Wedding lessons

Firstly, a lesson for you, dear readers: when you come across a clergy person (or registrar, or officiant…) who is about to conduct their first wedding, please – for the love of all that is holy – do NOT reference the epitome of all British wedding movies Four Weddings and a Funeral! It’s not even so much to do with Rowan Atkinson’s performance as the bumbling priest conducting his first wedding (the infamous line about ‘holy goats’ is no longer much of an issue as Common Worship goes with the more modern ‘Holy Spirit’), more the endless tales of woe that occurs at celebrations of holy matrimony. A death occurring at a wedding? Or the nuptials being called off at the moment the priest asks for objections? The stuff of ecclesial nightmares!

[What perhaps makes the evocation of this movie even worse is that I can name more than one priestly colleague who has experienced both of those terrible events at weddings they’ve officiated at. It happens. We don’t need reminding!]

And a lesson for those who’ll take their first wedding in the near future: when you’ve got a couple of them under your belt and you’re feeling the relief of a job well done, put Four Weddings on and revel in how smoothly yours went! As for me, the biggest lesson I’ve learnt is that getting to marry people is an absolute delight and a privilege!

I’ve known Jenni since 1997 – it doesn’t get much better than this!

A common pattern since ordination is that my “firsts” have generally been a bit of a baptism of fire. My first baptism is still fondly referred to as such by several members of the congregation, in part because one of the children decided to escape and hide before I could get to her. My first funeral was an epic affair that brought our neighbourhood to a standstill as a band and crowd of mourners danced their way up to the church. My first wedding? Just the small matter of a marrying a friend of 20 years standing to her lovely fiancé..

…it wasn’t meant to be. When they asked me (in the glamorous context of a road trip up the A1), I had my first wedding scheduled for mid-July. That wedding then moved, first to June (even better) and then to November. It’ll now be wedding number four of my career! When I got word of the last re-scheduling, I despaired slightly. On the one hand, my first wedding was going to be phenomenally special; on the other, I was going to be on alien territory, I’d know at least half the congregation well, and if I got things wrong it would be an utter disaster!

I prepped and prepped hard. Before he moved on to new pastures, I downloaded every bit of wisdom I could get from my vicar. I walked through how things worked on my home turf. I talked to other clergy. And, most helpfully, I got to work on weddings number two (8 days after number one) and three (in September). The aim was to look like I knew exactly what I was doing by the time July 29th rolled around!

Did I succeed? Possibly. I certainly learnt a lot, including:

  • DON’T let friends put you off. This includes their references to Four Weddings, but also includes moments when your dear friends (and certain family members) decide the night before to run through potential heckling opportunities. Don’t do a practice run-through with them either (especially if you’ve just arrived back from a great holiday during which you really haven’t slept enough), because any and every mistake you make while reading from the book will be seized upon!
  • DO let a trustworthy friend read-through the sermon that you’ve been angsting over for a couple of weeks. There’s always the hope that you’ll have them in tears before they’ve finished reading the opening paragraph.
  • DON’T leave your sermon in the vestry. Realising this mid-way through the declarations is a tad awkward. However, it turns out that you can do many things with authority and as if it’s exactly what’s meant to happening and no one will know. [I did a loop back into the choir vestry during the reading and returned to sit in the clergy seats at the top of the choir stalls which no one noticed at all.]
  • DO use tons of those mini Post-Its that work as book marks. They’re very handy for marking up your service book with crucial bits of info like hymn titles and the myriad middle names the couple possess.
  • DON’T forget to turn your mic onto mute when not needed. [I remembered during the hymns & forgot during the signing of the registers. I’m thankful for the friend who was in the baby room listening to a feed from my mic who dashed up and told me before the hymn had finished!]

Service over, it turns out that there are also lessons to be learnt about attending wedding receptions as the officiating priest. [There’s also an ethical conundrum regarding which reception invitations to accept, but I’m still figuring that one out.] A quick change in the vestry after the service, and I was reception-ready sans cassock, surplice & dog collar.

I have a lot of love for my singing girls.

In the toilets at the reception venue, a fellow guest did a double-take as I emerged from the cubicle and then exclaimed in recognition of who I was – which was nice, if an odd location for the spiritual conversation that emerged. Later, on the dance floor and excitedly (doing what amounts to) dancing while clutching a glass of rosé, I was bumped into by a group of guys who worked with the groom. Their surprise at stumbling across a vicar on the dance floor was evident. One of them looked at me and declared: “But you’re the vicar! And you’re dancing! And you’re drinking wine!” [Their minds would definitely be blown by witnessing what clergy can get up to en masse…] I chuckled, made conversation, and carried on dancing, amused at blowing stereotypes away. Then, minutes later the band struck up the Kings of Leon classic Sex on Fire and I had a revelation: I needed to leave the dance floor. It’s one thing for the priest to be seen dancing and drinking. It’s quite another to witness them singing “Woah! My sex is on fire” along with the band and tipsy guests! Valuable lesson learned before it was too late!!

