I’m sitting here, on a Sunday morning, paying homage at the foot of Sondheim. I learned about the 90th Birthday concert (in lockdown) a day late and it’s taken me this long to catch up.

Sondheim gave me some of the most powerful, bewildering, cathartic moments of my childhood, and every year that passes, I find something new: a detail, a new emotional resonance, and idea that is more nuanced now, than it was when it first took root.

So I sit, watching these artists perform from their living rooms, with light glaring on the glasses, and pictures askew in the background, with them telling stories of their own journey of understanding, and is it wonderful.

Please understand: I long for the day when the curtain goes up, and the lights dim, and the perfection of detail takes my breath away. But we can’t have that right now — so what reduces me to tears is hearing an actress hold all the pain against all the brashness of ‘There won’t be trumpets’, who then cuts to her two year old singing happy birthday. Then an actor — singing a Bernadette Peter’s song, something ‘not his’ — who cuts to his children (who come in perfectly, winningly) and brings something new to the song.

And I think: this is the community Sondheim created — these are the people who have gone so deep into the complexity of his music that they now — currently — in this crisis have the capacity to hold the emotion, expose it, process it, reveal themselves.

This works, right now, today, because of the years these people have spent working in the flesh, digging in to the depths, being formed by remarkable art, discipline & community.

I have found the shift to online worship remarkably difficult. I hate cameras. Everything I believe about worship, preaching, the eucharist says that it is not about one person sitting at home with a camera, offering things that can’t be challenged, reshaped by the moment, formed together, between us, with the Spirit of God flitting, and heightening, and surprising us all.

There is no surprise in a recording — and when the mistakes happen, they don’t help bond the community — they do not give the same opportunity for grace.

The online worship is the best we can do right now — and there are good things. Some of the same vulnerability, risk, humanity that I am enjoying so much as I watching Sondheim’s 90th is there in some of the church’s attempts on line. We are taking risks. We are learning. And even in its inadequacy, it is a way of staying connected and trying to ground ourselves in the discipline of trying to worship even when I’m not sure that anything done in front of a screen is ever truly worship.

But if this goes on — and there is every indication that it will — I worry about what it does to our formation.

We are shaped by being together in community. We are formed into the body of Christ by going deep into prayer, into the movements of the Spirit, into the core stories that form our liturgy, and are distilled in the eucharist — so that day after day, week after week, we learn to offer whatever is true, whatever is real, to be taken up with bread and wine, broken, blessed, transformed. And we learn to do that because we see other people doing it. Those first years of faith — and lots of days thereafter — we only get to the altar because we step into a stream of worship that has gone on before us, and will go on beyond us, and which therefore doesn’t depend on our readiness or understanding. We carry each other. And that person, whose name you don’t know, but who has prayed in that pew for decades: she is part of how you receive the body of Christ. And that person who always tried to talk to you, and annoy you, as you wait for communion: they form you in Christ’s body. And the one who serves you communion whom you don’t much like, or who doesn’t wear what you want them to wear, or never ties their hair back? They are God’s gift to you too — the endless proclamation of YHWH saying, ‘I will be who I will be. You don’t get to control me. I am free.’

None of that happens online. When we are bored, we skip ahead, or switch to a different screen. If we don’t love the offering of our own church (or if Canterbury has better provision of cats and turtles), we flit: to old friends, to far off places, to somewhere with the capacity to do more elaborate music. That’s OK, for a while — right now, we have to do whatever we can to get through. But it doesn’t help us become the body of Christ.

There is no formation in love or goodness unless we face the regular irritant of people we are bound to and can’t escape from, who show us the very face of God.

Go watch Sondheim. Find delight and catharsis and see what it means for a community to be formed by a shared practice and liturgy. Go deep into your own formation and let it be revealed. But know that whatever blessings there are, whatever we are learning that is new, it is not enough. Formation is bodily and communal. That is not going to change, even as our world is changing; so we need to learn how to make it so again.


I still have many things to say to you, but they would be too much for you to bear now. However, when the Spirit of truth comes he will lead you to the complete truth.

John 16.12-13

One of the deep bits of bedrock of my faith is that God is always so much infinitely beyond what we can speak or name or understand. I’m a person who likes to be in control. I find safety in setting the boundaries on my life so I can find freedom in order. I know that will surprise anyone who has seen my kitchen in a normal season of parish life — but it is true. I want the things that I can control to be in control so that I have the strength to deal with the unexpected.

And it is for that reason that the structure of my faith is the very opposite of that. God is vast and wild, uncontrollable. My hope is in the fact that I will never be able to control, or have the knowledge of completeness, so God teaches me to hover over the chaos and ride the wind.

‘I still have many things to say to you, but they would be too much for you to bear,’ is thus, for me a statement of hope. What we can bear now is smaller than what we will come to be able to bear. God will not overwhelm us. God will hover, remain present, and wait.

