Sermon for Leavers’ Service 2015

Westcott’s Vice Principal, Will Lamb, gave this sermon at  the Leavers’ Service on 12 June 2015. 
The Windows
Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?
    He is a brittle crazy glass;
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
    This glorious and transcendent place,
    To be a window, through thy grace.
But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story,
    Making thy life to shine within
The holy preachers, then the light and glory
    More reverend grows, and more doth win;
    Which else shows waterish, bleak, and thin.
Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one
    When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe; but speech alone
    Doth vanish like a flaring thing,
    And in the ear, not conscience, ring.
George Herbert
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
If you cast your minds back, some of you will have first visited Westcott on a candidate’s visit and found yourself sitting in my study at 5 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon listening to my sales pitch for Westcott House, and – in spite of it – you still decided to come! 
But you may also remember that in describing the life and ministry of Bishop Westcott, I often refer to the stained glass window on the north side of this church. It includes a roundel depicting Bishop Westcott intervening in the Miners’ Strike of 1892.
But just to the right of Westcott is another image, an image of George Herbert. It’s an image that always reminds me of this poem that you have on the little card which was distributed with your Order of Service.
 ‘Lord, how can man preach thy eternal word?’ – not a bad question to wrestle with when you’re wondering what to say to people as they embark on the extraordinary adventure of ordained ministry. Reflectin on the precariousness of the whole enterprise, Herbert describes the preacher as ‘a brittle crazy glass’. It’s a powerful and suggestive image. 
Glass is an extraordinarily versatile material. For those who have stood drinking cocktails in Cloud 23, enjoying panaromic views of Manchester and Salford, while risking the vertigo of looking down through the glass floor at the streets below (it would be enough to drive anyone to drink if they weren’t so expensive), you can see that glass is an incredibly strong and resilient material. But it is also delicate, brittle, and fragile. 
And so when Herbert uses this metaphor to describe ministry, he is reminding us of our resilience and of our fragility. And he reminds us that in spite of our weakness, indeed sometimes because of our weakness, we can still be a means of grace to others.
Yet in thy temple thou dost him afford
    This glorious and transcendent place,
    To be a window, through thy grace.
But how can this be? The second stanza offers us a clue, while at the same time using a rather obscure word that may occlude rather than illuminate our thinking. ‘But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story’ – the word ‘anneal’ describes the technique for burning colours into the glass. It is also a word which means ‘to set on fire’ and ‘to inflame’. 
‘Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire and lighten with celestial fire’ – these words of John Cosin, which we will sing at the end of this Eucharist, are often used in the ordination service just before the ordination of deacons and priests. ‘But when thou dost anneal in glass thy story, making thy life to shine within the holy Preacher’s…’ Through the gift of the Spirit, our lives are sealed with the fire of God’s love. That is the grace of orders.
The readings from scripture which we have heard this evening invite us to reflect on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. John reminds us (an important lesson this for those who are leaving a place that you have called home these last few years)… John reminds us that God will make his home in us. We know in John’s Gospel that Jesus is the new Temple, the dwelling place of God. But as Jesus and the Father come to dwell with us, we too become the Temple of God, the place where God lives.
And the only way we can discover this mystery is through the gift of the Holy Spirit: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” I find those words rather comforting. Jesus tells us that we have hardly begun to comprehend the wonder and the mystery of God’s love for us. However partial our knowledge and understanding may be, however fleeting our faith may be, the Spirit will help us to discover again and again the breadth and length, the height and depth of God’s love for us. 
And discovering the reality of God’s love in the complexity of our lives is possibly an essential antidote to some of the institutional anxiety that is manifest in the Church of England at the moment. For as St John reminds us, it is love that casts out all fear and anxiety. 
The reality is that there has always been uncertainty about the future but maybe never more so than at present and the consequent temptation for the Church to retreat into survival mode or to engage in hyperactivity, is strong. Yet neither survival nor hyperactivity have been recognised as Christian virtues. We commit ourselves not to work for the survival of the Church but to join in the way of Christ, which is a journey of death and resurrection. 
The truth is that we do not know what the future holds other than the certainty that it will include both death and resurrection. The future Church may be numerically larger or smaller than at present. It may enjoy prosperity or endure persecution. Christendom may return in all its glory or the catacombs may beckon. These possibilities are the raw material of speculation but what is certain is that the future will include both death and resurrection.
What sort of deacons and priests do we need for such a future? 
The Church will always need preachers and teachers, pastors, strategists and administrators, leaders, visionaries and prophets. But whatever gifts and skills are required by deacons and priests in the future, whatever creativity and imagination you will need to respond to the challenges and demands of ministry, remember this one thing: the most important gift is the gift of prayer. 
In St Anne’s, Carlecotes, one of the five churches in the Penistone and Thurlstone Team Ministry, the congregation always sat on the north side of the church. The south side was reserved for what was still referred to rather quaintly as the ‘Estate’, in other words the residents and tenants of Carlecotes Hall. Even though the estate no longer existed, the congregation persisted in sitting on the north side. There was no organist at St Anne’s. I would announce the hymn and then charge to the West End to play the organ. This little Victorian church was what one might be describe as ‘dinky’ – it wasn’t very big, and when I returned to the East End, to preside at the altar (facing east), I would look directly at a stained glass window, a depiction of the crucifixion. 
I often found myself meditating on this window, because something had gone wrong with the firing process when the stained glass was made. With the combination of damp and a succession of wet Pennine winters, all the detail had been completely washed away. So all you could see was the outline of the lead, the change in colours, and where the face and torso of Jesus would have been on the cross, there was just a blank, an area of plain glass: ‘watrish, bleak, and thin’.
It’s a symbol perhaps of what can happen when we forget that it is through the gift of the Spirit, that our lives are sealed with the fire of God’s love. If we do not attend to our relationship with God, if we do not continually stir up the gift which is within us, if we do not take our journey into God seriously – because we are so busy and so absorbed in other things – then we may find that the beauty and likeness of Christ within us is diminished.
Do not forget – and I’m preaching as much to myself as to the rest of you – that the people of God must ensure that their priest makes time for God and not insist that the priest be so busy as to have little or no time for prayer. An overtired priest does not pray well nor work well. Jack Nicholls, the former Bishop of Sheffield, used to say that ‘rather than more plans and strategies, most parishes need more prayer and more parties’. 
Doctrine and life, colors and light, in one
    When they combine and mingle, bring
A strong regard and awe;