Wedding number one was incredibly special, and I was a little worried that my first parish wedding the following weekend would be something of an anti-climax. I needn’t have, because it was an utter joy. Far more relaxed than the week before and in my usual church context, I had a confidence and attitude that was distinctly absent at wedding number one. When a text arrived that evening from my first bride asking how it had gone, I was loath to respond with “It was great! So much easier than last week!” It may have been true, but it wasn’t a true reflection of just how special her wedding being my first was.

Another valuable lesson: brides seem to appreciate sparkly shoes…

The likelihood is that I won’t do another wedding that is *that* special. My sister’s already hitched, and so are most of my closest friends. Perhaps I’ll have a shot with nieces/nephews… While I might wish that I’d been less nervous, the fact that my first wedding was so incredibly special and wonderful is an excellent thing – something I’m incredibly grateful to Jenni & Crispin for! (And they were grateful too – Crispin thanked me for letting them take my ‘wedding virginity’ in his speech!)

Wedding number two (and the planning meeting I had last week with wedding couple three) has made it clear that I love doing weddings and I (God willing) am not going to become a cynical priest who sees them as a burden rather than a joy. That’s possibly a luxury from currently being in a church that doesn’t have many weddings, but to be honest, I don’t think it’s in my (hopelessly romantic) personality to view the role of marrying people as anything but a joy and huge privilege!

It’s possible that Crispin & I found the handing over of the marriage certificate a little too amusing!

Returning to Four Weddings, last weekend’s bride left our wedding rehearsal to watch the film with her bridesmaids. I didn’t like to suggest it was a bad idea, and instead drew her attention to the fact that significant scenes were filmed locally. In fact, had Charles wanted to marry Carrie, he could have done so at Christ Church as he lived in the parish. [Every so often when it rains, I’m tempted to re-enact the terrible “Is it raining?” scene on Highbury Terrace.]

Oh, and although ‘Holy Ghost’ does not appear in the modern marriage liturgy, do you know where it does crop up?? The BCP Eucharist liturgy, which Christ Church happens to use on the first Sunday of the month. So, having been confident that I didn’t need to worry about erroneous goats in my weddings, I then had to work super hard to prevent them from appearing in our 9am last Sunday. Thanks for that dear friends!

We have far more in common than that which divides us

I’ve never been one for posting the text of sermons on my blog (although I’ve been considering it for a while – if only to generate content!), but a sermon I preached yesterday has been requested by a few people, so I felt this would be a good thing to share more widely…

Luke 9:51-62 – We have far more in common than that which divides us

Christ Church Highbury, June 26th 2016

I read this passage on Monday, as I began to prepare for this morning, trying to work out what angle I might preach upon. It took me a while, in fact, it wasn’t until Wednesday when I felt God speak very clearly. It was my turn to lead assembly at St John’s, our primary school, and the topic for this week was ‘the Bible and refugees’. I’d spent some time wondering how to cover it in under 10 minutes, for children aged 4-11 – it was a tough call, but ultimately I focused upon the really clear message from God and Jesus that all strangers should be welcomed and that we should love our neighbour as ourselves.

I left school after assembly and went straight to Trafalgar Square for the memorial to MP Jo Cox on what would have been her 42nd birthday. It was a beautiful outpouring of love and unity in the face of such a terrible tragedy. I, along with most of the others present, let tears run down our cheeks as her husband spoke movingly about his loss; listened to her son’s classmates singing about justice and heard Malala speak of the importance of unity.

The juxtaposition of these two events brought home to me the relevance this week of the first half of this passage, where Jesus and his disciples faced opposition from Samaria. As the week has worn on, particularly with the results of the referendum, they have increased in importance!

***

Verses 52-55 reads:

“And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; 53 but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. 54 When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, ‘Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?’ 55 But Jesus turned and rebuked them.” 

To put this into context, as the story of the Good Samaritan so clearly shows us, the Samaritans and the Jews were deeply opposed. This opposition dates back to the division of Israel into two kingdoms – Israel in the north, whose capital was Samaria; and Judah in the south. Both nations were invaded and their inhabitants enslaved. When the former inhabitants of the south were permitted to return and to rebuild Jerusalem, the northern kingdom opposed this repatriation and tried to undermine the nation’s rebuilding. This was approximately 500 years before Christ’s birth, so by the time of the encounter we’ve just heard, the divisions were long entrenched and deeply bitter.