All through this pandemic, I’ve been worrying about the ones we haven’t found yet. There is a huge amount of good work going on in the community. Neighbours are looking after neighbours; a wonderful community organiser with experience of disaster planning has set up systems that give volunteers DBS checks, and that help local businesses respond to need without being overwhelmed. People are being kind. But I know there are some we haven’t found. The quiet ones who sit on the park bench alone an are known by sight but not name. The ones who look out their kitchen window at the back garden, and haven’t been through the front door in years. The ones who sit in the chair.

I know they are out there, and they are terrified, and they are the very ones who will not ask for help and not be willing to take it if it comes.

I know this, of course, because I have seen it at close quarters. My step-mother has become a recluse since my father died. On a good day you wouldn’t know it. If she’s in the mood she can put on quite a show, and be charming and funny and very much alive. But she rejects all the things that would give her strength and health. She experiences every person who tries to help her as an imposition. In her upside-down world, she experiences the things that help her as ‘hassle’, and is sure that what she really needs is to sit alone in her chair without anyone or anything bothering her.

And now, Corona Virus has come along, and she is terrified. She has become so afraid of death that she is ceasing to live — and she is so sure that no one can help, that she is barely speaking some days.

‘I have many things to tell you, but they would be too much for you to bear now.’

There are a lot of words that get linked with Jesus’ cross. The trimph of the cross, the victory of the cross, the pain of the cross, the weight of the cross, the shame of the cross, the wonder of the cross, even the wood of the cross — all part of our theology and devotion.

But this Holy Week, it’s the courage of the cross that strikes me.

In the days that run up to his death, Jesus has an unflinching awareness of the magnitude of what is happening. In John’s gospel, he prays and speaks at length, trying to make sure the disciples have ‘heard’ all that they need to hear even though they have not begun to understand it. He speaks of his relationship with the God, the sense of abiding, the invitation that they abide too. He speaks of love, and service, and being chosen. Misunderstanding, and betrayal. And yet — it is the ‘more’ that he holds back that is one of the great acts of love. ‘I will not overwhelm you. It can wait. Just bear with this now’

Jesus walks through this week open to the knowledge of what Judas is doing, what Peter will do. He senses every shift in the crowd, knows the limitations of his friends, knows that he will mostly bear this cross alone.

And yet he holds his head up high. He is utterly unafraid of death. And so he can live, open to reality, no matter what life brings.

The courage of God is the vast unfathomable bedrock of our existence — God creating and setting free, calling and redeeming, sharing and suffering, and always holding back, perfectly poised to stretch us to our limits, and increase our capacity, without causing us to break.

This holy week, we all have to learn to ride the wind, trust the vast self-restraining compassion of God. And that gives me joy and hope.

But I still want to fix things, and find the ones who are hiding from us, and stop all the fear and pain. Helplessness is demanding and tests the very limits of our courage.


It is the paradoxes that are hard to bear right now.

A butterfly just crossed my window. Before that I sat praying and watching mother blackbird, a pair of collard doves, a pair of finch, a wood pigeon and a dunnock. They are my congregation now. This second sunday comes without gathered church, and I am struck once again at gift of Sabbath. Priests don’t normally get to pray over wounded pigeons on a Sunday. We don’t notice the butterfly going by because Sundays are exhausting. However much delight there is in presiding over the eucharist, preaching and praying, holding the emotions of the community, and watching people get caught up in the presence of God, it is not restful.

So, sabbath is gift. And I wonder what we will learn from it — how we can keep it, when one day the church is free to gather again.

I am aware that right now, God is filling the wells. I cannot begin to name the deep peace, the relief that is rising up through the freedom to shape the patterns of life as it suits me — and not as others need. The books, piled up everywhere, are flashes of joy and possibility rather than a stack of accusations of things undone. There is even a sense of solidarity in the blessedness — awareness of so many friends, suddenly set free to breathe (even if the breathing is in counts of 10 as they deal with their ever-present children).

But the things that I’m missing are equally simple.

This morning, I had an overwhelming desire to make muffins. This particular recipe (cinnamon puff muffins) I learned from a friend whom I’m haven’t seen in decades and wouldn’t know how to find. I had gone down to Pennsylvania for a ball, and she produced the warm muffins for breakfast. Honestly, our paths severed and I seldom think of her — but today I miss her, and all the conversations we never had, and wonder if she is safe.

My father also had weekend rituals. As a young child, we would head off to the Italian deli — come home with packets of all sorts of things, and make chewy-breaded sandwiches made of things I no longer eat, but still remember fondly. Later (when we’d moved to a new town, and a new phase of life) I’d come down in the morning to find him cutting oranges while the waffle batter sat. He’d wait eagerly till I appeared, never once telling me that that his plan for the morning, or that he hoped I’d be down by a certain time. Today I miss him — because the rituals of waffles and orange cutting were our liturgical year.

