Sunday, 15 July 2018

What Humanity is Worth: Homily for the Feast of the Placing of the Robe of the Mother of God at Blachernai, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral, London, 15th July 2018

In the five years our community has been developing, the trajectory of the homilies has been how God draws humanity to ascend into Him, how He re-orients towards the Kingdom, and how its blessedness, its bliss, is what captivates our attention, then our hearts, then our vision for going onward, and then every corner of our existence, so that we live in this world as in the next, and realise that even now we live in the Kingdom of Heaven while the Kingdom of God is coming in us on earth.
This is not just a moral point or a religious conviction about ourselves. It is how we understand our universe, God’s creation, is now arranged. So we do not live our lives in some kind of run up to death; we live by the light of our resurrection that is not our plan for an after-life, but the new existence that began with the very moment of our baptism.

Today, however, the Feast of Placing the Robe of the Virgin Mother of God in the Church near the palace of Blachernai in fifth century Constantinople, means that we look at things from the other direction. Instead of charting the journey along which our humanity is created, saved and raised in ascension into the life of God Himself, we wonder at why God should come the other way and become human.

In today’s Troparion we sing, “Ever Virgin Mother of God, you gave your pure body’s robe and sash. They remained incorrupt by your giving birth without seed.” In other words, these are not sumptuous clothes, but the carefully kept personal garments of a young woman who knows she has given birth to the Messiah. There is a story of how the Virgin kept this clothing all her life and passed it on to trusted family friends. Even in this day and age, brides keep their wedding dress their whole lives; and children’s christening robes are passed down from generation. So I find no difficulty in believing that along with other memories and mementoes, as St Luke says, “Mary remembered all these things” (Luke 2.19) about the miracle of giving birth as a Virgin. The Troparion tells us - rather delicately - that the garments were not “corrupted”: the miracle means they bore no stain of blood. In other words, today’s feast puts us right into the moment when God revealed Himself as God among us, born of a woman under the law (Galatians 4.4), when Mary’s childbirth does not incur the legal exclusion of impurity for shedding her own blood. She remains (as the language we use has it) spotless, stainless, pure, the Virgin Mother: now is not the moment for the shedding of blood, and when blood is to be poured out, it will be the Lord’s. And it is for this reason that the Lord God of Hosts resolves to become human: to shed His Blood that He cannot shed as God alone, to be the ransom for the many (Mark 10.45), for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26.28).

In his second letter to the Church at Corinth, St Paul daringly says, “For our sake He Who knew no sin became sin” (or ‘He made Him to be sin’), “so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5.21). This means that our sin, our imperfection, our limitation was no bar to God – His driving aim was to become us. For only from within us would He take our sin and turn it inside out to become God’s righteousness, His perfection, His blessedness beyond the failure of us to reach it by our own efforts. He renders our sin futile in His judgement, and beside the point in His purpose: to count us not by our own devalued currency, but to forgive us by the worth of His own life and dignity now endowing humanity. St Paul tells us that this decisive, history-breaking action happened as it was always planned to – “when the fullness of time had come”, when it was not a minute before He was ready and not a minute too late for the Father of the House of Creation to adopt His unsatisfactory servants (Matthew 25.30), as any father would bring home his wandering son (Luke 15.20-24). No parents can look on their children as satisfactory or unsatisfactory: everything is from the basic unconditional outlook of love, of pride and hope. In the same way, the Lord runs out to us not because we are “sin”, but because from His angle we may not be worthy but we are worth it. He chooses humanity; and that is what gives humanity its dignity, its sacrosanct value and its obligation to rise up and “set [its] heart not on earthly things but on things above, where Christ is…, for the unworthy side to humanity is deadened, and our life now is hid with Christ in God” (cf. Colossians 3.2). Thus for ourselves and for all around us we may “seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6.3).

This is the better part that Mary chose in today’s Gospel (Luke 10.38-31; 11.27-28). The humanity that hangs on the words of Christ sees the Christ who is fixed upon humanity, even to the extent of fixing Himself to the Cross. This is the Son of Man Who destined Himself to become part of humanity because He had first made it as the very image of God (Genesis 1.27) - and because He willed to be the very image of humanity created by God for God (Colossians 1.15).

This humanity that He has dignified is the human life unjustly destroyed on a Cross. This humanity is the unborn child that the Irish Prime Minister has led the people into treating as “not yet fully human” so that it can be expended. This is the humanity that the Belgian King agreed could be terminated against its will if it was that of a disabled teenager. This is the humanity that men traffic in lorries across Europe to be prostitutes on our streets, or slaves in car washes. This is the humanity that can have its homes and olive groves blown up and its water supply diverted to make way for new Israeli settlements. This is the humanity that is trampled into the earth and cast to the winds by invaders when nation refuses to speak unto nation. This is the humanity of children caged up at the American border to separate them from their parents. This is the humanity put in the pit that is prison rather than have its problem solved. This is the humanity that a child will slice away with a knife in a gang dispute. This is the humanity that misguided religion will kill, or burn, bulldoze or explode out of home and existence, whether it’s Burma’s Buddhists and its Rohingya Muslims, or ISIS in Syria and Iraq or Al Shabbab in East Africa, or a professedly Christian state exporting its repression in eastern Europe, or a generation of unCatholic nationalists newly rising to violence in Northern Ireland, rather than bless and hope for the coming of God’s reign in justice, truth, in Christ’s sheer beauty and unconditional love. This is the humanity of the homeless avoided, the trafficked before the blind eye we turn, the refugee turned away, the women disadvantaged in favour of men, the other race and nation to which we prefer our own. This is the humanity that we poison with drugs and grudges, and the paradox of selfishness and self-destruction. This is the humanity God deemed worthwhile and dignified with His own worthiness. We did not deserve this any more than Christ deserved to show Himself among us as “sin” Who had Himself known no sin:
“He made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of humanity. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the Cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him.” (Philippians 2.7-9)
But not for His own sake: for ours (II Corinthians 5.21). For if this is true of Him, how less true is it of those to whom He came?

In the old Temple, there was the inner Tabernacle, the Holy of Holies. It is renewed before us within the Holy Place of the Temple in which we now stand.  Into this sanctuary, the High Priest took humanity, to offer the incense in prayer and worship as we do we, to be close to the tablets of the covenant, the Ten Commandments, the very words that God spoke to Moses; to the Manna that fell from heaven just as today we shall receive the Bread of Life, the Rod of Aaron that bloomed as we now see the Cross did too. But most of all the High Priest took humanity with him to the Mercy-Seat covered with the shadow and protection of the cherubim. What did he take? The blood of a life sacrificed so that others may benefit.

