Measure twice, cut once…

That title is a very good rule for anyone doing carpentry or sewing- but I want to try and apply it to the way I listen.

It might not be apparent in these reflective writings, that I am not always the best listener. I HEAR very well – I am, no doubt, terribly quick on the uptake, good at reading between the lines, and astute when it comes to interpreting the unspoken. But I am also often rather too quick to respond.

Kind people who have told me this throughout the years have described me as  ‘enthusiastic’, ‘keen’ or even ‘Tigger-like’. Unkind ones warned me in my youth , when I was forever being told off for answering back, ‘Be careful, you’re so sharp you’ll cut yourself’. Most recently it was ‘bubbly’… by which I think my bishop meant ‘effervescent’ rather than the giggly blonde partygoer image it conjures in my own head.

Either way I struggle with the recurring failure that I communicate too hastily – it is (except in a crisis) no good to hear and comprehend instantly, if the person who is speaking doesn’t FEEL that they have been heard.

I often find myself having a pastoral conversation that goes something like this:

‘Jemma, d’you mind if I talk to you about soandso’

Me: ‘Not at all… what is it?’

‘Well I’m worried about… (insert anxiety here at some length)’

Me, understanding where they are coming from and eager to allay fears’ Oh. Well do you think… ?(insert helpful and enlightening theological  comment here)’

‘You see I’m worried about (repeat anxiety here, at similar length)’

Me: ‘Yes, I understand you’re worried about (paraphrase anxiety), do you think perhaps (rephrase helpful notion in the form of an anecdote)…?’

(blankly, and with concealed irritation) ‘What’s that?’

Me: ‘Do you think that if you’re worried about …(neatly paraphrased anxiety) that…(quick reiteration of supportive concept that I have found helpful in a similar circumstance)?’

(Pretty much politely ignoring me as talking a foreign language) ‘Oh, I don’t know about that- only I am so worried about… (repeats anxiety, but in brief this time for vicar who is clearly foreign and having trouble understanding)’

Me: (beginning to think I must have misunderstood completely) ‘Do you mean that you are worried about… (reiterates anxiety at similar length almost word for word as the first time I heard it)?’

‘YES! (With visible relief now, despite no change) I am very worried about that. I suppose I ought to… (paraphrases all my previous advice in one common-sense phrase)

Me: (Finally realising they  perhaps didn’t need me to say ANYTHING except to let them know that I heard their worry) ‘Oh well it sounds to me like you’re approaching it in the right way, I wouldn’t worry any further’

‘No, that’s probably true.’

I would like to learn to skip my first two or three attempts to respond helpfully and go straight to the part where I make it reassuringly clear to the speaker that they have well and truly been heard.

Pray for me!




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The Body of Christ

Today is the feast day of ‘Corpus Christi’ – when many parts of the Church across the world will give thanks for Christ’s Institution of Holy Communion, and all that it means and has meant over time for the Church.

‘The Body of Christ’ – those words I speak as I pass a piece of the broken host bread to eat communicant at the rail or around the altar. ‘The Body of Christ’ – I hear each time I receive that precious bread from the hands of another priest.

The Body of Christ – both the bread as commanded by the Lord, and the persons sharing it – taking, blessing, breaking, giving, receiving – an exchange blessed by God – painful in its inadequacy, a tiny, faint foreshadowing – even at the most glorious High Mass- of that feast at the end of days- when all are safely gathered in.

Painful in its minuteness – like a butterfly’s wing in place of all creation – and painful in its accuracy and appropriateness – as the broken body of Christ is received by the broken body of Christ’s Church. As the blessed and broken and oh so precious fragments are received into the bodies and hearts of a blessed and broken and precious people.

Perhaps I am greedy for God or perhaps the weight of broken fragments of millennia rest too heavily upon my heart as a priest of this generation, but I never receive communion without a sense of unfulfilled longing. And I too am a penitent sinner so I carry also a conflicted desire both to stay, like Mary, and receive more- and also like Judas, to take the bread, and up and away in haste, and be about the World’s business.

But I am indeed grateful for the institution of the Lord’s supper – grateful beyond words- that here at last, of God on earth there is something weird and tangible – a true memorial- both as transient as a passing breeze and as endless as the tide – a physical message of a hope beyond all telling, medicine for the life that ails us all – and an unseen exchange whereby the bride in faithful obedience sets a table for the Lord of life, and endlessly invites the world to dine.