But I have said enough, ‘speech alone’ will not suffice. I pray that as you leave this place, God’s spirit will stir up the gifts that are within you, and that you will bear witness to the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection not only in the things you say but also in the lives you lead: … but remember, more prayer and more parties.

Ordinands display creative theology in Chapel

It’s not all just writing essays and learning how not to drop babies whilst baptising them!  Several Westcott students exhibited their creative theological work in the chapel this week, among them Cécile Schnyder, Emily Reynolds, Dwayne Engh and Carol Backhouse.

All photos by Maura Roni 2015; text by the artists themselves.
Click on the photos to enlarge them.


The person I loved died long ago
Cécile Schnyder

The person I loved died long ago:  a theological reflection on a piece of art made as a response to a pastoral encounter on an acute Dementia Ward.

‘Books were important on the ward. There were magazines but also picture books arranged by date…meant as a way of engaging people in discussions, possibly triggering memories and safely occupying people during their long, rather monotonous day.’

The person I loved died long ago
Cécile Schnyder

‘I observed one day an elderly gentleman ripping out pages from a book. he was obstructed by a nurse who took the book away and put the loose, ripped out pages back into the book. Later that day another patient grabbed the book and the pages fell onto the floor. A while later they were picked up by a member of staff and put on a table. The tables was moved and so were the pages. An elderly man took a page and blew his nose with it. He then dropped the page on the floor and [someone else] shoved it with her feet under a settee. Later in the afternoon the page was picked up by a cleaner and thrown away.