In ancient days it was the blood of a bull and a goat. But on the Cross, it was the blood of a Man that was poured out as a ransom for the many. But what happened next is often overlooked. The High Priest went in to offer the sacrifice as a man – but then came out to dismiss our sins from God. Even more truly, when the veil of the Temple was torn in two to lay bare the inside of the Holy of Holies, the sacrifice of Christ going in as Son of Man was accepted and the same Person coming out as God tears up our sin and separation from the Father in forgiveness.

For this reason God took our humanity, so that as a human He might reconcile us to God. To what had lost its value he gave God’s value. So all human nature, not just that of those who follow Him, is to be reconciled, with nothing to stand between us. From all eternity and that moment He was born to His virgin Mother, God has come our way, all the way, that we might come all His.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

All Saints of Britain: Homily at the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 10th June 2018,

A wonderful project among the Orthodox Churches established in Britain is to list the saints of these western islands that the East shares with the West from the time of our complete communion in the One Body of the Lord’s Church.

With the coming of the people of the Eastern Churches to Britain, obviously their treasured memory is of saints in the lands from which they came and would possibly never see again. We can think of St Sergius of Valaam, St Seraphim of Sarov and St John of Kronstadt from the Russian tradition; St Charalambous and St Silouan of Athos from the Greek Church; St Sava from Serbia; St Charbel from the Maronite Church; desert fathers St Shenouda  and St Bishoy from the Coptic Church; St Gregory of Narek from the Armenian tradition, now a doctor of the universal Church; St Olga and St Volodymyr from the Kievan Church to which our Ukrainian Catholic tradition belongs, as well as new martyrs such as the ecumenist Blessed Mykolai Charnetsky. Only recently the Cathedral in Preston of the new Syro-Malabar eparchy has been dedicated to St Alphonsa of Kottayam-Travancore. This is a cause for joy, because it enriches our awareness in Britain of the great cloud of witnesses in the Church from across the world; and western Christians can come to love, venerate and learn from them as our own. There is nothing new in this. The Church in England in the last two hundred years has embraced the saints of Ireland, from St Brigid of Kildara to St Kieran, St Kevin, and St Brendan the Navigator. By the same token, Anglicans who recently brought the Church of England’s patrimony and historical memory into the Catholic Church can now celebrate as their own the post-Reformation saints of Catholic Europe: not only England’s St Edmund Campion and Blessed John Henry Newman, but St Francis de Sales, St Margaret Mary Alacoque, St Alphonsus Liguori and St Maria Goretti.

In the same way our beloved Orthodox brothers and sisters whose Churches have living roots in Greece, Cyprus, Serbia, Russia, Ukraine and so on, as well now as here, have taken to their hearts St Columba, St Aidan, St Bede, St Cuthbert, St Chad, St Hilda, St Wilfrid, St Etheldreda, St Erconwald, St Edmund, St Ethelburga, St Dunstan and St Hildelith. This makes immediate sense when you consider that St Theodore, archbishop of Canterbury 668-690, was a bishop from the patriarchate of Antioch.

A shared martyrology from the first millennium is not, however, the end of the story. As St John Paul encouraged the Christians of the West divided on Catholic-Protestant lines, and of the East divided along Catholic-Orthodox lines, there needs to be a healing of our highly charged memories. It then needs to lead, said Pope Benedict, to a reconciliation of those memories. For the saints and martyrs are not holy because they stood up for one side against another, but because they stood for Christ, obedient even unto death.  In the First World War, Christendom went into collapse because the home of Christian civilisation in Europe tore itself apart, as Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant states fell upon each other claiming that the Lord was on their side. But the resounding question of the Scriptures is, “Who is on the Lord’s side?” Pope Benedict XV pleaded for peace and reconciliation among Christians, only to be rebuffed by the combatants, even Catholics. A hundred years on, we are still dealing with the consequences of our European shame, since we placed ethnic, imperial and national interest above the imperatives of human virtue and divine law, of the Kingdom  of justice and peace on earth as it is in heaven. Thus our continent came to endure 70 years of atheistic materialist communism, which brought the Churches under its sway to their knees, It was also sucked int the twelve-year hell of the no less atheistic death cult of Nazism. And now, the nations that prided themselves as little as a decade ago as the defenders and restorers of Christian peace, civilisation, and ethical values regard the following of Christ as itself unjust and immoral, as country after country dethrones the sacredness of humanity in God’s image to promote the destruction of life in the very womb in which it was conceived, and the legally enforced liquidation of the terminally ill. It is hard to compare favourably what this is making of our humanity with our western liberal values of human progress and enlightenment. It seems to bear out the necessity of the view of the Fathers of the Church - that the spiritual reality of our existence is superior to the earthly life that we can touch. We think that here is what reality is, and that what lies beyond is somehow less real because less tangible - an inspiring ideal maybe, but not quite substantial. Yet it is the firmer reality; for it is beyond the power of death to destroy it. It has the power to enter our world and connect with it, through making physical beings spiritual, through giving temporary minds the vision that they are eternal souls, through making lives that are not yet completed holy.

In seizing this higher existence as the true reality now, the healing and reconciliation of memories means taking to heart the loves, the beloved and the vision of those with whom we disagree for the earthly moment – and also seeing our own limitations and lack of perfection as the raw material for our repentance and forgiveness, and thus for our recreation raising us up to heavenly living. Yet a few hundred yards from this Cathedral is the site of the Tyburn Tree, a gibbet on which dozens of faithful Catholic priests and lay people were hanged, then drawn and quartered by a sword while still conscious, as traitors to the Anglican state. A few miles in the other direction at Smithfield, Protestant clergy and lay people, faithful to the Christ they saw in the words of the New Testament freshly available to them in English, were burned to death as heretics to the Catholic faith. Above our heads in the Holy Place is the icon of St Josaphat, who was murdered in 1623 in an insurrection of those opposed to the unity of the Eastern Church with the See of Peter at Rome for which he as bishop stood. In turn, 93 Orthodox were sentenced to death in punishment. The wounds are still open and there are other stories in other regions, where division between Christians has led to violence and the shedding of blood, supposedly in the defence of faith.
It was the Lord Jesus Himself who foresaw that the disunity of Christians would be a scandal causing the world to disbelieve in God: “May they all be one as You and I are one,” he prayed to the Father, “so that the world may believe it was You Who sent Me.” So we realise that the once Christian world has turned from life and trust in God, not because it has lost interest in God but because we Christians by our persistent disunity and self-interest have made our protestations about God’s sovereign rule, the reconciling power of His love, the prevailing power of His justice in the face of evil and human adversity, and the healing of His goodness, simply unbelievable.