The Samaritans weren’t too different from the Jews – they came from the same ancestral roots and shared scriptures. One commentary writer has suggested that the reason why the Gospels & Acts feature so many encounters with Samaritans is because it’s: “not the person from the radically different culture on the other side of the world that is hardest to love, but the nearby neighbour whose skin colour, language, rituals, values, ancestry, history, and customs are different from one’s own.”

The very first verse of today’s passage states that Jesus has resolutely set out towards Jerusalem. On the one hand, this is an indication that a new phase of his ministry has begun as he heads towards the city at the heart of the authority that will oppose him and ultimately sentence him to death. But it is also another red flag for the Samaritans, owing to their belief that the temple should be in Samaria, not Jerusalem.

Jesus knew that travelling to Jerusalem would bring him into conflict before he even reached the city – that he would not be received well by some of the towns and villages through which he and his disciples passed through. But he did it anyway, echoing the words of Isaiah 50:7 “Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.”

***

Jesus behaved with grace and humility in the face of opposition. He did the right thing – sending messengers ahead to the Samaritan village instead of going directly there. Jesus wasn’t looking to deliberately offend the Samaritans – to rub his faith and ethnicity in their faces – he was simply heading towards the most convenient point on his journey to spend the night. But his civility was not returned.

His disciples are angered by the reception they received. They understood who Jesus was and held him in high honour and were therefore understandably upset that others did not see this. They also clearly understood the power Christ had as God’s son – asking Jesus whether he wanted them to call down fire from heaven to destroy them!

But Jesus? Jesus stood firm and said no, rebuking the disciples for their careless words. Jesus’ actions embodied his message: that the Son of God had come to save all, not to destroy. And that therefore he went peacefully to another village.

***

I expect that, had Jesus been one of the MPs present in the House of Commons when Jo Cox gave her maiden speech he would have cheered loudly, as her message so embodies what he might have said to the disciples regarding the Samaritans.

These words, which were not given the attention they deserved a year ago, are now something which – particularly after Friday – we should all be holding onto: “We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”

Jews and Samaritans were divided by 500 years of history and a disagreement regarding the geographical centre of their faith. Our society has faced divisions again and again: immigrant versus ‘British’; rich versus poor; north versus south; London versus everywhere else; England versus Northern Ireland, Scotland & Wales; Remain versus In. And now we have percentages too: 48 versus 52.

As I look out at you all this morning, I have a fair idea that most of you will be hurting, grieving and confused at what has happened in our nation over the last few days. After all, this borough had one of the highest remain votes in the country. But that doesn’t mean that all of us in this room share the same views either.

***

To use a very clichéd response that I’ve seen tweeted by various Christians on Twitter – there is one thing that does remain: love.

It may be a cliché, but it’s true. And it was love that turned Jesus’ towards Jerusalem, and onto another village when the Samaritans rejected him. It was love that made him rebuke the disciples for suggesting destruction.

Jesus’ love was and is sacrificial. He set his sights upon Jerusalem, knowing the fate that awaited him there – just earlier in this same chapter of Luke he had predicted his own death. Sacrifice is also what he asked of his followers – as the second half of this morning’s passage lays out. We shouldn’t be surprised by that, we all have experience of making sacrifices out of our love for others. It might be the sleepless nights after a child is born; moving house for the sake of a job; taking a less well paid role because of your passion for it…the list is endless.

It was love that I felt most of all as I attended Wednesday’s memorial. I didn’t know Jo Cox personally, although I’d heard a little about her through friends involved in politics and humanitarian work. As I stood amongst the 10,000  strong crowd, I was struck by the way in which love motivated them. I’ve found myself saying to a few people that I felt desperately sad about her murder not just because of the waste of life and the impact it will have upon her children, but because she was ‘one of my people’. By which I mean that her life and work were motivated by love and a passion for justice. It’s no coincidence that in that crowd on Wednesday I kept bumping into friends – friends from my days working in Christian mission and development charities; friends from the world of NGOs; politically active friends and fellow clergy. People do not work or get involved in those worlds without having a deep love for others and a passion to bring about justice, no matter what sacrifices are involved.

It’s also no coincidence that the vicar of a church in Jo Cox’s constituency said at a vigil immediately after her murder that she was a ‘modern day good Samaritan’. Jo, like so many others working in politics, relief work and war zones saw divisions but didn’t let it get in the way of showing love where it was so desperately needed.

The Jews and the Samaritans were not radically different and nor are our differences. The differences of language, nation of birth, voting preference are small things compared to what we have in common. We are all children of God, made in his image, loved by him and blessed with a love to share with all. As Paul wrote to the Galatians, in Christ there is no slave or free, Greek or Jew, man or woman – we are all one.

