Church in a time of pandemic

Church in a time of pandemic

So – this Pastor in Rīga has (temporarily) become Chaplain in Oslo. In the spring it was even more complicated, as I did 2 months as a Locum for St. Edmund’s Anglican Chaplaincy in Oslo while I was physically in Latvia – a ministry carried out entirely via Zoom, email, telephony and Skype. It was certainly the first time I had led a service in alb, stole, pectoral cross and crocs – one of the clichés of pandemic worship, of course.

And then arriving here in person was truly a unique experience. The building was much as I had imagined it, but people were both familiar and unfamiliar, as the image you see on a screen is not really representative of a three dimensional person. Some people were taller than I expected, others shorter – but all were recognisable, and all very welcoming.

St Edmund’s in Oslo

But it has been a “steep learning curve” (is that my cliché quota used up for this post?) in terms of being a functioning cleric in person, rather than in a home environment. A bit of background: for the last months many of us in Latvia who have family abroad have been living with two realities. In Latvia the COVID-19 pandemic has barely touched us compared with most of the rest of Europe. As I write, there has been an uptick in cases, due to an overly optimistic experiment in restarting the hockey season (this involves teams travelling to and from Latvia, Russia, Belarus and Finland. Correct me if I’m wrong, but there seems to be something of a flaw in this plan). And sure enough, players have been testing positive, matches have been cancelled and the future of the season is in doubt. At the same time, one of the worldwide phenomena has just manifested itself – an outbreak at a meat processing plant. But still and all, Latvia has the lowest infection rate in Europe at the time of writing, and life continues pretty normally (except for frustrated hockey fans, of whom there are many. Really very many.)

At the same time, our family in the UK have been enduring lockdowns, living in isolation, hearing mixed messages from an increasingly heavily criticised government, with daily infection rates now rising into the thousands. We have talked and video called, written messages and sent little gifts to each other, anxious not to lose touch, faced suddenly with the prospect of not knowing when we will be able to meet again.

But Norway is in a sort of in-between space. Infection rates here are rising, but there is no lockdown, and no very great measures to contain the outbreak, except for closures in kindergartens and schools directly affected, and advice to wear masks on public transport. 1 metre distancing is recommended, and mostly observed, and there is ‘anti bac’ everywhere.

However, St Edmund’s have really risen to the challenge, with very careful precautions and much thought having been given to following the advice given both by the Norwegian health authorities and the Diocese in Europe of the Church of England. No greeting of peace, of course, no contact, no possibility of handing a book to children to read, no coffee hour, only 40 people in church and so on. It is at once comforting to know how much care has gone into to making the church a safe space, and confining to know that much of the action that makes church what it is, is now inevitably forbidden. The small instinctive gestures, the sharing of communion in bread and wine, the hug for a friend who is hurting – all this is gone, and we are a church gripped in safety and in confinement. The sculpture below, one of a stunning series in a local park, spoke to me vividly of this duality of caring and restraint.

One of the remarkable and emotionally charged statues in the Vigelandsparken

Today a discussion (that I could only follow in part) at the Norwegian Christian Council echoed concerns raised in St. Edmund’s and more widely in the Church throughout the world, and led to these thoughts – how are we to be church in 2020? How are we to show God’s love in a time of pandemic? What to do about the people who are isolated, not just by government restrictions, but by their own (understandable) reluctance, even fear, to venture out into a city or a village made strange and seemingly unsafe? How do we reach out to people who have withdrawn? How do we comfort the sick and the bereaved when even funerals are restricted, and when we can’t touch a weeping child, or stroke a dying person’s head? For Anglicans in Europe more than most, what to do about the rituals that sustain the church, but which demand a Bishop’s presence – like confirmation or ordination – when the Bishop is stuck hundreds of kilometres away, and can’t travel because of quarantine or self-isolation regulations?

A beautiful window in St. Edmund’s Church

Loving our neighbour in these times requires us to keep our neighbour safe, and therefore Christians surely must do the best to observe whatever regulations medical experts and governments guided by them recommend, or, indeed, legislate into being. Of course, online worship, Bible studies, lectures, seminars and so on have been extraordinarily valuable during this time – for those who are able to access them, which is by no means everyone. Indeed, many churches have found that people who do not normally attend church do find their way into online activities. The Lutheran church I belong to in Latvia has found that several thousand people have watched our services on YouTube, and an interesting series of meditations by a pastor online regularly attracts 250 people on a weekday evening – some of them in Latvia, but others in Iceland, Chile, Canada, the UK and so on. This has been a completely unforeseen blessing.