Pope Benedict on his Apostolic Visit to Britain in 2010 reminded us that we must give a convincing account of the hope that lies within us of the Christ who died on the Cross, is risen and ascended over all. He called on us not to see our Churches as competing monopolies on the truth, but the reliable vessels for entering ever more deeply the mystery of the Church, which is none other than one life in one Lord. In the profound commemorations of the martyrs of English Christian divisions we have come to realise that we belong not to different sides but to a history that unites us. Moreover, when those martyrs, Catholic and Protestant alike, died for fidelity to Christ as they saw it, they did not die in separation and go to a separate purgatory or a separate heaven. They died in union with Christ, and their holiness was not their own but His alone.

In the years to come, we who look on the icons that gaze out from heaven to put us into visual and physical contact with holiness will be saints too. And the saints of Britain will not be those we recognise from the backgrounds and sides to which we belong for the moment, but those people made perfect by the sheer love and dwelling of the Holy Spirit within them. Already in our Catholic Church we venerate saints from the Orthodox Church – notably St Gregory Palamas – just as we honour the spiritual leaders of the non-Catholic west, such as John and Charles Wesley. In parts of Orthodoxy, there is love for Catholic saints like St Francis, St Thomas Aquinas, and St Therese of Lisieux. All this is telling us that the Lord, whose very teaching cured every weakening and dividing sickness among the people, and united us all by His declaration of the Kingdom (Matthew 4.23), is indeed the Perfecter of a faith weighed down with sin in the world, the Pioneer who causes us to run on into the cloud of witnesses (cf. Hebrews 12.2), until we run into each other when finally come to a stop at Him – finding ourselves at last on the Lord’s side and never against anyone else’s, at last holy as He is holy.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

The City in a Mirror: Homily for the Sunday of the Man Born Blind, at the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 13th May 2018




Cast your mind back to the Sunday of Zacchaeus earlier in the year. We all remember the story (Luke 19.1-10); but try to recall the icon of the feast. It showed Zacchaeus up in the sycamore, but with his arms outstretched on the branches for support. The Lord was addressing him from below. The irony was vivid. Here was an image of the Crucifixion in a mirror. It is not the disciple in the tree, but the Lord. He addresses forgiveness and a new life to the disciple not from the ground but from the Cross. The Lord on the Cross does not require the Tree to support Him: He holds it as His tool to support the world while He wins its redemption. He is not raised up on the Cross so much as He raises the world up to gaze on Him as He prepares by death to bring about Resurrection. Christ sees not just one sinner struggling with himself on the boughs; for, by nailing Himself to the Cross-beam of the Tree of life, He struggles with death itself, and in His sight throughout He holds before Him all sinners that would turn their hearts from the decay of sin to God, to living for eternity even here.

The account of St Peter in his chains (Acts 12.1-11) and the miracle for the Man Born Blind (John 9.1-38) are more of the Bible’s stories with mirrors. What has happened to whom, and who is really meant by the stories? Let us go through what we have just heard.
  • The angel shines light into Peter’s cell and tells him, “Get up quickly,” as the chains fall from his wrists. Instantly, Peter is back at that moment when he ran with St John to the Lord’s tomb (John 20.4) and sees where the bright angel has shone light on the abandoned grave-clothes. He sees now, as he saw then. So we know this story is about Peter’s own resurrection from fear, from living with an outlook towards death. “Get up quickly, Peter: Be arisen with the Lord.”
  • The angel tells him, “Fasten your belt and put on your sandals … Wrap your cloak.” To Peter it is a dream; and yet he will be recalling the Lord’s words to him and the other apostles – “Do not take anything for your journey” (Luke 9.3). No more clothes and supplies: no cloak, no sandals (Luke 22.35). Peter is being sent out with different instructions. Peter’s fresh approach is confirmed: Indeed the Kingdom is come now; and nature, creation and humanity make their journey in a new Light.
  • Then the angel says, “Follow me.” Peter begins to wake and is astounded. He is right by the sea of Galilee now, with his brother Andrew and their nets (Matthew 4.18). The first time he heard these words it was, “Leave your nets and follow me, and I will make you fishermen of people.” Then as the years go by, the tone becomes more grave: “If you want to follow me, you must deny yourself, and take up your cross and follow me. What have you won if you gain the world and lose your soul?” (Mark 8.34-36) Such a cross is the loss of captivity and gaining freedom; it is the city’s cold iron gate that opens up and leads within, our liberation beyond destruction into the city of the Kingdom of heaven - not Herod’s old Jerusalem, but the City of God set on a hill that cannot hide its light.

With all these thoughts and words, Peter realised that the Angel liberating him from an earthly imprisonment was none other than Christ Himself, taking him out of darkness into God’s marvellous light (I Peter 2.9), as he himself put it, seeking out what is unclear in this darker realm, and transferring it into the Kingdom of His Son (Colossians 1.13). Here we can see what and who it truly is – our life and resurrection, and our hope. The mystery deepens in the gospel, not to obscure, but to draw us in.
  • The neighbours say to the Man Born Blind that now can see, “Is this not this the man who used to sit and beg?” And he replies, “I am the man.” Now, where have we heard this before? Recall when Jesus says, “I am the Bread of life come down from heaven.” Those who would not follow Him grumbled, “Is this not the man Who is Jesus, son of Joseph, Whose mother and father we know. How can He say this?” We have the same reversal as Zacchaeus in his tree, and Christ signalling the Cross that is to come. Here the Man Born Blind whose heart has been turned into that of a follower, stands in for Jesus. “Look at him,” Jesus says, “and you will see Me. Reject him, how he sees by faith now and not just sight (cf. II Corinthians 5.7), and you reject Me. Dismiss the truth he is telling you, and you will turn truth on its head when it comes to Me.”
  • "It is he,” say the neighbours. We are thrust forward into the hours before the Passion now. Jesus is betrayed and He asks the Temple guards, “Who are you seeking?” They call for Jesus of Nazareth and He replies, “I am He.” We look back and forth between the Man Born Blind and Jesus. What are we being told? The Man Born Blind keeps saying, “I am He.” And we realise all those times we have heard this before. Jesus says to us, “Yes – you are getting it. Keeping joining the pieces together. See Who I am in the pattern of your own humanity, and then you can see who you are in the pattern of my divinity: I am he. I am the Bread of Life and unless you eat Me, you shall have no life within you. I am the Door of the Sheep and, unless by way of Me, no one gets in. I am the Vine and if you branches get yourselves cut off, you are branches of Me no more. I am the way, the truth and the life; unless you come My way, you will not find the path to the Father. I am the resurrection and the life, and you will not find the life you are to live unless you trust and believe Me. I am the light of the world, and you will be walking about in darkness until you follow the light I shine.”
  • And then finally, says the man now seeing, “I am the man.” Christ says, “Look at this – listen! Have ears to hear and eyes to see. This is what is coming: in the pattern of your humanity, I am the pattern for your life in God.” (cf. Galatians 2.20) In the miracle the Man Born Blind says, “I am the man.” So, when the high priest asks  Jesus if He is the Son of the Blessed, He replies, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power” (Mark 14.62). And when He comes out spitefully crowned with thorns and mockingly robed in purple, Pilate says it too: “Behold the man. Ecce homo.” “Are you a king?” he demands. “Just as you say,” says the Lord, “I am.”

