On the skeleton in the cupboard

I have been thinking about death (I’m Sarah and I’m here to cheer you up!). At this time of year we are surrounded by it. Despite the golden weather of late, there is no denying that the days are shorter, the leaves are brown and the first frost will be along soon to kill any remaining flowers and herald the winter. The ice will freeze the blood in the veins, and vulnerable people will fall in greater numbers than usual into the care of medics, undertakers and vicars.

It is no coincidence that the celebration of Halloween and the ancient Christian feast of All Souls, when we light candles for our dead, are at this time of the year’s decay. And of course, this month we remember those who have laid down their lives in war. In November the skeleton is truly out of the cupboard.

I hope that you don’t think I am crass to mention this unpalatable business. Generally we avoid facing death until it rudely forces its way into our lives. The trouble is that it comes as an awful shock and is not a bit ignorable, as you will know if you have been very ill or paced the corridors of a hospital, or watched someone you love deteriorate or had a phone call bearing terrible news.

Many people don’t believe in God and find the idea of resurrection ridiculous. But many also have an illogical expectation that there is life beyond death. The hope of eternity is wired into the human heart, yet a universe of allegedly random creation is frankly unlikely to offer any such thing. The only realistic chance of life beyond death is if someone loves us enough to make it happen. The Christian narrative of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is all about that love and its new precedent that your death and mine need not be the end.

The real agony is for those of us who are left behind. Whether of faith or not, we are not fine when someone we love dies. There are well-meaning cards that say things like “death is nothing at all”. If you are left without the love of your life, a family member or a lifelong friend, you will know what nonsense that is. If you are awaiting death, it is not trivial. Even people of faith do not willingly leave this life unless they are exhausted by it. Death is a big deal and we should think and talk about it realistically and naturally as something that is part of all our lives.

So we remember those we love but we also face up to what will come to all of us. The great thing about this time of the year’s dying (apart from apple crumble, furry boots and bonfires) is that we know that, come January, the first signs of new life will be poking up through the snow again. The same is true of death. It must be met but will pass and bring hope of new life.

Commercial Christmas is apparently underway and it is tough for those who mourn. If you need comfort and hope more than Santa and tinsel, get in touch. Real Christmas is the antidote to death.

On being an Earthling

When I was a little girl in the 1970s, there was none of this business of living our lives online. We had to get our entertainment and live out our fantasies in simpler ways. My friends and I glammed ourselves up with fetid perfume made out of squished rose petals, did mostly edible things with cubes of jelly and carnation milk, sucked spangles in order to get our tongues scarily stuck in the brittle holes that appeared in the middle, sewed tartan patches onto perfectly good jeans as part of the religious fervour of being Bay City Rollers fans, and practiced our future signatures ready for when we had finally married the boy of our dreams. Between the ages of 7 and 13 I practiced quite a lot of different signatures. So many hopes dashed by the brutal fickleness of playground kiss-chase.

Alone in my room I spent considerable time writing letters to alien life-forms. I never got a reply but it can’t have been because they couldn’t find me. I was laboriously specific about writing my address: 19 Church Street, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, England, UK, Earth, (Third Planet from the Sun,) Milky Way, Universe, Deep Space, Infinity. I see now that there are a few flaws in the logic of this address, but at the time it was perfect. I was a citizen of planet earth. I was proud of that and wrote to all kinds of imaginary aliens telling them what it was like here in the 1970s, and why they might like to visit. If we ever get invaded by extra-terrestrials seeking pink Hubba-Bubba gum, it could well be my fault. I’m sorry.

I’m still proud of being an Earthling, although I stopped writing to those less fortunate quite a few light years ago. I am excited by the imminent arrival (19th August) of ‘Gaia’, a beautiful scale model of the earth, which will hang under the Cathedral tower. It reminds me of my citizenship, and yet the artist’s creation of it – to teach about the earth’s fragility – makes me uncomfortable. How easy it is to take this precious globe for granted simply as an address, and forget that it is unique and beautiful and the only place anywhere, as far as we know, that possesses the exact circumstances to enable not just LIFE, but OUR sort of life! It is, when you think of it that way, an absolute no-brainer that we should look after it and preserve it, and stop ruining it with our greedy consumption and selfish pollutions. It is in our enlightened self-interest to do so, regardless of any ethical issues.

For a person of Christian faith, it is way more than that. God is behind the creation and gift of this home of ours. It is God who gave us the best address in the universe with air to breathe, water to drink and just the right amount of gravity to keep us grounded. It is God who spins the planets and whirls the gases, and micromanages the quarks and the atoms; who moulds the landscapes and paints the intricate details of nature. It is God who gives us the run of the earth but who expects us to take care of it and all that live on it with us. It is God who cares about His creation and grieves when we injure it. It is God who takes the initiative of healing and reconciling the world’s wounds. For those who profess faith, it cannot be enough to casually treat the earth as our address without responding to the love and life and beauty we receive.

So I’m going to stand under the earth in the Cathedral and promise to do better; to try harder to appreciate and nurture all that we have, and to remember that with citizenship comes responsibilities, as well as rights. Perhaps you might join me. It’s a wonderful world – especially now that the 1970s are over.

On the pitfalls of humility

This is the first of a four-part reflection series for Lent.

I have a disgustingly beautiful sister. She is two years younger than me, tall and slim with bosoms that stay up on their own, naturally curly hair, glorious brown eyes, fantastic dress sense and the ability to wear extremely high heels without falling off. Among her many other accomplishments she can sport a diamond ring without snagging her nose with it, and in black hooded evening cloak genuinely pulls off the glamorous “Scottish Widow” look, which contrasts unkindly with my own unwitting tribute to Darth Vader.