But the reality is that we, followers of Christ and carriers of our crosses at Jesus’ invitation, face some real and difficult challenges in the years to come. It is no good thinking that when COVID-19 passes, we will return to where we were in February 2020. That applies to so much in our world, whether we are talking about the tourism industry, methods of working, education – whatever. COVID-19 has struck the poor and the hungry harder than others, and will continue to do so, according to the World Bank. It has also disproportionately affected people of Black and Minority Ethnic origin. It has devastated populations of elderly folk in nursing homes. All of this poses difficult questions to society, and to churches and their members.

Meanwhile, congregations have lost some people and gained others, certainly lost income, some to a catastrophic level; and preaching the Gospel to a world riven by a polarisation that is political and religious (and a mixture of the two – think of the close relationship between the religious right and Trump-supporting Republicans) is demanding a reorientation. I would say that we must, as Christians, make another attempt to heal divisions, and not to see us and others as followers of diverse traditions, but simply to gather around the Cross, and to see where God wants us to go next. The old, humanly constructed certainties and barriers must go;

The rebuilding of Norwegian government building following the attack in 2011 has involved the demolition of much that was damaged

and a renewed Church, challenging the status quo and living alongside the poor and dispossessed, must emerge. Our world has been hit by the equivalent of a bomb, and the debris has to be cleared away in order for us to see how to rebuild. Rules and Canon Laws must change, or be broken; risks must be taken, and arms – physical and metaphorical – must be opened wide. Otherwise, I fear that we are lost. John Bell, as so often, captures my thoughts and feelings on this autumnal evening in Oslo.

Jesus Christ is waiting,
Waiting in the streets;
No one is his neighbour,
All alone he eats.
Listen, Lord Jesus,
I am lonely too.
Make me, friend or stranger,
Fit to wait on you.

Jesus Christ is raging,
Raging in the streets,
Where injustice spirals
And real hope retreats.
Listen, Lord Jesus,
I am angry too.
In the Kingdom’s causes
Let me rage with you.

Jesus Christ is healing,
Healing in the streets;
Curing those who suffer,
Touching those he greets.
Listen, Lord Jesus,
I have pity too.
Let my care be active,
Healing just like you.

Jesus Christ is dancing,
Dancing in the streets,
Where each sign of hatred
He, with love, defeats.
Listen, Lord Jesus,
I should triumph too.
On suspicion’s graveyard
Let me dance with you.

Jesus Christ is calling,
Calling in the streets,
”Who will join my journey?
I will guide their feet.”
Listen, Lord Jesus,
Let my fears be few.
Walk one step before me;
I will follow you.

©1988  WGRG, Iona Community, Govan, Glasgow G51 3UU, Scotland

Two Cummingses, Gilead and Johnson

Two Cummingses, Gilead and Johnson

A couple of weeks back I made a mistake one Friday evening. It had been a long week, long hours and various stressful events, mostly to do with the church ceiling repair. It seemed like an evening to just chill, so I ended up binge watching series 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale, which is available on Shortcut, Latvia’s version of iPlayer and Netflix combined.

And it was a mistake, alright. For those not familiar with this series, based on Margaret Atwood’s vision of a dystopian future (or present?) in the USA, tells the horrific story of the founding of a republic named Gilead in the northeastern states of the US. The flashbacks give us glimpses of how this starts, with increasingly conservative politicians working together with fundamentally oriented Christians to establish a theocratic system. Due to some unspecified catastrophe involving nuclear waste, the population has become infertile, and women of childbearing age become the eponymous Handmaids, subdued by violence and manipulation to become vessels for childbirth. If you haven’t yet read the original novel, do.

Why was this binge on a cool Friday night a mistake? Mostly because the second series begins

…..Begins with a long sequence filmed at the Boston Globe, deserted, abandoned; and then the discovery of a wall where the journalists have been shot. Of course this evokes a reaction because it resonates with the current US President’s frequent denunciations of the Press as ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE. Because what happens to the ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE? They are exterminated, and not in a basically cosy, Dr Who Daleky kind of way. That is extrapolation, of course it is. But Handmaid’s Tale shows us that sometimes the descent into totalitarianism, just like the pathway to Hell, is paved with the very best of intentions, and it happens slowly, imperceptibly, when at each step we think that none of this is really so bad, when we become habituated to small acts of hatred, to increments of intolerance and oppression.