The Lord that the Man Born Blind sees before him, he sees in himself. The eyes that are opened see not just a miracle for one person, but the future for humanity entire. Christ asks him, “What do you see; what do you believe? Do you believe in the Son of Man who will be held up to ridicule by Pilate? Do you see the heavens opened, when even the high priest cannot? Do you see the Son of Man – a human being - sitting at the right hand of power and coming with heaven for you, another human being? Do you see that?” The Man Born Blind says, “What? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus says, “You have seen Him already.” The face of the Man Born Blind is confused, as his eyes search for what on earth Jesus can mean. So Jesus plays back the recording of what the Blind Man said himself: “I am He.” The sight is fully revealed, and it is fully revealing. The Man looks at himself, recalls his words, and sees the pattern of heaven cut out in the shape of a human being. “Lord, I believe,” he says. “I trust You. I understand. I see.”

We, who look upon the holy icons and touch as far as Heaven when it kisses us back, understand that we see as we are seen, that the Mother of God and the saints look out upon us from the Kingdom and draw us close within. We see Christ on His Cross at Calvary imagining us into the future Kingdom. We see the Great Angel taking us from captivity into the heart of the freeing mystery of God’s own life. We see ourselves like Zacchaeus representing for a moment the life of the Cross that will save us. We see ourselves as Peter who will be “got up quickly” from the prospect of death to new life in the City of God. And we must see ourselves like the Man Born Blind, who recognised who Christ is, reflected in the pattern of his own humanity, and it dawned on him what he was now remade to be, on the pattern of Christ’s divine life itself. We do not live merely as pilgrims from this life to a better world. How great our joy, however hard our struggle, God sees us realising the pattern He designed for humanity, living and dying and living again such that it mirrors how “the Kingdom has come in the midst of you” (Luke 17.21) and a whole world’s citizenship is that of Heaven. (Philippians 3.20)

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Mother of The Church: Sermon at Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Willesden, Ecumenical Marian Pilgrimage, 5th May, 2018

In a few weeks’ time we shall be keeping for the first time the feast of Mary Mother of the Church. The history behind this new commemoration is significant for those desiring the Church’s unity.

Following Pope Pius XII’s definition of the Assumption as a teaching of the Church necessary for salvation - because it emphasised the sanctity of physical life in the hope of resurrection, in the light of Nazi and Stalinist evils - there was a powerful movement for a further declaration on the role that Mary plays in our redemption. When St John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, numerous bishops promoted the dogmatic definition of Mary as Co-Redeemer and Mediatrix of All Graces. Now, it is true that without Mary’s assent, Christ our Redeemer could never have been born to her, and thus go on to effect our salvation on the Cross. And it is also true that none of us receives the fruits of that sacrifice without co-operating with the grace of God and, as St Paul puts it, working out our own salvation with fear and trembling. So, in that sense, we are all co-redeemers, co-operators with the grace of redemption, bringing about the power of Christ to save us by turning to his love and mercy in repentance, and by seeking the gift of faith to grow ever closer to Him in love and holiness.

And Mary has been called Mediatrix for two reasons. First, not because she is the gate-keeper, but because she is the Gate, who willingly opened for Him to come to us and we to Him. Secondly she is called Mediatrix, because Christ is the sole mediator of our salvation - he alone died and rose again for our sake - and all Mary’s graces come from Him. Thus Mary is mediator of all graces not because she makes or supplies them, but because she is the foremost to pray for them - just as she prayed her Son to give the new wine of the Kingdom at the wedding at Cana in Galilee, and just as she stood at the foot of the Cross to the very end, praying silently before her Son as He worked for the forgiveness and restoration of the whole of humanity. Christ the sole mediator of our salvation; Mary the foremost in the mediation of interceding for us.

Devotion to Our Lady as Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix has deep roots in the Scriptures, in the Fathers, in our spirituality in the western Catholic Church and in our liturgy. For instance, in our Mass every day, we offer the gifts bestowed by God as oblations to the Father in Christ’s communion with the Blessed Virgin and the apostles, martyrs and saints. There is even an optional feast of Our Lady under these titles on May 31st. But to insist on this one particular way of looking at our approach to God - or rather His approach to us – as a teaching of the Church necessary for salvation?

Yet at the Second Vatican Council, the urge to proclaim it gained momentum. But so did a richer way of describing the mystery of the Church as not only the Body of Christ, but also as the faithful People of God established by communion in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Our Lady’s significance came to be understood as the foremost intercessor among the faithful, as the prime example of those who have been redeemed by Christ, as the one who is full of grace from the Spirit of God so that we in turn thanks to her prayers may receive grace upon grace. Therefore, it was decided that there would be no separate declaration about Mary’s role in our salvation at the Council. Instead she is placed within the dogmatic constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, as its crowning section about the Church’s meaning for and about all humanity.

But how to describe her? A declaration of Mary as Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix seemed out of context. The terms were mentioned, but it was clear that the thinking behind them was alien to Protestants, who were respected observers at the Council, and for whom they would cause more questions than explain if used as the main titles, as some had hoped. The Council’s advisers dug into the Church’s tradition and asked, “What about Mary as Type of the Church - she who is typical of the Church and everyone in it?” This too is mentioned, but it was felt to be too technical to be the declared title. Nowadays we might have suggested “Icon of the Church”, but this was not as imaginable in those days as it is today.

Eventually, thoughts turned to the words of Christ to His Mother from the Cross, “Behold your Son”, and to St John, “Behold your mother”. The experts and bishops asked, “What, if we were to describe Mary as Mother - of the Church as one Body of Christ in the household of faith?” The notion won assent, but there were new objections.

