Saturday, 31 October 2020

Online communion

 I’ve blogged for Modern Church (published in the Church Times too) this week, on the phenomenon of online communion and how the tangible and the virtual are combined in every celebration of communion.

You can read it here:

Friday, 4 September 2020

Learn to Paint in 3 Easy Stages: Genesis

Start by laying down an indication of sky -
Leave some space white, to suggest light.
Place a distant mountain or two.
Working forwards in layers
Decide where you want to be land,
Water, vegetation.
Perhaps a tree in the foreground,
To push everything back?
It could be a fruit tree -
You decide.

If you’re not happy with the way it’s going
You can always change it.
You’re in control.
You can move the paint about, add new layers.
As a last resort, wait until it’s dry
And paint over.
Perhaps an all-over wash of blue
To hide the mess you’ve made-
Let’s make it an ocean.
And perhaps - here - a happy little boat?

But however much you paint over
You’ll always know what lies beneath.
It’s your creation -
Make your peace with it.
Commit to it.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

A poem: reflecting on communion, past and present


I chose carefully for my first time.
Slipping quietly off the marketplace
Into the taken-for-granted quiet of an old church.
Midday, midweek,
when I calculated that nobody of any importance
would witness my humiliation.

Drawn as I was to kneel and tacitly offer
My submission to this ancient order,
my faith was still too raw a wound
to hold it out for inspection -
not yet scabbed over enough to bear the thought
of people reaching out to touch and exclaim over it.

The few old ladies who gather at these things didn't count in my young eyes -
Nor the priest - by definition, irrelevant.
This was as close as I could get to privacy
For my capitulation.

It was just what I'd hoped for - A Ladybird Book of Church.
School-room-vintage chairs with rush seats.
Stone flags that had seen it all.
The noonday sun blurred through old glass diamonds.
Slim liturgy that neither patronised nor presumed.
One step, a wooden rail, an unassuming altar.

I took deep breaths and told myself I had a right to be there.
Smiled politely back at the welcoming lady who caught my eye.
Tried to look as if I often popped into a church -
People do, don't they? -
And just happened to stay for the service that happened to be about to start.

The moment that I knew that God had got me
Wasn't, as I'd expected,
When I knelt to receive the bread and wine.
It was when, at some point in the service, a latecomer entered.
I’d thought I’d got away with it until then.
He was one of my lecturers.
And not just any old lecturer, a half-recognised face in a crowd -
I knew him well. He taught just me, and one other student, that year.
He smiled in surprised recognition.
And in that small gathering it seemed inevitable
That we would end up kneeling side by side at the thin wooden rail.

Okay, I said silently. You win.
This can't be private. 

Twenty five years later, we’re in lockdown.
Now I’m the irrelevance.
Shielded, cloistered –
Unable to bustle about parsonically,
Feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, celebrating the sacraments.
Unable to take your funeral, hold your hand as we pray through your pain –
Unable to offer a wordless hug.
Unable, however hard I try, to save the church.

My diary lies abandoned, a bookmark three weeks ago
Marks the last time my time was relevant.

Now my humiliation is finding a Red Cross parcel on my doorstep,
And needing it.
I want to say I’ll give it to the foodbank, but then realise
That this is the only pasta, potatoes, tinned tomatoes, in the house
And the shops are bare
And in any case, I can’t go shopping.
I take advice from a friend who writes post-apocalyptic fiction
And stock up on lentils online.

Those first Sundays, I hardly know what I am doing.
I tie my phone to a music stand with string
And try to look my congregation in the eye.

Perhaps, I say, this feels like that last supper
In a borrowed room; aware of darkness falling outside
And the exponential rise of hate.
Fearing a painful death, or the pain of loss.
Waiting for something to happen -
Helpless to do more than wait.

A ‘like’, a ‘love’ and ‘tears’ float up the screen in well known faces,
And God gets me again.
I realise we’re as close now, whatever our distance,
As we’ve ever been to those first twelve at that last and first supper.

And I say – take something, please.
We’re all broken.
Eat something, please,
As a sign of our communion.
This isn’t private.


This isn’t private,
But at first it feels it.
Daily, slowly, a small group gather.

Howls of protest fill column inches with complaint
That an empty church can no longer be taken for granted
For slipping into.
Our irrelevance is missed.

I feel the weight of others’ success, reports of hundreds – thousands! – of new followers,
Instagram stardom, converts flocking, a new Pentecost.
I post letters and liturgies to those not online,
And try to believe them when they tell me on the phone
That they’re quite happy with what’s on the radio.