Before I finish with a prayer, I want to share some of the words that Jo Cox’s sister, Kim Leadbeater, spoke on Wednesday: “My sister would want her murder to mobilise people to get on with things, to try and make a positive difference in whatever way we can, to come together and unite against hate and division and fight instead for inclusion, love and unity.”

The message on Wednesday was ‘to love like Jo’. Jo loved in the way that Jesus calls us to. Without barriers, without prejudice and without inciting hatred. And that is what our world desperately needs right now.

Prayer of reconciliation:

“Guide our nation in the coming days through the inspiration of your Spirit, that understanding may put an end to discord and all bitterness.

“Give us grace to rebuild bonds of trust that together we may work for the dignity and flourishing of all; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

jo-cox-memorial

Lord of Time

Over a year ago, during the period of time when I was trying to work out what the 2014/15 academic year was going to look like, my ethics tutor approached me after evening prayer and said that a word had come to him during prayer which he felt was for me. He asked if I liked Doctor Who (I’m indifferent to it, but know enough to get a reference), and explained that he felt as though God was emphasising his role as the Lord of Time – or “Time Lord”. It was a clear reference to my being at the mercy of God’s timing, and was somewhat reassuring…

…only somewhat, because – as I explained last year – a curacy was not forthcoming. Instead, I made plans for further study and returned to St Mellitus to study a MA. But this year, these words came back. As I struggled to find the right curacy, it was a struggle to remember that God had the timing under control.

The words of one of my classmates also came back to me. At our final college residential last year, on the Sunday when I had come before college and explained that I didn’t know what I was going to be doing next year, she told me that she had a vision of me returning the following year, with an amazing story. As church after church failed to work out this year, I began to doubt that I would have a story for the class of 2015.

This year has been a struggle. Not finding the right curacy in good time for the second year running is not to be recommended. This isn’t the place to chronicle what happened – suffice to say, there were places that were not right; good decisions; bitter disappointments; and less good decisions. When ordinands who began their 2 year course AFTER you began the curacy process then find their curacies BEFORE you do, life can feel rather frustrating. (That might be an understatement!)

I didn’t entirely lose hope. I did trust that God had it under control. But it felt as though I was consistently hitting s brick wall. Come the first May bank holiday, and an annual Christian junket, I was without a curacy and rather low. While picking up a book at the junket, I ran into a 2014 Deacon and his wife, who, upon hearing of my situation, immediately prayed for me – on the street, in front of the Hammersmith Apollo. Within 24 hours, I’d received an email from the Bishop of Stepney regarding a very promising sounding post.

God had not forgotten! The post was indeed promising, and by the second May bank holiday, my curacy had been formally agreed. Sharing my news with the college chaplain – who was on the verge of crying with happiness – she declared: “God is faithful!” I replied: “…but slow.”

As a good friend retorted when she heard this story, God’s timing is not slow, it is perfect. We just don’t have any control over it and we don’t like it! Yes, maybe getting my curacy sorted out earlier might have avoided some issues (like some of my closest friends being absent from my ordination thanks to a mutual friend’s wedding). But would one of the earlier curacies have been the right place? Is the curacy I’m now taking up not the best thing that’s crossed my radar in the entire 22 months in which I was searching? No to the first question and yes to the latter.

Yesterday, I stood in front of the ordinands of St Mellitus College and shared an amazing story of God’s faithfulness. As I walked to the lectern, I was cheered to such an extent that I was nearly undone before I’d uttered any words. My ‘final’ Sunday of 2014 was redeemed, and in God’s timing, I am to be ordained at St. Paul’s Cathedral on July 4th.

So where am I going? The green fields of North London!

A ‘N’ postcode for the first time since 2006 (another 3 years to add to my current total of 18 years up there). Specifically, the parish of Christ Church Highbury, upon Highbury Fields, deep in the heart of Arsenal territory.

It’s a part-time curacy, which is exciting. I’m not entirely sure what will make up the rest of my time (there’s a job interview on Wednesday for something that might work), but freelancing has worked very well for me this year, and God has provided exponentially. I won’t be moving there immediately – accommodation won’t be available until late this/early next year, but that’s a relief, given my need to write a thesis over the summer!

I’m also excited about the curacy itself. I’m looking forward to getting stuck back into church ministry after a year away (from church leadership, not church!), and entering the next phase of my training. There’s lots about Christ Church itself that I’m excited about too – more of which will follow…

But for now, it is with huge relief and great anticipation that I look forward to my very imminent ordination!!

Looking out at St Paul's, 2010Looking out at St Paul’s from Tate Modern, April 2010. (As used on my ordination invitations. With thanks to @notthatandym)