[Catholic critics pointed out that the Church already had the Virgin as Patron: Our Lady of Victory. But this description dates from the moment in 1571 when the naval power of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, which had overthrown the Greek Orthodox Eastern Roman Empire, was defeated at Lepanto. The victory prevented the invasion of Italy, the Islamic capture of Rome, and the extension of Islam further into Europe and the Atlantic. Pope Pius V attributed the prevention of western Christendom from suffering the same calamity as the East to the intercession of Our Lady and the Rosary. We still keep the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, or of Our Lady of Victory, for this reason in October 5th. But it did not fit what the Fathers of Vatican II were trying to express concerning the life of the Church as heaven on Earth, and how Mary serves in God’s scheme of all humanity’s salvation. Moreover, it was couched in terms of past history and strife between religions, states and individual persons. Could there not be a more positive account of the Church? Besides, Our Lady as Patron, whether of Victory or the Rosary, is a masculine term. The Council was seeking after a Matron instead: the Mother for our Mother the Church.

Greater anxiety arose from an even more unexpected quarter]: the Eastern Catholics and the Orthodox observers at the Council. They said, “If you speak of Mary as Mother of the Church, you exalt her above the Church, as though she is outside it, as though it came out of her as if she gave birth to it, which is not true. Yet she is not above the Church, as she watches, prays and hopes for it. She is an essential part of it within it. She is nothing if she is not a disciple too - if she is not the first of those to hear the Word, if she is not first among those to be redeemed, if she is not the first to be united with God in Christ.” Furthermore, they explained, numerous times every day in the East in the services, Mary is referred to as Mother of God. The title is crucial is crucial and must stand pre-eminent. It became common currency at the Council of Ephesus in the third century, when it became essential to make it crystal clear that Mary’s human Son was none other than God Himself taking flesh. For if God does not become human, how can His salvation work inside of our human nature; and how can we become one with Him as He said we are to be? So, to the East, Mary’s being Mother refers primarily not to us, but to her Son’s work in our flesh for our sake. For a moment, then, it seemed that the Catholic Church’s relations with Orthodoxy might stand or fall on using this one phrase: Mother of the Church. If Catholics enshrined it at a Council, would it be teaching that the Orthodox and the Eastern Catholics could never express? Was it such a distorted of our shared faith as to be heresy?

Swiftly, however, the text was finalised to declare Mary as Mother of God "within the mystery of Christ and the Church". It shows that Mary is not interceding and standing as Mother above the Church, but within, praying and loving at its heart, for ever serving as a vessel for grace to flow to us from Christ - always the Mother that is the one who gave birth to Him who in turn bestowed her on us as our constant Mother at the foot of the cross that we daily take up in turn, never leaving our side as we follow Him, just as she never left Him.

If you look at the image of the Crucified, you will often see this mystery expressed by the Lord speaking to St John on the left and the Mother of God on the right, and thus founding the first household of faith within which she is Mother too. But Pope Francis has set the feast of her Motherhood in the Church not in Passiontide, but on the Monday in the old octave of Pentecost. If you look at Eastern Church icons, you may understand why. In icons of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, you will invariably see present the Mother of God, often holding forward the protective veil by which her intercession covers the people of God in their needs. You could also bear in mind the western mediƦval image of Our Lady of Mercy, in which the Virgin’s head-veil is capacious enough to extend around all the saints and faithful who shelter beneath it, turning to her for prayers for mercy from God - Who will freely grant then out of such pure exchanges of love for love. Look more closely at how each of these images is set out – Christ lifted on his Cross and the Virgin and St John at its foot either sides; the Mother to St John and the Apostles either side holding out a veil; Our Lady of Mercy extending her veil with her arms around God’s children - and you might see the form of The Dove, His wings outstretched to encompass all those whom He is making holy.

And this is why Pope Francis, I suspect, has chosen the day immediately following Pentecost: Not only because Mary was integral to the fellowship of the apostles when the Holy Spirit brought His power upon the infant Church, but because, overshadowing her from the moment of Christ’s incarnation at the message from archangel Gabriel rendering her full of grace, truly she is filled with Him. And, if she is Mother to the Church, Mother for the Church and Mother in the Church, it is only so because most truly it is from the Holy Spirit that her Motherhood to, for and within the Church has come.

The approaching feast of Our Lady Mother of the Church comes from an idea 50 years ago that unexpectedly caused ecumenical commotion. It drew on reflections by previous popes and even going back to St Ambrose, but always seeing the Mother within the Church, "co-operating with the birth and growth of divine life in the souls of the redeemed" as the first among their number, as Blessed Paul VI confirmed when he declared her Mother of the Church in his Credo of the People of God a few years after the Lumen Gentium in 1968. Thus, there was to be no proclamation of a dogma that could divide us further, but there was a steep learning curve that taught the Catholic Church to be precise about how it teaches about our redemption in Christ, what we mean by our faith in the sacrifice of the Eucharist, the mediation of Christ and the intense intercession of the Virgin for Christ’s people in union with her Son. But it also enabled a profound realisation that everything that we love about Mary - and turn to her for - comes from none other than Christ as the gift of the Holy Spirit – the Spirit Who would fill us as He filled her, Who leads us into all truth as she in turn leads us to do Whatever He tells us to, the Spirit Who is placed within every prophet of God, just as she is placed in the Household of Faith as its Mother. 


And when our unity in that Household comes, because it is the only one that Christ ever founded for us, it will be at the intercession of its Mother filled with same Holy Spirit Who alone was with Christ in the night of His agony, when He prayed, “Father, may they all be one as you and I are one.”

Mary, Our Lady of Mercy, Mother of God and Mother of the Church, pray that we may all be one as the Father and the Son are one, in the Holy Spirit – “that the world may believe.”

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Second Bethlehem: Homily for the Sunday of Thomas, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 15th April 2018


It used to be said that everyone could remember where they were when they heard that Senator Robert Kennedy had been shot. I vividly recall how it stunned my family at home near the sea in Lancashire, coming a mere five years after the killing of his brother, President John Kennedy. I was eight, and I remember how deep the adults’ grief was, that the chance of having back again their hope and optimism with a second, youthful and dynamic President Kennedy had been dashed all over again. It was all so affecting that I went to write it down: “Senator Robert Kennedy has been assassinated.”  At least, I intended to, but I gave up because I did not whether Senator began with an S or a C.

I wonder where St Thomas was when he heard the news of the Lord’s resurrection. We know that all the disciples apart from His Mother and St John had run away from His passion and death, Thomas among them. They will not have known that from His Cross the Lord founded a second Bethlehem, in which John - the last man standing, as it were - was told to take Mary into his own house and give her a home as her own son, and that Mary was told to be the Mother-of-God to this new household of faith as she had been at Nazareth. She who had taken refuge in a stable to give birth because there was no room at the inn, for a second time has no place until she is taken in by a new family to a new house. It is to this home of his that John outruns Peter from the Emptied Tomb, to bring news that the Lord is risen. And surely the first to hear must be his newly appointed Mother.