‘I was struck by the journey of the ripped out pages, the abused books. We refer to someone being a closed book, we think of names being written into the book of life. There is a belief that smart people like books and so books stand for knowledge, reason and intelligence.

‘Is not society dealing with people with dementia like loose pages ripped from the book of reason / life?’


A work in progress
Carol Backhouse

A work in progress, Carol Backhouse

‘My grandparents built their home in Herefordshire after the war, and this was the view from their front window. In the distance are the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains; in the foreground is the town of Kington, with St. Mary’s Church nesting in the trees. The landscape speaks of journeys, as Offa’s Dye runs across it. 

‘This ancient earthwork follows the English-Welsh border. Fifty years ago my grandfather set up the long distance footpath which follows its course through the Welsh Marches.’ 


Requiem for a Hospice, Dwayne Engh

‘I see the world through music. I often find my centre as well as the hope and peace of Christ there. It was therefore natural for me to attempt to explore the question of bereavement and self-care through writing short musical reflections based around the structure of a requiem mass. This evolved from praying on the correlation and interplay between the hospice experience, the original liturgical texts of the Requiem Mass and the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

‘There is a strong argument to be made that music and the arts are a form of theology. While I recognise the referential limitations in such a semantically fluid art form…I argue music is truth-bearing in its own right and can express concepts words can not.  The music contains more than I can articulate in a brief essay cognitively and critically, but of which I am aware and can communicate. Expressing my emotional journey through music is a form of incarnation theology that adds reflective value to my doing and making.’ 

You can listen to Requiem for a Hospice by clicking this link


Everybody Welcome (PowerPoint), Emily Reynolds

‘Over the summer a significant number of the congregation [of my placement church] attended an “Everybody Welcome” course; aiming to help Churches reflect on their welcoming style. During my placement I heard many people comment, ‘we are a friendly Church’, but there was also a genuine openness by the congregation to reflect and explore how this could be enhanced.

from ‘Everybody Welcome’ prayers
Emily Reynods

‘To underpin the “Everybody Welcome” course, the incumbent organised a week of prayer devoted to the theme of ‘welcome’. I created two prayer booklets; one for morning and one for evening prayer, based on God’s abundant welcome and how we can share this with others. I also set up eight creative prayer stations throughout the Church, also on the theme of welcome…I also created a powerpoint, as the Church regularly uses a projector and screen for its Sunday worship.’

Emily Reynolds


The Scriptorium, Cécile Schnyder

‘My summer placement was a city church in Cambridge…I was encouraged to think about a way to engage the congregation and the many visitors that came throughout the summer to look at the church….

The project needed to be accessible to people from all languages, backgrounds and faiths to participate in… It needed to be open to the congregation and enable a conversation about scripture and the Christian faith. An eight-week book-based writing project in which members of the congregation and I would be present in the church on two afternoons a week developed: there we would invite visitors and tourists to write out a sentence of St John’s gospel. 

The Scriptorium
Cécile Schnyder

‘Upon explaining the project to visitors there was a strong sense of identification with the sentence given. There was no choice as such but people were asked to continue the story where the person before them had left it. Becoming part of something bigger than themselves seemed to engender oy and the fact that something was left behind after they left the church felt positive. Many people thanked us for doing this and a lot of people took a photo of their sentence or them writing it. The text itself became important. Some people remembered their Sunday school teaching; others approached the text for the first time. 

Participating in the writing project gave people an opportunity to ask questions about the gospel, the Bible, the Christian faith more broadly. Who were ‘the Levites’? What was ‘Jacob’s well’? From theological questions such as ‘what is baptism?’, ‘who were the Jews in St John’s gospel?’ to big life questions: ‘My wife is sick’, ‘my daughter died’, ‘there is so much war/evil in the world – why?’
The Scriptorium
Cécile Schnyder
These were the moments when a small form of teaching or pastoral service took place. When I listened to questions and sometimes tried to answer, where books were suggested, a candle was lit, a prayer said. The gospel text became something that could be challenged and wrestled with. It became a living a sacred object to which I did not always have an answer.

