions being ignored or overturned – is Peter. Peter is the one who when Jesus takes the slaves role and washes the disciples feet isn’t having any of it. You might remember the story from Maundy Thursday. Peter is the one who says ‘Are you serious, Jesus? You’re really planning to wash my feet?’ And when Jesus says patiently ‘look, you can’t understand what I’m doing now, but later you will understand’, Peter is adamant – ‘No way! You will never wash my feet.’ Its only when Jesus insists – unless I wash you, you have no part in me – that Peter changes his mind, and characteristically throws himself fully into this new experience – ‘then not just my feet, but my hands and my head too!’.

Peter is often the disciple that I most identify with. He’s outspoken, he can be bolshy, he can be impetuous, he argues with Jesus – but when he’s in, he’s in body and soul. He has been deeply formed by the teaching and traditions of his upbringing – he argues and resists what he sees as inappropriate innovations, even dangerous temptations – but once he has seen that God is behind these new things, he throws his full weight and passion and life behind them.

It can be a difficult and confusing task, to discern what in the newness and change that is pressed in on us from all sides is of God’s initiative. We’re rarely given a vision quite as clear and compelling as Peter’s vision of a sheet full of all the things he’s been taught to find disgusting being offered to him by God. But what we are told, again and again in the Bible, is to expect the unexpected.

God – the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the One who bookends the whole of creation – might be unchanging and unchangeable. But what God asks of us, what God calls us to do, can change radically from generation to generation.

And whilst we rarely get so clear a vision of what we’re called to do now as Acts presents us with, what this story also shows us is the simple ways in which Peter comes to trust this unexpected declaration of newness. What is first discerned in prayer is confirmed in an invitation from an unexpected person. Accepting that invitation and telling his story, Peter finds confirmation in the  story the other tells him in return. Further discernment takes place even in the acrimonius atmosphere of criticism and debate that takes place in Jerusalem.

There is a message here for us today, I think, about not being afraid to tell our stories of what new things we feel God is calling us to do and to be and to say; about not being afraid to hear the stories of other people, even other people who we have been taught to think of as other; and perhaps most challengingly,  not being afraid of criticism and debate.

But the big message that today’s readings seem to be putting up in neon lights for us today is a challenge to us to remember that God never promises not to overturn our most preciously held religious beliefs, habits and cultural taboos.

On the contrary, it seems to me that God promises exactly the opposite – that we should learn to live with the expectation and awareness that God is always re-creating the world, that God will at any moment present us with new ways to more fully live out that new commandment to love one another.

We’re invited to explore together what that might mean, not just with people like us but with the most unexpected people that God puts in our path, telling our stories and hearing theirs, and being open to what God might now – here – today – be making new.




Tuesday 15 March 2022

How to Read the Bible: A five session online course to accompany the book How To Eat Bread: 21 Nourishing Ways to Read the Bible


I'm absolutely delighted to have written this book over lockdown, with the help of the fabulous people from St Bride's and around the country who joined me online to read and study to the Bible together. 

It seemed to me that there was no book out there that set out, in an accessible way, the riches of all the many strands of Bible reading in the Christian tradition. What could you give to someone who asked you why they should bother reading the Bible - or who said that they didn't think liberals believed in the Bible?

I hope this book is the answer!

Several people have asked for a Lent course based on it, and so I'm uploading 5 videos to our church YouTube channel over Lent. These are all based on the first section of the book which looks at ways that the Bible itself uses other bits of the Bible. Maybe I'll do another section next year!

The videos are each about 20-25 minutes long and are uploaded at the beginning of each week. Feel free to use them either for your own personal study, or to share them in a group setting - you don't need to ask permission to stream them or use them in a church or group.

You can find the playlist here - subscribe to it to get notified when the next video is uploaded!

And you can buy the book from the bookshop of your choice or via the links here on the publishers page.


Monday 27 September 2021

Poem: At the Bridge

 I went for a walk and wrote this poem/thought experiment:

At the Bridge

A dog dashes under the stile

Splashes into the stream

And bounds high through the water

Scattering spray wildly in the sun.

Tail helicoptering madly, she strains to see

If her slower human nears -

Gives a few short, sharp barks, to call him here.

I wonder what it would be like to follow God like this?

Not hold myself back, walking obediently at his heel,

But to run joyfully ahead, feeling the joy of my body and freedom -

Turning to call him to share in my delight -

Straining to see him approach -

Knowing he won't be far behind.

Monday 6 September 2021

Hymn: River of Life


We've just restarted Sunday worship at St Bride's Church. At St Bride's we tend to have monthly themes, and the team putting September together decided to work with the idea of a river - from Genesis 2 to Revelation 22. I've written these hymn words to go with a well known tune, for this September series. 

You're welcome to use it, just acknowledge authorship.

River of Life (to the tune Immortal Invisible)


The river of faith flows from cradle to grave

From bubbling fountain to great crashing wave.

From Eden, the source of the stories we tell,

To visions of cities where all shall be well.


Faith shape-shifts like water, in cloud, rain and sea,

It filters through rock and will always burst free.

The truth that we need will spring up from the earth

Pure life-giving water for all those who thirst.


The flood of the Spirit sweeps habit away

Exposing the comforting lies that we say;

Disturbing complacency, greening dry lands

And buoying us up as we float in God’s hands.


From Eden, the source of the stories we tell,

To visions of cities where all shall be well;

The river of faith may be winding and slow

Yet waters all soils for all love to grow.