Thomas comes to this new stable for faith, this new Bethlehem, late. It is not so much that he disbelieves or doubts the others; he wants to believe not on other people’s account, but for himself. He wants to participate in what they have witnessed direct. So he who withheld belief is made to wait. He believes enough still to be with the other disciples, when there is no guarantee that the Risen Lord will ever come again. Yet on the eighth day the faithful and the waiting are all confirmed. Perhaps the room in which they have been gathering behind locked doors is in the home of John and the Mother of God – after all, no other house is the scene of events by this stage in the Gospel (John 20.19-31). If so, then it would be that, once again, the Mother of God makes a home for the coming of the Lord, Jesus Christ, in the flesh. The first time was in the Cave-Stable at Bethlehem; the second from out of the Cave-Tomb into the first household of the Church in Jerusalem.

This double impact of the coming of God-with-Us, at His birth and then His resurrection out of death, strikes every time we celebrate the Eucharist. Why is it - you may ask - that at the Divine Liturgy, after the invocation of the Holy Spirit and the consecration of the Gifts of Bread and Wine that makes them into the Body and Blood of Christ, we offer incense during the hymn that blesses the Mother of God? But we are not diverting attention to Mary away from Christ: we are concentrating all our attention on a new manifestation of the Incarnation of our Saviour in the Body and the Blood. “It is truly right to bless you, Mother of God,” we sing, because “you have given birth to God the Word”, and this God the Word is on the altar; and we offer praises and incense at His presence as once the angels sang and the Wise Men, like we still do, offered frankincense and myrrh in vessels of gold.  Throughout the season of Pascha in our Divine Liturgy, we sing a new song, that takes us with Mary from the stable-cave in the first Bethlehem to the grave from which the Lord has burst forth in the flesh that was crucified to a new birth. But the song goes even further, for, as the Mother of God and as mother to the whole household of faith, she rejoices at the prospect of the resurrection of us all. “The angel cried out,” we sing, “Rejoice! Your Son has risen from the tomb and raised the dead. Now let all people rejoice! Shine, shine, Jerusalem! – for the glory of the Lord” - the glory that once overshadowed Mary at the annunciation of Emmanuel-  “has risen upon you!” Thus the Mother of God takes delight in the Resurrection of her Son, because His presence in the fesh, the presence made known in the Breaking of the Bread which we worship at every Liturgy, is the Resurrection of John, of Peter, of Thomas, of all the other apostles and disciples from Mary Magdalene to every single one of you here today.

But now let us go even deeper into the mystery that Thomas touched and touched him back. Earlier in the Liturgy are two prayers that it is very easy to miss. These are the prayers after the Litanies said with the catechumens present, the prayers of the Small Litanies after their dismissal, before the Eucharistic Mystery can be revealed in the communion of the faithful. The first prayer describes a new attitude to being at the Altar. We have already been standing there to offer prayers; but now we stand there to bring the supplication of the great sacrifice for the sake of the people. It asks the Holy Spirit that the priests will be beyond reproach and pure, “without stumbling”. This strongly reminds us of psalm 120, which begins, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence comes my help; my help comes from the Lord, Who made heaven and earth.” From this inspiring vista, it continues: “Behold, He that watches over Israel … will not allow your feet to stumble.” St Paul echoes this thinking when he describes those who cannot understand that the Cross is the instrument of God’s glory and victory, rather than a comprehensive defeat at the hands of death. He calls them scandalised by the Cross. A scandal in Greek is not a notorious subject of gossip, but simply an obstacle that we trip over, a stumbling-block that brings us face down to the earth so that we cannot see up. Paul had had this very experience of being blind to Christ that reached its crisis point on the road to Damascus, when he was arrested by his vision of the risen Christ. So this one prayer not to stumble, in sin or in faith, takes us right up to the altar of the Cross – but preserves us from blindness to the glory of what is achieved there by Christ’s sacrifice and to the Shining of the New Jerusalem that we live in because of Christ’s presence, victorious over the grave.

The second prayer asks that we be permitted to stand uncondemned before the Altar, to grow in spiritual living, and to be worthy of the Kingdom. The contrast between stumbling, of tripping over the Cross and falling to our faces so that we cannot see up to God’s purpose and mercy, and then standing up with Christ in the resurrection does not mark some kind of dramatic difference, but the natural progression of the new creation led by the hand of grace. We are held up from stumbling; we are uncondemned because of the goodness and worthiness of Christ the spotless Lamb; we are made to be able to stand as Christ stood up in abundant new life after being laid low by defunct old death; and at last we are now led into the Kingdom.

Imagine that this is the journey of Thomas on that first eighth day after the Resurrection. From not seeing the Risen Lord for himself, he grasps what the Lord has said cannot be held onto because it must take us beyond this life to that of the Father. (He had said to Mary Magdalen, “Do not hold me, for I must ascend to the Father”: he did not say, “Do not grasp hold of what will take you to the Father following after me.” And so these centuries of “eighth days” later, we do the same. We remember exactly where we were when he heard the news of Christ’s resurrection, for we hear it every single Sunday we are in Church. Here we are about to place our hands in the wounds and side of the Lord, as he places his precious Body and Blood into the very depths of our souls. We who would touch and hold on to Christ, are touched and held by Him. Blessed John Henry Newman said, “I am a Catholic by virtue of my believing in a God, and if I asked why I believe in a God, I answer that it is because I believe in myself, for I feel it impossible to believe in my own existence …  without believing in the existence of Him, who lives as Personal, All-seeing, All-judging Being in my conscience.” (Apologia 198) Neither Thomas nor Mary believed in an idea or a theory, or an article of religion. They believed in a person. Was He risen from the dead or not; did they trust Him, or did they not? Everything about them, and everything about living their lives and the universe, proceeds from the one-word answer to those two questions. They believed in a person whose life, death and resurrection had entered into every corner of their very existence. Remember where you were, and where you stand, when you believed that Christ risen from the dead is not risen in a room in a house 2000 years ago, but the One who is the life rising in you, the person in your person, the sight in your sight, the conscience in your conscience, the being in your being. Therefore everything follows from this:

Christ is risen: Hristos voskres: Christos aneste.