That’s why Donald Trump’s nastiness towards Elijah Cummings matters. It does.

Quite apart from the sheer indignity of the President(!) of the USA (!) using such intemperate language on Twitter (!) towards someone who is, basically, just a political opponent, this is dog whistle racism. And that is NOT OK. Can you imagine FDR, Ronald Reagan or either of the Bushes doing this? Let alone statesmen or women from other countries, like Adenauer, Churchill, Gandhi, Merkel, or the rising new star of world politics, Jacinta Arden? (Names picked rather randomly, by the way).

And now in the UK there is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (sic). Prime Minister, serial adulterer and proven liar, with his own ‘Cummings’, the rather less savoury Dominic.

Here’s a quote from The Independent:

Fletcher, the former Times editor, has compiled a list of Johnson’s greatest hits from Brussels: Johnson wrote that the EU wanted to standardise coffins, the smell of manure and the size of condoms – and had rejected an Italian request to make undersized rubbers. He warned Brits that their prawn-cocktail-flavoured chips could be banned, that their sausages were under threat and that their fishermen would be required to wear hairnets.

And all of those were lies. But does any of this matter? Yes, it does, too. Bishop Berkeley wrote in 1750

It is impossible that a man who is false to his friends and neighbours should be true to the public.

That is still true today, even if some commentators are trying to divorce public from private morality. And thereby hangs the problem. Morality has become something of a dirty word in our postpostmodern world. We have a diversity of moral frameworks, based on a potpourri of religions, and, indeed, for many people morality has become something entirely private, a sliding, slippery, ephemeral concept, where moral relativism, albeit unnamed, is the order of the day. Reality TV shows us adultery and luuurve in all its shapes and sizes, making popular drama out of real pain and betrayal. Love Island apparently thought this was a cute quote

After getting a drama-filled text the night before telling all the Islanders to nominate a fellow couple to be dumped, Amber told the Beach Hut: “In here you can be at your highest high, and you think that nothing could possibly ruin this, and then a text comes in.”

Our bankers and politicians lie without compunction, and without consequences. Greed has become praiseworthy, and stealing or corruption the norm for many. In addition, social media have become a breeding ground for contempt and unkindness.

The old standards of morality, often observed in the breach though they were, were a rule by which to measure ourselves, first and most importantly, and others only in a secondary way. So I can even see the temptation to believe that a benevolent theocracy, guided, say, by the Sermon on the Mount, might drag us out of the cesspit. But that way lies Gilead, Law not Gospel, and more intolerance, even if accompanied by a greeting of

Blessed day!

But what we should do, as people of faith and people of goodwill, is to uphold those standards in any case. If we were, seriously, to take the 10 Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount as reasonable guidelines for living well, we would save ourselves and those around us from much misery. As the Church of England website says,

The Ten Commandments set out fundamental principles of how we are to treat God and how we are to treat our fellow human beings. 

For lack of a better or more functional vademecum, most Western legal systems, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and many other fundamental documents find their basic principles precisely here. I suspect also that a necessary concern for the environment and overcoming the existential challenge of global climate change would be aided by a deeper understanding of these two profoundly wise writings.

And we have do the right – no, the obligation! – to hold Presidents, Prime Ministers, politicians and leaders to a standard of morality, without which we find ourselves in an environment where lies are  as good as truth, dishonesty as honesty, where kindness is seen as weakness, and a world where racism, sexism and all the other isms are set free to skitter around, wounding and killing as they go.

QED, I guess.

Baltic Commemoration Service, 17 June

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

This year we mark 14 June against a very particular, indeed unique, setting. Of course we all know that this year we remember 100 years of the proclamation of independence for all 3 Baltic countries.   For Lithuania it is different, because this is 100 years since the renewal of independence, for Estonia and Latvia the first moment of true independence ever. 

But we need to remember that that is precisely what it is: 100 years since the proclamations. We have not, any of us, enjoyed a century of freedom and self-determination. In fact, this second period of liberation, now 27 years long, is longer than our first time, from 1918-1940. And in between all our countries suffered an era  of oppression, extreme and harsh at times, which has come to be symbolised by, or summed up in our remembrance of the year of terror 1940-1941, and the horror of the night of 14 June.