God is Spirit- and to worship we must worship in Spirit and in Truth – but Christ is also fully human – solid and suffering, drawn together of the same clay as his creation-and all too often our faith becomes cerebral merely…a thought experiment that does not turn our hearts or hands to ventures in Christ’s name. In the Eucharist, in this bread and this cup we are reminded that our faith is also tangible – unavoidably shared– and that with those whom GOD is calling, not with our chosen dinner guests – and it is also a foolish statement in the eyes of the world: again and again to gather, bless and break bread- But it is by this act that followers of Christ are most often known to one another- not only when we gather in church- but when we gather elsewhere to bless and break and share bread… the many unplanned sacraments of a thoughtful life shared with and physically caring for others.

But still I always leave the holy meal unsatisfied… and I think that is right – except for those who know they are dying, for whom comfort and consolation in the sacrament are a practical foretaste of the banquet at which they shall next dine in glory… except for them… this is a meal on the run.

We dine dressed for travel – we dine because we are called, and when we are dismissed it is not to rest and hunger no more but it is to love and serve the Lord. We are still wayfarers here… those who eat in public, beside the path, and then keep moving on. It is important as we travel daily, to remember that and to be bold in sharing our bread – spiritual and physical- with others who travel life’s road beside us.

So I still leave each Eucharist encouraged, but unsatisfied… pepped up but not settled. And we will not be settled, until we eat together with the Lord.

I heard a wonderful line today- in the midst of a moving funeral address actually- Tony was a wine lover and used to travel all the way across France to taste directly at the vineyards themselves- and he used to say ” You’ve never really tasted a wine, until you’ve tasted it gazing into the eyes of its maker”

” You’ve never really tasted a wine – until you’ve tasted it gazing into the eyes of its Maker”.

I can’t wait for that day.


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Love poem

I bloody love you God.

Through thick and thin

You have been there


I can remember

Running across the playground from the fists of bullies with their turned up faces of anguish and all clawing nails

Wandering across the slope of the world and singing and then all the trees sang too

and then I knew that I was really not alone.

I looked for you in books… in Enid Blyton! And in garden ponds behind the twist of a snail’s shell and in the dew that goes early away.

I flew on the wings of the morning and over the hoar frost like ashes scattered across the lawn and decided to dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea and be an explorer.

And then I stopped looking and starting shouting.

Running across the playground face turned up in anguish and all clawing nails

‘I bloody love you God… Where have you gone?’

And then I saw you wandering across the slope of the world surrounded by the fists of bullies with their turned up faces of anguish and all clawing nails. You were not my hero and I was not your heroine.

And then I stopped shouting.

Because they were shouting.

But you did not open your mouth… you just looked at me God. You just bloody looked at me and I knew.


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Pigeon poo and planning

I keep dreaming about pigeon poo – since Tuesday when I had to go into a closed church in the parish and meet with some people who might be keen on buying the organ there… although it was locked against human beings, the pigeons had found themselves a home, in every space between the rooftiles and the wooden ceiling… they are messy and very careless… pigeon poo, broken twigs from fallen nests, and the odd dehydrated young pigeon corpse lay sadly littered across empty pews.

I didn’t really feel that sad as it had not been a place I had known as ‘open’, only as a closed church, and only in this state. Huge, theatrical spiderswebs hung from the ceiling, and the morning sun shone gently through filthy stained-glass windows and onto stained flower-vases, creased hymn books, and boxes of unsold jumble-sale bric-a-brac.

The detritus of Anglican religion?

I work each day in a huge, cold, bright space: the Minster Church of St Nicholas. Gutted completely by fire-bombs in World War II, the rebuilt shell now stands bright and airy on the shore of the East Coast, much like a gorgeously smooth and clean seashell… with the remnants of age and mathematical planning about its structure, but mostly an uplifting simplicity, free of adornment.

Stuff… we have so much of it, and sometimes it is useful… but we just don’t share it around, so that when we think we need stuff, we have to get our own- and then when we stop using it, it goes to rack and ruin, like that church, and like that organ will if it’s not sold.