Monday, 12 March 2018

When the Wood is Dry: Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent and the Veneration of the Cross, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 11th March 2018

All over the country, you see numerous large woods and forests. Not all of these are the ancient woodlands you would think they are. After the First World War, Britain had only 5% of its forest cover left. It had all been burned for fuel, or used for industry, trade and war. During the Second World War, replanting efforts took a an even greater hit, when the forest cover was cut by a third: wood was urgently needed for fuel, industry, paper, munitions, rifle butts, repairs and construction, and for any other effort needed to prevail over the Nazis of Germany. The replanting of land with trees had began in 1919 with the foundation of the Forestry Commission and, a century later, it is the country’s largest landholder. Forest cover now reaches 10% of the land, with ambitions for even more. It is worth pausing to thing that, while many of us, especially in towns and cities, look upon trees as part of our green lung, purifying the air and enhancing the environment and the enjoyment of the natural world, for much of the last 300 years, trees’ great purpose has been to be destroyed – cut down for fuel, for shipbuilding, construction, defences, and to forge and make the weapons of war.

This thought of the industrial death of the tree, rendered unforgettable in The Lord of the Rings, where Tolkien celebrates an uprising by the trees of the forest against Saruman, the wizard who has turned all his power for good to evil, burning the wood for forging ploughshares into swords, takes us back to the time a little before Our Lord was born, when there was an uprising against Roman rule in Galilee. The Romans defeated the rebels and crucified two thousands of them along the four-mile road between Sepphoris and Nazareth. The carpenters of both towns would have been forced to make the crosses, exposing great tracts of woodland to infertility, as the moisture was dried out of the earth. At least a generation of young men was lost, echoing the account in St Matthew’s gospel of the slaughter of the innocents of Bethlehem a few years later. The memory of the devastation of the population must have been vivid in the home and community in which Jesus grew up, and He was well aware of the use to which wood was put. I often think that this atrocity, when so many mothers’ sons were slain, lay behind His lament to the daughters of Jerusalem, after He is led away - found to be innocent but nonetheless condemned - from Pilate’s court, when He says,
Do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women…’ For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry? (Luke 23. 28-29, 31)
The Lord, of course, handled wood from trees every day of His youth. We usually think of Saint Joseph, His fatherly guardian as a carpenter. But in the Gospel, he is described as a tekton. The word is close to words we use to this day in English – e.g. architect, protect. It means someone who makes a roof; or puts a roof over your head. In other words, it is someone who constructs a building – a house, a store, a temple. Wood was Christ’s raw material, the everyday tool of the trade in which He was trained by Joseph. Nothing could be more solid and concrete in their practical, daily living: wood in life and death was literally a hard reality.

Here, then, are three contrasting purposes. First, the glory of the living and breathing green creation; secondly, the destruction for fuelling industry, economy and even the bellicose visitation of death; and third the construction of household, of the family home, of human community and of sacred space for the dwelling of the Spirit to bring “God with us” close. In Jesus’ life, memory, faith, vision, and destiny, all three purposes meet their converging point. A tree, that once lived, bore leaves and fruited seed, has the sap rising in it turned back to the earth, as it is called into a purpose it can only serve if it is dead. This is “what will happen when the tree is dry.” Then, two dead wooden beams assault with violence the living Person Who created them. They hold Him distorted into their shape, not His, a shape that has been given to them against their nature. They convey their own destruction to Him, and draw Him into their death. And yet, from this hell-invented parody of a tree, bringing back all that collective memory of the mass execution on the road outside the town where He had grown up, Jesus pulls to Him the wood of the trade He learned at the side of His adoring foster-father. Holding it by the nails in His hands, once more the carpenter builds a house. Again He creates the house for a holy family, like the first at Nazareth. Now He constructs the first new household of faith, as He says to St John, “Behold your mother” and, to the Theotokos, “Mother, behold your son.” For from that moment, the beloved disciple took the Mother of God to his own house and made it a home for them both. Before their eyes, they were seeing Christ’s work of redemption taking place in His Passion; and in three days from the household spiritually crafted from the wood of the Cross, St John would outrun St Peter to the Tomb to find it empty – and then run back to declare to the Lord’s Mother the first good news of His resurrection.

In our Liturgy today, we sing, “To Your Cross, O Master, we bow in veneration.” This is because our faith, the faith that comes directly to us from the first household of faith in Christ’s Passion that dawned on Mary and John at the foot of the Cross, is not in the power of an instrument of death, but in the means of shaping a new creation for our humanity. Thus we go on to sing, “and we glorify Your resurrection!” For, just as the beams of a disfigured tree imparted death onto the Creator, so the Creator, in the act of nailing together the first pieces of His new household of faith, gives back life to the hard and dried up wood. The great hymn of Venantius Fortunatus, from the sixth century, which will be sung from next weekend in the Latin Church until Good Friday, has it exactly:

Bend thy boughs, O Tree of Glory!
Thy relaxing sinews bend;
For a while the ancient rigour
That thy birth bestowed, suspend;
And the King of heavenly beauty
On thy bosom gently tend.
Faithful Cross! Above all other,
One and only noble Tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit they peer may be;
Sweetest Wood, and Sweetest Iron –
Sweetest Weight is hung on thee.
We, in our way in the Christian East, join them and add this:
By Your Cross, You destroyed death; You opened Paradise to the thief; You changed the lamentation of the myrrh-bearers to joy and You charged the apostles to proclaim that You are risen. (Troparion of Sunday, Tone 7)
When the Lord tells us, then, in today’s Gospel (Mark 8.34-9.1), “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me”, bear in mind that He is remembering the terrible events that coloured the whole of His upbringing in the community of His home town, Nazareth, and the terrible cost that is risked when justice, goodness and faith in God and His Kingdom is prized above even life and family. He is also mindful that towards a Cross is the inevitable course that His own words and ministry will take Him. Yet when He says, “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it,” and follows it by saying, “Whoever loses their life for Me, will save it,” He is not holding out for us the prospect of defeat and a dead-end sacrifice, but the inevitable consequence of crucifying our God endowed with the skills of a builder: we are being offered not only a new household for our faith and those who believe it, but the construction work of a Kingdom from God, now come with power. (Mark 9.1).

And so we sing, “The tree of the Cross … has quenched the flaming sward [that] no longer bars the gate to Eden. The sting of death banished, You, O my Saviour, have come out and called…. ‘Return again – to Paradise!’” (Kontakion of the Triodion, Tone 7).

With Jesus to His Passion and Cross, and with Mary Magdalen, Peter and John to His Resurrection, “Arise, let us be going!” (Mark 14.42; John 20.3-4)

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Lawrence Gray RIP: Address at the Funeral Service, St Wilfrid, Halton, Leeds, on 26th February 2018

Lawrence Gray has been my friend since 1984. “Lawrence” was what his wife, Maureen, called him when he had overstepped her mark. But he was unmistakably himself to us, always the person, the character, that he was: Laurie.