I take a deep breath, and tell myself I have a right to be here,
Smiling back at the few precious fellow-travellers who gather with me,
Mid-morning, midweek,
In this new space we’ve found to slip into.

And as the weeks go by, strange traveller’s tales reach me –
Of people encountering our online church on the fringes of the marketplace
And popping their head round the door.
Some are enraged, seeing only some strange distorted masquerade.
Others have stories I treasure up in my heart.
And I wonder, who that anonymous priest was,
All those years ago,
And if any of us ever know what impact
Our faithful reliability has.

I never told my lecturer about that moment, before he died.
I wish I had.

Friday, 3 April 2020

Liturgical Material for Online Services

In putting together some liturgy for St Bride’s Liverpool to use in our livestreamed services that I’m doing from home for Holy Week and Easter, I’ve written some material with a particular focus on the unusual circumstances in which we are gathering online. I offer them here in case they are of any use to anyone else. Feel free to use/adapt as you see fit. 

They are all my own compositions apart from the Closing Affirmation, which was written by Steven Shakespeare originally for when our children and young people go out to their groups during our services, but which we then realised works perfectly for this situation too.

I’ve ended up live streaming a morning prayer service daily, and communion on Sunday, from my home. I’ve been very struck by how present those who join me on line feel, and how present I feel to them. Seeing their faces and names appear on my tablet throughout the service, with their comments, input, and little ‘likes’ or ‘loves’ or ‘sad’ faces floating up the screen like bubbles, makes the whole thing feel not at all like a broadcast but rather a genuine expression of community. 

This isn’t ‘virtual’ church as opposed to ‘in real life’ church – it is totally real, just with different physical space being involved. I think it helps being live, as it makes the service genuinely interactive. People contribute thoughts on the readings – this is our usual practice at St Bride’s – and also contribute prayer requests, by typing them in as a comment. Everyone who is following can see and respond not just to me but to others. 

Several people have asked what we are doing about communion. I’m presiding fairly normally at home, and my family are communicants (though in this extremis I’d have no qualms about presiding if I were at home alone – it passes the ‘desert island’ hypothetical question test for me!). I personally  have a fairly high sacramental view of communion, though the trappings are unimportant to me, and I’m in a church that broadly speaking has a fairly low one, so this seems to work for all of us! 

I am encouraging people to have something to eat or drink at home – not to get bread and wine necessarily, I’m in no way purporting to consecrate over the ether – but to eat and drink together while I do so, as an expression of our unity and community. It’s very clear from Paul’s letters that in the early church communion was a common meal as much as a ritual and sacrament, and consciously eating and drinking together is a good expression of that.

Up til now I’ve been using the Lent liturgy we already had, but at this point it seemed right to compose some new material that reflects the particular and peculiar dynamic of this livestreamed expression of church. I hope they are of use.

The Gathering
We come into this time and space and offer ourselves,
Our time, these moments of stillness to God.
we leave aside, for this while,
our cares and concerns
our fears and frustrations.
Or, if we cannot lay them aside,
we bring them with us into this space
And offer them to God.


God, who in Jesus
could hold stillness at the centre of the crowd’s adulation,
            calm in the face of a friend’s betrayal
                        and silence before the questioning of power,
Be with us in our involuntary stillness this holy week.
Help us, we pray, to embrace it,
to allow ourselves to be challenged by it,
And to encounter you afresh in it.

An alternative gathering:

We gather today as one body
from the many places where God gives us shelter for this season.

In the light of Christ’s resurrection
We commit ourselves afresh to one another and to God.
We humble ourselves to serving the world through our stillness.
We content ourselves with the inner freedom of the Spirit.

The Peace

The risen Christ came and stood among his disciples,
in a locked room,
where they sheltered from the crowds that they feared.
Meeting them there, where they were,
He said, ‘peace be with you’.

The peace of the risen Christ be always with you.
And also with you.

Preparation of the Table
We gather as God’s people, in our different places,
around this table of our communion.
We bring bread, knowing our need to be fed,
And aware that many are hungry.
We bring wine, knowing our need for joy,
And aware that many are lonely.
We bring ourselves, trusting that you will take and share
Our time, our talents, and our treasures,
And make them enough.       

Post communion prayer
May we who have shared in the reality of our communion
Without being physically present to one another
Know the reality of your presence with us always.

May we who are living in this time of brokenness and separation
Know your wholeness in our hearts and in our communities.

May we who hunger for a time when we may be together again
Feed a world hungry for love and justice.     