Corpus Christi Celebrations held with city churches

This year Westcott House teamed up with Cambridge churches St. Bene’t’s and Little St. Mary’s for the feast of Corpus Christi.

Photo: Fauzia Emmanuel

Celebrations started off with a service of the Eucharist in St. Bene’t’s with Westcott’s own Will Lamb preaching. Led by a brass band playing hymns, the gathered crowd then processed carrying the sacrament down Trumpington Street (much to the delight of college residents and tourists!) to Little St Mary’s, where Benediction was held, followed by refreshments.

Video courtesy of Sara Batts – click to play

Thanks to all the members of Westcott, St. Bene’t’s, and Little St. Mary’s for their help in making this public act of witness go smoothly and beautifully.

We were even featured in
‘A Cambridge Diary’ (!)

Easter Programme, Part 2

On Monday 1 June, Westcott welcomed Ed Foley, Capuchin, Duns Scotus Professor of Spirituality and Professor of Liturgy and Music at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago to lead a lecture and worship as part of the Easter Programme.  His talks centred around Liturgy, Evangelism and Public Theology, and the necessity of shared ground between these three things.

Drawing on his decades of work as a liturgist and presbyter in numerous places – currently Old St Pat’s in downtown Chicago – Foley shared many stories and challenged students to think outside the traditional boxes when it came to liturgy. He believes that such an exploratory spirit is especially important in our highly technological age when, ‘everybody outside the church is interpreting our symbols, correctly or otherwise’.  What is required of priests, therefore, is a degree of bilingual ‘symbolic competence’ in which they can speak with theologians and parishioners alike, make connections between the tradition and the everyday. ‘Liturgy was the church’s first practical theology’, Foley urged. ‘Before the gospels, before any of the New Testament existed, what did the earliest Christians have? Eucharist. They handed on what had been handed on to them. That is liturgy, and it was profoundly practical – not something exclusive or obscure’.  The early church ‘could be described as a community doing “grief work”; learning to build a living memory of the Saviour who they have, in a sense, lost.’

And what is this grief work of the Eucharist? It is ‘the church born around the table…which always requires the presence of the outsider’.  Jesus’ radical decision ‘to eat with the wrong people is the psychological reason that got him killed’.  In our day, those outside the church are also ‘dangerous for us to have fellowship with in many people’s eyes, but that doesn’t make it any less important to do so’.  This inclusion of the social, political, or religious outsider is what Foley finds central to ‘public theology’, and central to Christianity’s ability to be allies with others in living into a better world together.  Seeing the sanctuary as the ‘new aereopagus’ (John ch. 17) is a good image for the Church of England, which is in some ways becoming again a missionary church.

Foley spoke warmly of the sacrament of reconciliation and of the occasional offices as primary opportunities for the church to engage with the people who show up and who deserve spiritual respect for their own beliefs, even whilst we would maintain our own deeply Christian standpoint. These parts of the church’s mission not only help to reach those who were once church-goers but have stopped, but also those who have not been used to church but drawn to the it by its symbols and ‘ways of making meaning, of ritualising people into family’.

Unless our churches can do ‘address people in their humanity and recognise that this sometimes leads to divinity but sometimes not’, Foley said, our liturgy is not public theology as such, and risks becoming obsolete.  Rather than the ‘font and summit’ of the church’s life, could we not think of liturgy as the fount and catalyst for the church’s life in and beyond the church doors?

Community Eucharist Sermon anticipating Trinity Sunday, 2015

On Thursday 28 May our Community Eucharist preacher was Jesse Zink, a tutor at Westcott and Assistant Chaplain at Emmanuel College.  You can read his sermon below.

Romans 8.12-17
John 3.1-17

“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”
May my words lead us into the written word, which guides us to the Incarnate word, who is Jesus Christ. Amen.