I’ve never been good with presents… people still get me the odd Christmas and birthday present: less and less  thank goodness – they’ve realised I really can’t do a believable pretend ‘thank you’ – and that if my family can’t eat it, or I don’t need one and haven’t asked for it, then I probably don’t want it just because they feel it’s supposed to be gift-giving time. But I LOVE gifts when they are given at the right moment and not out of ‘duty’… what I mean is this: A lovely lady I know sent me a teatowel for no particular reason- I was immensely pleased, because it was unexpected, it reminded me of her, and it was useful. Someone else once handed me a book that they had told me I should read – that was kind and useful. An old couple once gave me a VERY old bicycle so I could cycle to rehearsals – that was really kind and useful… if a little rickety. I in my turn have given boots, babyclothes, books, glasses… things that I had and didn’t really need, and that other people had expressed a need for… I hope they were useful and welcome and, with one or two occasional exceptions, I haven’t missed them at all.

I do hope that the things that the church has, and doesn’t need, get given to those who need them, and that those things that the church needs and doesn’t have – will be given to the church to use for the people.

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Mercy Marathon

Some folks have written about prayer as being spiritual training; and about  formation as being spiritual training… akin to athletic training it must go on and on regularly, day after day, week after week, year after year… in order not to get spiritually flaccid.

But I think the hardest part of the priestly training is the mercy marathon that you have to prepare your heart for.

What I mean is this… many priests have high personal standards (are finicky perfectionists) but God does not call us to be finicky perfectionists who inflict that on other people… it is MERCY he desires not sacrifice.

So part of the ongoing training of every priest is to keep stretching your heart, so that it doesn’t go hard around the edges and get judgemental and finicky, unforgiving and unmerciful… all of which are habits that it could fall into whilst we are seriously trying to live holy lives (no really, don’t laugh!)

So on and on, God reveals to us situations where judgements must be made but made with mercy, and generous hearts… where forgiveness must be ever on our minds and the opportunities for repentance always held out with an open hand…

Come to think about it, there’s something to that image… a heart overflowing, and hands held out open, whilst all the while ready to forgive… I suppose realistically it’s a long walk up a steep hill rather than a marathon run.


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Non-religious Society

An article by published yesterday on the Huffingtonpost by Andrew Copson . Comments that it’s about time Britain accepted that it’s no longer a Christian country.

And I’ve begun to think he’s probably right. Not especially because he quotes a figure of 95% of people NOT going to church every Sunday (I’m amazed and delighted that 5% of people apparently DO go every Sunday – Wow) that figure is a bit misrepresentative though when you’re trying to say how religious a person is- if they are completely honest (and one would hope that a self-identifying Christian would TRY to be) then very few practising Christians make it to church every Sunday – some are midweekers, others go once or twice a month; and many people consider themselves ‘practising’ if they go at Easter and Christmas without fail…

But forget that Sunday figure. Look instead at the deconstruction of the welfare state. Look at the aggressive focus in education on maths and English, at the sacrifice of arts subjects; and look at the endless and exhausting monitoring of children and prediction of probable ‘outcomes’ based on standardised markers…!

Look at the withdrawal of government support for the NHS, the withdrawal of vital support services and benefits, and look at the continued appalling misuse of public expenses by public representatives…

Look at zero-hours contracts and work-to-rule public servants in some areas, the forgetfulness of ‘service’ and self-sacrifice in many spheres of life, and look at the continuing cult of celebrity.

Look at the undermining of the human rights act in this country, the reduction in freedom of speech and new limitations on public assembly.

None of those things are Christian. So I’d have to agree that this no longer feels like a Christian Society.

But I’d go further. I’d say that it no longer feels like a Society at all – social cohesion now seems to rely upon factors as fragile as a shared response to a photograph or a quotable remark that you can get behind.

These are sheep without a shepherd – and the trouble is that a Star trek style Utopia has yet to emerge in which humanoid life forms appreciate one another for their wondrous diversity… (by the way a great deal of time was spent in that Utopia trying to understand and appreciate other cultures’ sincere beliefs, NOT trying to reason them away with unmediated and effectively dehumanised data).

Now I believe there is no greater Humanist than the God who became incarnate and faced complete humility out of love, and that with good theology, there is nothing better to replace Christianity as Britain’s root of social cohesion… because there is no other Truth that saves.