If ever the Baltic peoples thought that Soviet rule was going to be more or less like all the other foreign rulers who have divided up our lands over the years, and that we would just get through it somehow, this one night showed all too clearly that this was different. 

So today we sit, in stillness, and with words and music, with symbols and silence, we live with these very mixed emotions and memories. We give thanks for new freedoms; we weep for those who were taken, and those who were left. We look forward, with slightly battered and cynical hopes, but still without despair, to the future; but we know all too well what the past holds. We know, too, that we must not forget, because that will make future horrors more likely to happen. 

For Christians, the inevitable question is – why did God let this happen? Why, if God loves us, didn’t God prevent the deportations, the torture and the deaths? Primo Levi, the Italian Jewish survivor of the Nazi concentration camps, famously said: “There is Auschwitz, so there cannot be God.”

Where was God when the wolves came with midnight knocks in Tallinn and Viljandi, in Vilnius and Klaipeda, in Rīga and Jelgava; when the cattle trucks were packed with people – men and women, young and old? Where was God when the deported were suffering the long, thirsty, fearful journeys to Omsk, to Irkutsk, to the Vjatlag? This, perhaps, is the hardest and thorniest question that Christians, and indeed people of other faiths are faced with. 

We can, though, find comfort and the beginnings of an answer in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus compares himself here to a (or the) Good Shepherd. The hired hand – the herdsman who is working in the gig economy in 21st century terms – won’t ever risk his own life to save someone else’s  animals, to rescue another person’s property from danger. But the good shepherd knows his animals and cares for them; the good shepherd lives alongside his animals, feeding them beside still waters, caring for without thought for his own welfare. 

So where was God on 14 June? God was with the lambs of the flock; God was there in the cattle trucks, in the desperate prayers and the tears. God walked the tundra and the taiga, alongside the lonely and the frightened. And God was there in the hope that did not die, in the hidden services and communions that were celebrated by priests and pastors in huts and camps. As with so many atrocities committed over the centuries, Christ, the Good Shepherd, was crucified again in the camps of the Gulag, and the cellars of the KGB. Because he is the Good Shepherd, he does not abandon us in times of pain and hardship, because he knows himself what it is to be wrongfully arrested, interrogated, humiliated and killed; because he loves us, each one of us – including the guards and the KGB officers.

Between Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Moldova close to 100 000 people were deported. One of them was my mother’s first husband, Alfrēds Tālnora. He had been a civilian worker with the police, and that was enough for him to be arrested in  the spring of 1941, deported, and shot in the prison in Astrakhan in October of the same year. He had no other family, and probably no one except for me and my family even remember that he once lived. There are countless men and women like him, unknown, unremembered, buried somewhere in the vastness of Siberia. It is a comfort to hear the words of Jesus: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me”; for it means that all these souls are both known and remembered by God. 

I hope and pray that in his cell, and in his last moments, Alfrēds Tālnora knew the comfort of God’s presence. I hope and pray that his killers, too, became aware of the terrible wrong that they did, and that they knew the love and care of the Good Shepherd in the end. I hope and pray that all our countries, who have borne the burden of these crimes for so many years, will soon find truth, reconciliation and healing.


I hope and pray that the truth will enable us to forgive, even while we do not forget. For the truth will set us free – free from the suspicion, mistrust and lies that have scarred our societies since 1941. 


John 10.7-15

7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.

Sermon preached at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly. 

Pentecost – are we ready for the risk?

It’s been a tough kind of week, from inter Church squabbles to grappling with the GDPR. So just to remind me that there is more to ministry than ecumenical edginess and bureaucratic business, here is last Sunday’s sermon. Sometimes we all need to be revived with the breath of love.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

At the beginning of our service today, we prayed a dangerous prayer. Holy Spirit, sent by the Father, ignite in us your holy fire; strengthen your children with the gift of faith, revive your Church with the breath of love, and renew the face of the earth, through Christ our Lord. Amen


As Christians, we come to church, mostly, probably, in a routine kind way. It’s what we do on Sundays – unless other things intervene, and we are away from home, or busy somewhere. We come here, and we are nurtured, fed, comforted, uplifted – whatever it is that each service does for the people who attend. But today’s readings and prayers remind us of something important. We come to church, to ‘divine service’, as it is sometimes called in English – Gottesdienst in German, dievkalpojums in Latvian – to meet not just our brothers and sisters, but also to meet God, to be served by God, and to offer God our small sacrifice in return. If, truly, we encounter God, we are changed by that encounter. We prayed that the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father, would ignite in us the Spirit’s holy fire! Did we mean that when we said or heard those words, and said Amen to them? For the last nine days we took part in ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, a global movement of prayer between Ascension and Pentecost. Each day we met to pray, and said: 

“Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people 

And kindle in us the fire of your love. 