When I was first ordained in Leeds, it was Laurie and Maureen who took me under their wing, made sure I was never lonely as I started out, fed me, and gave me four years of laughter, joy, friendship - and a regard and understanding that I never deserved, but which held me up in good times and bad. I have never been worthy of the welcome I had into that family, and their encouragement then has lived with me to this day. Laurie had been a gifted footballer with a promising career ahead, which he gave up to marry Maureen and raise their large family. He is the hardest worker I ever met; and his dedication to the task in hand, and to what he felt mattered for people, inspired the same in others. He had no respect for those who didn’t measure up, and if you were out of favour, you were out until you proved yourself again. Then you were back in – just!

But he was patient of human nature, too, and understood you had to make your way by trial and error and there was no shame in it, just a determination to win through. And so, if you liked and respected him for who he was, he liked you back. The highest accolade was a torrent of mockery and humour at your expense. A mere “Thank you very much, that was lovely” to Maureen, for yet another huge and delicious meal of Yorkshires, roast potatoes, mashed potatoes, swede, carrots, cabbage, cauliflower and beef, followed by the guilty pleasure of a Viennetta, was shot straight down with, “You soft-soaping Lancashire bxxxxr, Father.” Or, quoting Billy Connolly, “Another custard cream, Father?”

After work in the Leeds metal and engineering industry (I think it was electroplating and that it badly affected his health and eyesight), Laurie was a much loved conductor on the Leeds buses, always ready with a laugh on the No 2 from the Corn Exchange to Belle Isle and Middleton, I think it was. He would do anything for you; and, as was always the Leeds way, everyone was “love”. When the conductors were phased out, the company was keen to keep him on, and they tried to train him as a driver; but a mix of poor eyesight and not feeling confident it was right for him meant in the end that he took on the management of the uniform stores. When he retired, he gave me his stout leather driver-conductor’s lockable float-and-ticket machine bag, which I still use regularly.

It was at Church that the Laurie I knew was his truest self. He was hugely proud that his eldest son, Paul, was a chorister at Leeds Parish Church; and his own devout churchgoing was serious, devout, loyal, and unstinting. Our Church, St Wilfrid’s, Halton, was (and is) a lively and mixed “village” church in the midst of east Leeds, set on the rise of Selby Road, a “city set on a hill” serving the remains of the old hamlet near the great Temple Newsam House, the post-war owner-occupier houses, the interwar suburban houses and bungalows, the long terrace of Victorian town houses on the ridge, where Laurie and Maureen lived, as did I, and the Halton Moor council housing estate. This was “The Parish that Came Alive” under the visionary Ernie Southcott, an energetic laboratory for his take on the “Parish Communion Movement” of pastoral liturgy that placed the Eucharist at the heart of the life and activity of the parish’s people and their homes. But it was under the steady hand and more traditional approach of Canon Kenneth Stapleton that Laurie drank deep of the Faith, and raised his family in the heart and life of the Church. Laurie on Sunday was no different from any other day, except intense and focused at Church, where he served on the altar, when he was not a sidesman or warden. He used to tell me that it meant everything that there was Christ on the altar, then the priest, then him, then the people in a clear line of connection at communion “without a doubt” (as he would say), no one in Church more than three steps from heaven itself.

What a faith! It took him all through the week, though he never wore a religious heart on his sleeve: “I am not a Christian,” he would say. “One day, perhaps, I can hold myself up and say so, without it all being a facade.” He knew himself. He knew about the falling-outs and the arguments. No pretence, his humour and expressions were so gloriously ripe (though I do not ever remember him swearing - people didn’t much then anyway – at least, I don’t remember him swearing in front of me!). He didn’t suffer fools gladly and could tell you unmistakably why; and if he had been hurt, he could keep a grudge on principle for years. This was a man of complete personal rectitude and integrity, driven to overcome his own odds, yet wise and accepting of others who struggled. He gave himself with without reserve because of love for his family. And because he understood himself, he was compassionate about other people’s needs and shortcomings, the problems they found themselves in and the needs they had to be loved regardless - even if that sometimes meant the hurt of having to leave them be.

Sadly, in later years, changes in Church life and worship left him estranged, and that is a shame; but the belonging in which he had been formed did not leave him: they remained deep within his heart, still sustained through close family bonds, and by friends and neighbours too. These things do not go far away; and nor do we, in God who is understanding of us always.

At the very centre of his service at St Wilfrid’s, something he loved deeply, were young people. He was completely committed to the Scout movement, and took it as seriously as serving in Church. Teaching, leading, inspiring young lads was in his bones, and they loved him for it, because they could see he was giving them everything of himself. He could be stern and demanding, and how they would moan; but it only increased your assurance. You would not want to cross him - not because of his wrath, but because no one would want to disappoint him. He had your back, and young people had no better protector. The walks, the canoes, the camps in the Lakes, the fell-walking with Wainwright and the treks in the Dales: it was unforgettable. He had everything covered and he opened up new worlds and possibilities to anyone willing to go along with him, to learn and play their part too. I also think that up in the dales and fells he felt the awe and wonder giving their dimension to his soul: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help,” resonated with him. He didn’t say much about these things, but that spoke volumes.

The sheer determination that carried him through life was nowhere better seen than in his unstoppable drive to build a dedicated new scout and guides hut - Laurie was the relentless fund-raiser and the builder too. He charmed the rich, and won the confidence of those with much less that it would all happen and it was worth their unstinting contribution too. It was all on, and no one could fail to be involved. He even got me, of all people, to be the Group Scout Leader, so that he had all the official backing he needed to see it through. And he did.

These recollections are from long ago; but it has been so good to have been in touch all the years since, and continually find that the friendship was always the same, always such a laugh even when life took some hard turns, and always in the midst of the amazing Gray family. He drove them up the wall, and he loved doing it; but they gave us good as they got and loved him all the more back

There are many people with state honours who have not done a fraction of what Laurie did from his heart for young people. It is my deep belief that now he has the greatest honour of all: he knew his own shortcomings well, but now he possesses freedom from them – from everything that holds human beings back in this life from being all they could have been, and from the gift of his heart’s desire: the knowledge at last that he can call himself what his beloved mentor, Canon Stapleton, assured him he would be: a Christian.

Laurie, your journeys here included the No 2 bus to the Corn Exchange and the parish trips with the scouts to climb Ben Lomond. Everywhere you went in your imagination and wonder at creation is now your true homeland. Once you knew you were no more than three steps away from Christ on his altar. Now there are no more steps and He has you to His side. Well done, good and faithful Laurie: you got there, by God's grace. Now may you rest in peace.