But it may be that Andrew Copson, like many other writers, does not realise that this Country does not PAY for its faith or SERVE it’s faith… it is quite the contrary. And I’m looking forward to being MORE OBVIOUSLY a controversial minority… I’ve often wondered how the vast numbers of people who worship Christ as the Son of God crucified and resurrected, get away with holding charity bake sales and knitting premature baby clothes and volunteering at homeless shelters out of love for Christ, and manage to pretend there’s nothing peculiar about their life’s defining relationship.

It is odd. Or should I say (and please forgive me Lord, I seek to provoke) God is comparatively odd… compared to us, who want to standardise and economise and regulate and justify ourselves with outcomes and outputs and efficiency, striving to work our way back from the mad joy and diversity of creation towards a grey comprehensible median of existence… and are on our way to a homogenous hell in a handbasket. We are in a vast normalising society that is striving and failing to reach an agreement on accepted and necessary behaviours that simultaneously encompass a breadth of human existence so wide that at any given time 95% of people will most certainly be living outside of some accepted limits… I pray that the 5% within ‘normal perameters’ are NOT the 5% in church on a Sunday.

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Hope Incarnate

I can’t really write about other people specifically.

It’s a kind of code I have, part instinctive and part logical.

People are sacred, and their lives are sacred, and just as I wouldn’t publish a photo of them online or draw them without their permission, so I wouldn’t write about them. But I want to write about how a person looked like Hope to me tonight. Though even as I do, I pray that God will protect him and keep him from the path of self-destruction and give HIM hope and a way ahead.

Two weeks ago I was on my way home from church, through the churchyard, when I saw him. I think I had seen him the night before, but in the dark it had just looked like binbags under a tree. Now I could see his boots.

Other people had seen him- they’d treated his prone heap like a kind of shrine- leaving a little handful of small change; a packet of rich-tea-biscuits; a full mug of coffee; a packet of sandwiches… all a couple of feet away, in a ring. All untouched.

That was what worried me most, we have rough-sleepers, but all of the things around him were untouched and the wind was cold and the rain horizontal.

I probably should have just phoned 999. It took me 15 minutes to rouse him… I spent several hours with him in  A&E waiting… where he did not want to be, and eventually when he was seen I had to leave and go home to my family. And I felt guilty. Guilty for disturbing him when he probably wanted to slip off this mortal coil. Guilty for making him go in the ambulance. Guilty for seeing him in that state. Guilty for shepherding him like a tree about to fall, in and out of the other A&E people, as he asked for a cigarette and then nearly threw up. And guilty for leaving him after 4 hours, in the care of professionals.

My husband rounded up his sodden belongings and put them through the washer and dryer at the laundrette; and then took them back to A&E.

Two weeks later, the candles are lit inside the Minster as we prepare for evensong, the Advent Sequence, and I, like a spoilt child am all upset that I was supposed to sing the role of cantor but the choir master hasn’t spoken to the clergy and now is set to do it… and he did it well… apart from the prayer… anyway, grumpy priest has had her candle snuffed… But as we prepare there is a stranger waiting for the service… With the ominous presence of a bailiff or an angel. I pass by. And then I look back – it is really his coat I recognise, I spent so long with my hand on it then, keeping his balance, and something around his eyes… We look at each other and only as I walk further do I realise for certain… it is him and he is tall and clean and alive!

I don’t know that I would have been more surprised to see Jesus himself. Though to be frank, at certain moments, a lot of people look to me like Jesus.

I didn’t go and speak to him, because what would I say. I am stunned. I will keep praying for him; but really I hope that he might pray for me, because I felt nothing but foolish and guilty for the help I tried to offer and the little I could do. And now by his presence, he has done more for me than I did for him. I hope he lives, so much. And I hope that he finds good purpose for his life; because it would mean so much to me… isn’t that selfish?

P.S. When we were sitting in the ambulance two weeks ago, and by the way everybody knew him, in the ambulance and A&E and in all the hostels he’d been kicked out of… when we were sitting there in the ambulance and the paramedic asked him for his date of birth he joked with a sly glance at my dog collar that he was actually two thousand years old. We both knew he was joking he and I… but Christ knows too that on another level he was not.




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