Come, Holy Spirit, be with us as we pray 

And leave us not as orphans. 

Come, Holy Spirit, renew us in body, mind and spirit 

And send us out to be your presence in your world. 

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people 

And kindle in us the fire of your love.”

We prayed this as we waited on God.  Did we mean it, or was it just another routine prayer that we routinely said Amen to? If we did mean it, it was a risky thing to do. 

Just look what happened to the disciples when the flames of the Holy Spirit rested on them. Peter was utterly transformed in the weeks, the 52 days between Good Friday and Pentecost. From someone who was too afraid of the authorities to admit that he even knew Jesus, here he is, standing up boldly, addressing the men of Judea and of Jerusalem, declaring –  proclaiming – the fulfilment of prophecy. Peter, who we hear in the Gospels as always putting his foot in it, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time – here he is: preaching fluently, inspired and openhearted. Peter, who was afraid of the Jews, and who hid in an upstairs room in fear of his own life – here he is, raising his voice, and addressing these devout Jews, gathered together from most parts of the known world, apparently fearless! The flames of the Holy Spirit had indeed rested on him, burned away all the fear, the shame of his betrayal and the doubt and uncertainty: and left the pure silver of faith and clarity. 

The Spirit moved among the disciples like the rush of a violent wind. As Jesus said to Nicodemus near the beginning of John’s Gospel, you know how the Spirit moves and where it’s been. You can’t see the Spirit, any more than you can see the wind: but you certainly know, and feel, and see the effect. A real autumn storm, for instance, leaves devastation in its wake – as do tropical hurricanes. And that is what the Holy Spirit is being compared to. A violent wind. Tongues of Fire.  

Of course, there are other comparisons, less obviously capable of rearranging the furniture, the world, or indeed our lives. We hear also of the Holy Spirit being the breath of God; or of the Holy Spirit descending like a dove on Jesus at His baptism. But even the breath of God, while it’s a gentler image than a violent wind, is not just a tickle on the cheek. Our prayer said – revive your Church with the breath of love; which is almost like mouth to mouth resuscitation; God breathing back life into the church – why? is the church dying? Does it need resuscitation or reanimation? Does our faith need to be revived by the breath of God – and are we up to it? 

So there are two levels to this: the Holy Spirit infuses both people as individuals, and the church as an institution, as the living Body of Christ. 

When we as individuals pray for the Holy Spirit to fill us, we give ourselves into God’s hands, asking the Spirit to lead us in God’s direction, for God to direct, console, challenge, mend – whatever is necessary for us. But the point is that we are not in charge of this process: God is. God sees what we need, even before we ask; and the Holy Spirit will comfort the distressed, distress the comfortable, challenge the lazy, ignite the lukewarm, wipe away the tears of the mourning, strengthen the faith of those who are flagging, doubtful. Because of course, we know ourselves to be weak, and our faith often to be insufficient, too easily led into doubt. St Paul’s words to the Church in Rome, which we heard just now, are a comfort to us when we feel under pressure, inadequate, too small for the mission we have. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” The Spirit is there to help, as well as to challenge, to inspire us, as Peter was inspired; to pray for and with us, even when we can’t manage the words. 

When the church prays to the Holy Spirit, we are asking to be filled, and renewed, strengthened in our faith, made more alive, reanimated – re-souled!  A church that is filled with the Spirit doesn’t need to be Pentecostal, or charismatic – but it is burning brightly with love, fearless in proclaiming the Gospel and rejoicing in the Lord. It is a church that is led by the Spirit, and not by human design or planning. It is a church where people live out their faith, secure in the knowledge that they are love by God. It is a church where we encounter God and go out into the world to serve our brothers and sisters, changed and renewed ourselves by that encounter. That is not a routine, boring thing to do. 