We may lack many things in the world, but here is one of which there is no shortage: fear. Indeed, fear seems to be one of the dominant emotions in our society right now. Immigrants are coming to take our jobs and our benefits. Islamist terrorists might be right around the corner. The country is going to run out of money tomorrow. We can discern a pretty common reaction to fear: control. We’ll put ever harsher restrictions on the entry and movement of immigrants. We’ll increase our powers of surveillance and detention. We’ll impose austerity on ever more sectors of society. The world is changing quickly and that makes some people fearful. And fear leads to control.

It’s not just in our society that we find fear. There’s no shortage of fear in the church as well. Changes in the world are having immense impacts on the church, changes that it is our privilege to grapple with. But change in the church provokes fear about what the future might hold. And fear leads to control. If we can just find the right bishop for every last sliver of church membership, we’ll be able to control our future direction. If we ensure that clergy are unable to perform marriages that are permitted by law we’ll know that control has been achieved. Meanwhile, the great juggernaut of Reform and Renewal rolls through the church, attempting to exert control over all in its path—church finances, leadership development, theological education. Change leads to fear. Fear leads to control. 

Jesus and Nicodemus | Henry Ossawa Turner
The Pharisee Nicodemus knew something about change. His basic understandings about God and about his religion were being shaken by this itinerant teacher named Jesus, who had turned water into wine and was gathering around him a new community of followers, teaching them strange—and compelling—things. Nicodemus wants to learn more. But he also knows that it will be difficult for a Pharisee of his stature to openly approach Jesus with his questions. He’s fearful of what that will mean for his career. So he tries to control the situation. He approaches Jesus under the cover of night. If he can control the encounter such that no one sees it, then there will be nothing to be afraid of. And it works. Nicodemus meets Jesus and begins to ask him the questions that have been consuming him.

Immediately, however, things go rather off-kilter. Rather than giving straight answers, Jesus responds confusingly. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” This is not at all how it is supposed to go. Rather than answering his questions, Jesus is confounding Nicodemus’ efforts at control. Then Jesus completely stumps him: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” This is anti-control: “you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” Nicodemus replies, somewhat plaintively: “How can these things be?” His efforts at control have gone entirely out the window.

To be a follower of Jesus, it is clear, requires letting go of control. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit,” Jesus says. This might frighten someone like Nicodemus.  It certainly frightens me. But it is actually really good news. Because here’s the dark secret. Our efforts at control don’t work. No matter how hard David Cameron tries to keep foreigners out, the causes and needs that are driving immigration are beyond his control. We cannot control our way to the end of Islamist terror nor can we cut our way back to prosperity. We will not control our way to church unity. We can and should pray for Reform and Renewal but the history of massive, unaccountable, steamroller church programs is not promising. Control is only ever an illusion. It will never put rest to our fears. It will never be the response to change that we so desperately crave. And yet as Christians we must have some response to change and to fear, if for no other reason than that they shape the world in which we minister. Control manifestly is not the answer. What is?

The Christian understanding of change begins not by noticing the changes that buffet us on a daily basis. The Christian understanding of change begins with the action of God. In Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God has changed the world. God has broken into our world, brought into being the kingdom of heaven in our midst, and through Christ’s death and resurrection invited us to participate in it as members of a new Israel. In response to change like this, Christians do not fear. Instead, Christians hope. Christians hope because we know that the change God has wrought in the world is life-giving. It is change that invites us into a life of rich and full relationships with God and with one another. God’s change is the foundation of our Christian hope.

And yet no matter how much I may tell you about the change of God or the hope of Christians, it can all seem pretty pale stuff next to the traumas of the world. It can be hard to hope when so much around us seems to be falling apart. It can be hard to hope for the future of the church when the church seems so able at shooting itself in the foot, time and time again. Fear can be awfully hard to avoid. 

And it is hear that we can find comfort in the words of St. Paul to the Romans: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” The Holy Spirit very deliberately leads us away from fear and into adoption. And it is in that adoption that we are lead to call God, “Abba,” an intimate, loving form of address. When we approach God with such intimacy, “it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ”. This is the grounds of our hope, that the Holy Spirit is constantly driving us to stand in the same beloved position as Christ in relation to our Abba God. If we are to live as Christians in a world of change, we are to live as Spirit-filled Christians, people who can know in our innermost being that God’s Holy Spirit is not a spirit of fear but a spirit that grafts us into the deepest love of God.