Right now, what I want more than anything, is a ritual of boredom. Hershe and I mostly ignoring each other, as she naps, and the television plays, with the scent of bread rising from the kitchen. This last one is different — it’s not missing her so much as abject terror that it may never happen again.

As I’ve been learning my way into the strange world of recording video and beginning to make sense of online worship, I have not tread the expected path.

I am not preaching (and I wonder: when will I preach again?). Instead, I am just talking with the congregation, trying to be honest about where we are, and what it feels like to be trying to live in hope right now.

What I found myself saying this week (and it is not scripted — whatever comes comes) was that we need to stay as close as we can to the stories of Jesus’ life — even as we ask God’s help in bearing the terror that we want to hide from.

I don’t even know if I can take my own advice.

It is easier to pray over a wounded pigeon, smile at a photo of a friend and a goat, make muffins. Today’s canticle began, ‘Come, let us return to the Lord/ who has torn us and will heal us.’ I don’t believe that God is the source of our wounds. But I do believe in healing. And my experience is that healing doesn’t really feel like anything good. It feels like tumult. Tears and anger and sorrow and flashes of joy all muddled up. Then one day, you’re out the other side — for now — and the tumult ceases, and life begins again.

Healing is Holy Week. Huge dreams and disillusionments; intimate friendships, betrayals, failures, loneliness and loss; empty silences and hope that rises up in a cry where anguish and endless possibility meet. The jumble is all there is right now — and it’s the best way through.


What is giving you life, in this time of confusion?

A lot of us have had our assumptions about the world exposed this week. When the busyness stops (has it stopped?) and we are forced to weigh every action against its necessity and risk, our priorities come to light very quickly.

Among clergy, this has led to all sorts of debates as to what we should be doing. What is our ‘job’ right now, when we can’t gather the community in normal ways? Some of us have jumped first into creating resources for prayer, others, to providing content online, others still, to telephone calls and community organising. And it wasn’t always obvious, from previous patterns of ministry, who would turn to what.

So, I found myself in a conversation yesterday about what the scattered church needs. Is it bible study or preaching, liturgy, or zoom? Where we found agreement was in the idea that we need to find ways to keep finding ourselves in God’s story — to be rooted in the ever constant presence of God, as we learn anew what it means to say God is Love.

For me, that meant that my priority was daily prayer. I took one look at this crisis and said: monastic rhythms. Pray, work, rest, grow. Sustain communal life. In other words: I reached for the formative experience of faith and vocation, however far from that I have sometimes strayed.

Daily Prayer is giving me life, in this time of uncertainty, because it grounds me in the life of God without trying to give all the answers. It overlaps narratives. Scatters images. Gives space to breathe.

One of God’s gifts at this time was that all of my copies of Common Worship Daily Prayer — all 7 of them — are ‘out’ in my churches right now. So, I can freely use Celebrating Common Prayer — my preferred prayer book — without worrying about what I ‘should’ be doing. I like CCP because it has softer edges, more shimmer, more play.

The second canticle right now is one of my favourites – a text that gives hope when efforts seem fruitless, and I feel a bit lost:

As the rain and snow come down from above,
and return not again but water the earth,
bringing forth life and giving growth,
seed for sowing and bread to eat,
so is my word that goes forth from my mouth,
it will not return to me fruitless,
but it will accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the task I give it.

Isa 55

That promise soothes me right now: God will bring life. The getting from A to B, from seed to fruit, may be perilous, but life is resilient and finds a millions ways to emerge.

Because it is a phrase I love, it hooks other phrases, other images, memories of prayer.
‘Creator God, creating still…’, ‘in the tender compassion of God, the dawn from on high…’, ‘your wisdom draws beauty from chaos/ brings a harvest out of sorrow/ and leads the exiles home.’ Liturgy gives a deep well of possibilities — fragments that rise up, and recombine.

The other day, a played with water colours. I’m not ‘good at’ painting, and I don’t do it often, but I wanted a change, and it was worth a try. The pan of paints is very pleasing. Each colour itself a jewel. And it makes the painting possible because someone who understands these things better than I do has already offered a pallet, given colours that will work — there is both flexibility and purpose.

That’s how the phrases of liturgy work for me. They are the colour pallet. Each phrase is a jewel in it’s own right, but it also waiting to be picked up, set alongside something else, so that together they make something new.

I don’t have sermons right now. I have fragments.

And my instinct as a priest is that we are being called to live with these fragments: of hope and fear, friendship and loneliness, rest and anxiety, silence and reaching out. We have to sit with the mess of them, and not impose meaning too soon. But meaning will come. We are still part of God’s story. It is a fundamental part of my faith that God doesn’t do dead ends: there is always a bend, a turn, a way to begin again. And even a barren season is usually just a matter of time.

What is giving you life right now? Which of the fragments sparkle? If we take time to sit with them, something will emerge. We will join in creation, the work of God, creating still.