So let us pray again together: 

Holy Spirit, sent by the Father, ignite in us your holy fire; strengthen your children with the gift of faith, revive your Church with the breath of love, and renew the face of the earth, through Christ our Lord. Amen


Acts 2.1-21

2When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ 13But others sneered and said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’ 

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17 “In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” 

Romans 8.22-27

22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. 

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 

John 15.26-27; 16.4b-15

26 ‘When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. 27You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning. 4But I have said these things to you so that when their hour comes you may remember that I told you about them.

 ‘I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. 5But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” 6But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. 7Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: 9about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. 

12 ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 

Reformation500 – where are we now? How did we get here? Where are we going?

[Preached at The Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady Immaculate & St Thomas of Canterbury, at a service organised by the Anglican-Lutheran Society to celebrate #Reformation500.]

northampton cath

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thank you to the Anglican-Lutheran Society for this wonderful service and celebration, and for inviting me to preach today; and thank you also to the Christian community here in Northampton, and especially our Catholic brothers and sisters for being warm and generous hosts.

The brief for this sermon was: where are we now? How did we get here? Where are we going?

Where we are now is in many ways rather astonishing. Those of us here today come from at least 3 major denominations, RC,  Anglican and Lutheran; in a service organised by a Lutheran pastor, a Catholic priest and an Anglican lay person, we gather together to worship, to remember the beginnings of the Reformation 500 years ago in a Catholic Cathedral, and with a Lutheran bishop, a woman to boot, preaching. And just to add a final gloss, that Lutheran pastor is now working as a chaplain in an Anglican church.

21 P1130108
(L-R) Revd Susanne Freddin Skovhus (Pastor, Church of Denmark), Revd Kleber Machado (Church of Scotland Minister), Rt Revd Jana Jeruma-Grinberga (Retired Lutheran Bishop, Anglican Chaplain), Rt Revd Peter Doyle (Roman Catholic Bishop), Rt Revd John Holbrook (Church of England Bishop)


Over the last year we have seen the Pope and the President of the LWF embracing warmly and leading a service together in Lund. We have seen the Pope visit Anglican and Lutheran churches in Rome. We have seen the Archbishop of Canterbury affirming the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by Faith, signed by Lutherans and Catholics almost 20 years ago, and with which the World Methodist Council and its member churches affirmed their fundamental doctrinal agreement in 2006. As the General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, Martin Junge, said this week – “If this is what some call the ecumenical winter: well, then let spring come now!”

When we look back at where we came from, this seems quite miraculous. Even within living memory things were very different. My mother was the daughter of a Lutheran pastor; and for a time when I was a child, I had a Polish Catholic nanny. She took me with her a few times to our local Roman Catholic church, and my mother was absolutely horrified that a Lutheran child had set foot inside a Catholic church.

Of course, it all started in ways that were much more serious than that. For decades following 1517, Catholics burned Protestants, Protestants hanged, drew and quartered Catholics, the religious authorities everywhere persecuted and murdered Anabaptists: and the leaders of the Muenster rebellion, tortured and killed when the city was besieged, were displayed in cages above St Lambert’s church for centuries. This, of course, was aimed at discouraging any form of rebellion against the Catholic authorities.

What happened 500 years ago was that Christians on all sides of all the arguments spent a great deal of energy building a wall, high and impenetrable, between themselves and other Christians. Sometimes this was a geographic wall – cujus regio,  eius religio meant that in many parts of Europe Catholics, Lutherans and Reformed believers simply lived separately from each other and never met a person who differed from them in faith. That makes it so much easier to demonise the other, as the troubles in Northern Ireland also made clear. Mostly, though, this was a wall built of bricks of suspicion and intolerance, ignorance and fear. It was held together by the mortar of condemnations and anathemas, of papal bulls and Protestant pamphlets; and for several centuries, it held very firm indeed.

So it was not until the missionary efforts of Europeans of the late 19th century, which demanded some level of cooperation, that the first cracks began to appear in the edifice. And when the first bricks were removed by the first Edinburgh Conference in 1910, for the first time in 300 years or so Christians were able to peer at each other through the gaps, and to begin to discover how alike we are, and how our beliefs – sometimes identical, sometimes approximate, sometimes different – define us.