Closing Affirmation (by Steven Shakespeare)
In the circle of God’s love, we are one:
The circle is never broken.
In the light of God’s welcome, we are one:
the light never goes out.
Let the child teach us the wisdom of play.
Let the adult teach us the gentleness of care.
May the circle surround us when we are apart.
May the light draw us together again.

Thursday, 27 February 2020

Ethical Evangelism

If I had to choose just one cardinal virtue for ethical evangelism, it would be: Honesty.
Ethical evangelism at its simplest involves making sure that what you are saying and doing are consistent with what you believe. 

It’s worth having a conversation as a church about what you believe about being a Christian. What difference do you think it makes? A lot of people out there have a caricature of evangelists which means they assume we think they are going to hell if they don’t believe, though very few churchgoing Christians actually hold that view. But if you don’t think that, be prepared to explain why you want to share the good news of God’s love. Honestly, what difference do you think it will make to them? And start that conversation by being honest about what difference it makes to you.

Be honest with the person you are talking to about your own faith and doubts. Be honest about your own religious experiences, whatever they may be. Be honest about the bits you struggle with, too. Don’t give them ‘the script’ or try to second guess what the right answers might be, or what you think your Vicar would like to hear you say - have the confidence to trust that the story God has given you, in all its naked truth, is enough. Like the story of Jesus feeding thousands with the five loaves and two fish, all we have is all we can share - and when we offer that to God and to the world in all its simplicity, we can be astounded at how it is more than ample to feed all who are hungry.

Here are three specific ways in which I believe honesty in evangelism is important:

1. Be honest about what an event will involve. Obviously, when you are planning an outreach event, think about what will attract people. Don’t do what you already do that isn’t working - instead, think what you would genuinely and enthusiastically invite your friends to, whether thats a community BBQ or a comedy night. And if you decide to have an explicitly evangelistic element to the event, don’t ambush people with it. Make it quite clear that, for example, the quiz night will also include the chance to hear the bishop as an after dinner speaker for 10 mins, or that the BBQ will include community hymn singing, or the Halloween tour of the graves in the cemetery will include an explanation of the Christian view of life after death. Don’t force people who weren’t expecting it to sit through a testimony when that’s not what they thought they were invited to.

2. Be honest with yourself about what you want. Our evangelism must never treat other people as a means to an end. This is really hard for clergy who feel constantly judged on the numbers attending, but recruiting new members so that we look good as a growing church is not a noble reason to evangelise. We can’t remove our less noble motives, but we can take care not to let them drive us into theologically dodgy territory.

In particular, be careful to avoid the toxic combination of spiritual and financial abuse. We all know that one of the many mixed motivations we have nowadays to grow our churches is that we need more people to be giving to keep the doors open, the roof on and at least a very part time priest employed. But we must never give the impression that giving will affect the issue of someone’s salvation. Gods grace is free and poured out without demanding anything in return - though God  longs for our response of love, we don’t need to prove that to anyone. 

If you want enough people to come to church for the church to remain viable, though, there’s no harm in being honest about that. How sad if it closed and people said ‘we’d have come if we’d known’.

If what you really want are Friends of the Church to increase your giving base, then be honest about that and consider starting a friends group. You might then find you have a group of people who are happy to be ‘flying buttresses’, supporting the church from the outside. Don’t despise them but welcome them, and free yourself to talk to others about your faith without the financial pressure. You may even find that the long term relationships you build are a good basis for gentle conversations about faith in the future.

3. Be honest with yourselves as a church about your capacity for growth and what you can realistically offer. In small businesses, as many of your congregations will know, periods of expansion and growth are the most dangerous time. Think carefully about how many new people you as a church have the capacity realistically to absorb, at this moment, and be honest about the level of support you can offer. There’s no point offering perfect pastoral care and a listening ear in your publicity, or holding out the promise of making loads of new friends, if the ten people at your church, including you, are up to the eyeballs with friends and pastoral care already. With the best will in the world, if ten needy new people showed up craving meaningful friendships and significant pastoral care, could you actually deliver? You may need to train and develop new lay leaders first, or at least have identified people who can step up if and when needed. And be honest about the limits of what the church can provide, or you risk disappointing people (and at worst ‘inoculating’ them against Christianity - ‘tried that once’). If what you can realistically offer are simply quiet, contemplative services, just say so. You may attract the person who has avoided the threat of being expected to join in loads of things for years, but would love to come if that’s all there is to it!

Be honest - to yourselves, to God, and to those you speak with.

This article was commissioned for Country Way, the magazine of Germinate, the Arthur Rank Centre. The link to the online edition is Here