Every time I read the story of Nicodemus in the third chapter of John’s Gospel, I can’t help but think of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in chapter four. The two encounters are in parallel and John very deliberately contrasts them. Nicodemus approaches Jesus at night. Jesus approaches the woman in the middle of the day. Nicodemus is a male religious leader. The woman at the well is an outcast in society. Nicodemus tells no one else what he has done. The woman tells everyone.

The contrast between the two is instructive for another reason as well. It is this woman who shows us what the life of Spirit-filled hope is like. After her transforming encounter with Jesus, she runs into town and starts talking to all she meets: “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” The woman is in awe and wonder and what she has encountered. I wonder, she thinks, is this man the Messiah?

If fear leads us to control, Christian hope leads us to wonder. And it is wonder that is in such short supply these days. Our world and sometimes our church has been stripped of awe, of curiosity, of amazement. The most characteristic statement of the Spirit-filled Christian is to say, “I wonder.” I wonder what these migrants from other countries have to contribute to our society? I wonder how these Christians who do not share my views can enrich my faith? I wonder how we incorporate these people who are peripheral in our society more fully into the life of our community? These are not always easy questions to ask. But we are fortunate that the life of this Westcott community offers us so many opportunities to wonder. I wonder what that person from a different diocese, of a different generation, of different theological convictions has to offer that can enrich my walk with Christ. These are the questions that the Spirit is constantly prompting us to ask. Saying “I wonder” is the first step into the way that leads us into deeper faithfulness and into a life more fully marked by the transforming power of the Spirit.

Change is not going away, either in the world or in the church. Change will continue to provoke fear and fear will continue to lead to control. Christians, by contrast, name and proclaim that change which God has already wrought in the world in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In response to that change, Christians are people who live in Spirit-filled hope, a hope that constantly drives us to wonder.

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” I wonder where the Spirit is blowing you in these last weeks of the year?


Easter Programme 2015: part 1

Whilst some Westcott students are deep in exams, others, including some research students and those on the Common Awards Pathway, have been taking part in a programme of talks, workshops and other events during the past few weeks.  Put together by tutors Alison Grey and Eeva John, this ‘Easter Term Programme’ has been organised in direct response to students’ requests to use the down time at the end of term for more exploratory learning.  Similar to the January Intensives but much more varied, the Programme has included sessions on:

  • A taster course in Biblical Hebrew with Heather Leppard
  • An Introduction to Apologetics with Jeff Philips
  • Exploring Rural Ministry with Alison Fulford
  • A reading group on Henri Nouwen’s book The Return of the Prodigal Son
  • Christian Ministry in the light of Hindu Spirituality with Ankhur Barua
  • Lyric Poetry and the Life of Faith with Dom Thornton
  • Liturgy & Public Theology and Liturgy & Evangelism workshops with Ed Foley

Feedback for the sessions has been widely positive, with students reflecting on the flavour that each of these sessions and topics had given their theological study. In the ‘Lyric poetry’ sessions, attendees were encouraged to pick a poem by the poet of the day (including R. S. Thomas & Gerard Manley Hopkins), to read up on it a bit, and then bring it to the group to be explored together. Literary background and form, the spirituality of the poets and their worldview were all topics of discussion. One student commented that she had come to the sessions as a complete novice to poetry but had left ‘with a much greater ability to appreciate lyric poetry’ thanks to ‘Dom bringing his love for poetry and generally sharing it with us’.

After hearing from a wealth of stories from Alison Fulford in the Exploring Rural Ministry session, students were split up into two groups. One was tasked with planning an agricultural service, the other with working out a term-rota of preachers and presiders.  ‘It was great to start getting our heads round how complicated but exciting rural ministry can be, and to hear Alison’s stories was very encouraging,’ reflected one of the ordinands.

Stay tuned for parts 2 & 3 of the Easter Programme posts!