The Second World War, with all the horrors that were perpetrated against huge swathes of Europe and Asia, led directly to the foundation of the World Council of Churches; the Second Vatican Council, and the visionary leadership of Popes John XXIII and Paul VI, took a sledgehammer to the wall, knocking great holes and gaps, through which we could not just see each other, but reach out and touch, and even clamber through.

Since then, much of the remaining wall has crumbled, aided by ecumenical dialogues, shared worship and prayer, and diapraxis, in other words just getting down to it and working together, fulfilling our mission to the world by rolling up our sleeves and getting involved in aid and service.

And today, truly, we can rejoice. Looking at photos of events like Lund, or this week’s Reformation 500 service at Westminster Abbey, we see not just a transitory happiness or self-satisfaction on people’s faces, but real joy. At last – Christians worshipping together, holding hands, gathered together in praise and awe – with the wounds inflicted by the building of the wall, and sometimes, by the destruction of it, finally beginning to heal.

We might sing with Peter Abelard

Oh, what their joy and their glory must be,

those endless Sabbaths the blessed ones see!

Crowns for the valiant, to weary ones rest;

God shall be all, and in all, ever blest.

But no, not time to rest just yet, for there is more to do. Much more. As the conclusion of ‘From Conflict to Communion’ says, “Lutherans and Catholics are invited to think from the perspective of the unity of Christ’s body and to seek whatever will bring this unity to expression and serve the community of the body of Christ. Through baptism they recognize each other mutually as Christians. This orientation requires a continual conversion of heart.”

In other words, we (and not just Lutherans and RC) are invited to reorientate our thinking, so that we start always from a perspective of unity. This requires not just reorientation, but, to express it another way, repentance, metanoia, turning back always to God, for  where God is, we will also find our sisters and brothers in Christ. A true conversion of heart – not just of outward forms, not just of politeness and respect; but a conversion of love and faith.

FCC goes on to say that we must allow ourselves to be transformed by our contacts with each other – how hard that is! To go into each ecumenical encounter expecting not to persuade our partners of our rightness, but to expect to be changed ourselves. This feels risky, because it is.

And that, perhaps, is the point. In order to progress beyond where we already are – and even that feels almost unbelievable at times – we are going to have to take risks. We are going to have to place ourselves entirely in God’s hands, and trust that our loving Creator will guide us, keep us safe, as we knock down the last remaining bricks. For the truth really will set us free. We need no longer even to be able to climb over the wall, to join hands across it, but we need to take it down completely.

My prayer is that when we celebrate 500 years since the beginning of the English Reformation in 15 years time, it will be at a service where the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Cardinal Archbishop celebrate Holy Communion together; a service where a great procession of British Christians – Baptists, Anglicans, Lutherans, Catholics, Pentecostals, URC – walks between Westminster Abbey and Westminster Cathedral to obliterate the last traces of the wall.

And perhaps at that service we will sing Abelard:

In new Jerusalem joy shall be found,

blessings of peace shall forever abound;

wish and fufillment are not severed there,

nor the things prayed for come short of the prayer.


Jāna Jēruma-Grīnberga

November 4, 2017

PS A great chance to meet up with old friends, too…. Thank you so much to Sally, Roy and Philip for inviting me to be there.

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With Amanda, Hannah and Elaine Barnabas

My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples

My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

This week it has felt as though grace and peace are in rather short supply; so let us dwell in those words for a moment. Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Against a background of a world that seems sometimes to be spinning out of rational control, our readings from the Bible today (they can be found at the end of this blog) have sounded as though they come from a different universe. But, of course, they are also written against various backgrounds of conflict, hatred, intolerance, and not in some perfect world where peace and grace rule. But let us acknowledge that this week has been shockingly difficult and painful at times.

Many of us, probably, have been to Barcelona; my husband and I walked down the Ramblas earlier this year, and stopped to admire the Miro-inspired decoration on the road where the lethal white van came to a halt on Thursday. Las Ramblas – a promenade of happy chaos, of tourists from around the world mingling with local Catalans, of markets and vivid colour. It hurts like crazy to hear of violence, hatred and death scarring this place.

A building on Las Ramblas

Turku – probably one of the most unlikely places for violence and murder, an ancient city in Finland dominated by a magnificent cathedral; a market place filled with local produce. The Archbishop of the Lutheran Church in Finland, Kari Makkinen, said in response that the cathedral clock has continued to strike, even through the chaos. It hurts like crazy to see pictures of injured and dying people, police and ambulances crowding this safe, kind town.

Turku Cathedral

Charlottesville – and the horrific sights and sounds of swastika flags and shouts of anti-Semitic slogans, “blood and soil”, “Jews will not replace us”; and the equally horrific fact that the President of the United States has refused to condemn these new Nazis unequivocally.  It hurts like crazy to see the land of the free and the home of the brave defaced like this.

So how do we reconcile this with the readings we heard today? The readings were the opposite of the hate which has fuelled this violence across the world. “Thus says the Lord:   Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed,” says Isaiah. And what is that deliverance? “these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; …for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.” A deliverance of joy, of inclusiveness, of outcasts gathered in, the marginalised no longer cast out.

“O let the nations rejoice and be glad, for you will judge the peoples righteously and govern the nations upon earth.” says the psalmist. Again, a message of justice, and of people and nations welcoming righteousness, righteous judgement.

And the Gospel story, of a Gentile woman, a foreigner, approaching Jesus, desperate for healing for her sick child. If Jesus had acted according to the religious law of the time, he would indeed have sent her away, unspoken to, unhealed, unheard.  But what exactly happens here is strangely unclear: does Jesus change his mind, convinced by the woman’s unexpected faith? Or (given that in the original Greek text punctuation is missing – there are no full-stops, or question marks) should we translate Jesus’ words as a sort of musing – was I sent only to the lost sheep of Israel? – Is it not fair to take the children’s food and so on. But either way, this meeting between Jesus and the Canaanite woman is important, because it shows that Jesus message was heard by more than just the local Jews. She addresses him, after all, in a way that shows faith from the very beginning of their conversation. “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David” – she knows who Jesus is, and she knows that from him come mercy, salvation and deliverance. And great was her faith; and wonderful the healing of her child.

This is the Gospel: salvation from God, and deliverance from evil.

A Gospel open to all, all people and all nations, a Gospel of justice and joy, of inclusiveness and healing.

This is the Gospel we are all called to proclaim and to live out.

This is the Gospel, the good news and best of all messages, which gives us patience and courage never to lose hope.

This is the Gospel which gives us courage to speak the truth, and to name evil for what it is.

And that is even more important in these days which feel like a gathering storm and growing darkness; we must light candles, not Nazi torches, we must speak words of grace and peace, not of hatred and intolerance. Christians, especially church leaders and all of us – it is time to stand up and speak, stand up and be counted; as Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

May God bless you with a restless discomfort

about easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships,

so that you may seek truth boldly and love deep within your heart.

May God bless you with holy anger at injustice, oppression,

and exploitation of people,

so that you may tirelessly work

for justice, freedom, and peace among all people.

May God bless you with the gift of tears to shed with those

who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation,

or the loss of all that they cherish,

so that you may reach out your hand

to comfort them and transform their pain into joy.

May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe

that you really CAN make a difference in this world,

so that you are able, with God’s grace,

to do what others claim cannot be done.

And the blessing of God, who creates, redeems and sanctifies us,

be upon you and all you love and pray for this day, and for evermore.


Sr. Ruth Marlene Fox, OSB – 1985

sagrada familia
Sagrada Familia Church in Barcelona


READINGS for the 10th Sunday after Trinity, 20 August 2017


Lord of heaven and earth, as Jesus taught his disciples to be persistent in prayer,  give us patience and courage never to lose hope, but always to bring our prayers before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN

Isaiah 56.1, 6-8

Thus says the Lord:   Maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance be revealed.
6 And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it,
and hold fast my covenant—
7 these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices
will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer
for all peoples.
8 Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.

Romans 11.1-2a, 29-32

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. 2God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the scripture says of Elijah, how he pleads with God against Israel? 29for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. 30Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, 31so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. 32For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

Matthew 15. 21-28

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.

Psalm 67

1 God be gracious to us and bless us • and make his face to shine upon us,

2That your way may be known upon earth, • your saving power among all nations.

3 Let the peoples praise you, O God; •  let all the peoples praise you.

4 O let the nations rejoice and be glad, •  for you will judge the peoples righteously

and govern the nations upon earth.

5 Let the peoples praise you, O God; •  let all the peoples praise you.

6 Then shall the earth bring forth her increase, •  and God, our own God, will bless us.

7 God will bless us, • and all the ends of the earth shall fear him.