Recently when we were together in public, a so-called ‘gentleman’ assumed that I was her mother. My sister thought this was absolutely hilarious and fell about laughing. I did not. I had a frozen moment of total shock, just like the one I experienced aged 15 when I went to the cinema with a boy who broke the ice (so to speak) in the middle of the film by pouring a cup of cold water over my head. Unaccountably, he and I ended up in a clinch in the back row of the Odeon. My sister and I merely laughed ourselves silly. But it was the same frozen moment where dignity and self-perception are stripped away, and you have to decide what you have left and where to go with it.

One of the great things about living for God is that it puts things like that in perspective as you start to see yourself properly. The God-seeker’s quest for self-knowledge, for a heart that looks to serve God and other people before self is a difficult one. Humility is tricky because the minute you think you’ve got it and mentally pat yourself on the back, you’ve lost it! But real humility lets you laugh at yourself without pain; it lets people love you for who you are, and not for some version of yourself that you let them see. Humility becomes possible when we face up to ourselves, know the worst and best of ourselves, yet also know ourselves forgiven, accepted and incredibly loved by God. It makes the opinions of other people less valid and can bring real peace. So as we move into Lent, it is worth trying to see yourself through the eyes of God. You may have some frozen shocking moments but you may find peace. Let me know if I can help.

“Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way…..”

My sister lives in Nashville, Tennessee, surrounded by fried chicken and country music. She is nice as well as beautiful, but I forgive her!

Have an interesting Lent.

On effulgence (look it up!)

If you are a person who only believes in things you can see, smell, taste, touch or rationally explain, then what follows may well do your head in and cause you to gnash your teeth with rage! I spent over half my life in such a mindset so I absolutely get it – certainly enough to apologise in advance to those who may feel the urge to grind their molars and shout at the page about “gullible idiots who see the Blessed Virgin Mary in a piece of toast or who need an invisible friend”! You have been warned! Blood pressure pills to the fore!

I saw a picture the other day that made me stop in my tracks. Somebody had taken a photograph of the Cathedral on their phone from an image on a TV news bulletin and then zapped the result to me on WhatsApp. It is stunning. The building is bathed in the gold of early evening sunlight. Everything around it is dusky while the church is breathtakingly radiant. But that is not all. Like a scene from Ghostbusters or Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, from the top of the building streams an apparent jet of energy, waves fountaining up, up, up, and culminating in what looks like both a four pointed star and a cross directly over the tower.

Obviously, were I a medieval abbess who had never heard the word “pixel” I would be talking this up as a cosmic sign from God to attract paying pilgrims in order to enrich the abbey. Those in charge of the building have certainly done worse in its 901 year-long history and, heaven knows, a financial miracle would still come in pretty handy. Having come personally to believe that there are more things in heaven and in hell than we can know or prove, I do not actually think that such a manifestation is out of the question. Nothing is out of the question with God, who is, after all, supernatural. But honesty and education compel me to tell the mundane surface-truth – that when the pixel structures on two different screens meet, you get interesting wavy patterns. I am pretty sure that that is what my picture shows. And yet – beyond the confused, competitive pixels – what glory it hints at! Here is the Cathedral in the heart of our city, showering it with the power and love and grace of God. What a vision to hold and to contemplate what meanings might lie beyond the obvious. Perhaps just as ordinary bread and wine in a church service indicate the presence of Christ, so too a mishmash of ordinary pixels in the ordinary sunlight might point us towards the spectacular presence and promise of God. Who knows?

For the pragmatists out there who only believe in tangible glory, the heart of the city is bursting with that too. The Garden House Project in the precincts, The Winter Night Shelter, the city centre chaplains, the charities and churches, mosques and temples all speak of love and glory in the muck and mess of life. Volunteers, public servants, people of faith, kind neighbours all work like angels (albeit sometimes grumpy ones!) to transform dark days and nights.

According to THAT irritating survey (my turn to gnash molars), Peterborough is a pretty terrible place to live. For some that is quite possibly and sadly true, but for those who raise their eyes and hope there is more, there are hearts of gold and shoots of glory in the heart of our city. They promise that one day the muck and mess, the darkness and difficulty and the pain of life will be completely behind us – obliterated by the effulgent glory of what will be.

On the difference a year makes

Rather to my astonishment, cards from kind friends alert me to the fact that I have been in post at the Cathedral here in the city for exactly a year. Where did that year go!?

I’ve always suspected that, in some mysterious way, Church Time (CT) runs faster than normal time. It is something to do with marking every step of the way – every day, every week, every month, every season of the year – with acts that invest them with meaning. It may also be something to do with busy-ness, which is unceasing, even if it is willingly embraced. The poor are always with us; people’s problems are not conveniently bounded by the hours of 9 and 5; worship is an everyday duty and joy; people who serve the church while also having a day job are only available at weekends and evenings, which makes for long days all round. Death and crises are no respecters of statutory working hours or minimum wages, and the need for a day off can occasionally seem to be the least important of multiple competing desires and priorities. CT often seems to be set to warp-speed.

So pressing the pause button in order to reflect and take stock is essential, not just at New Year but all the time. When I reflect on the last year I am amazed.

Personally speaking, I have learned to wear strange, some might say ridiculous garments (I couldn’t possibly comment). Mostly I now get them on the right way up first time, although the infamous reverse-hood malfunction still happens occasionally! I can now walk in a straight line and sing at the same time without falling over. I have sung the responses at Evensong, albeit wonkily, and my kicked-kneeler tally is statistically insignificant these days. I have met many wonderful people and some whose flaws, like my own, are quite apparent. I have painfully discovered how beastly I can be under pressure and just how much I need God’s grace to improve. I used to believe in my own niceness. Now I’m far from sure.

I’ve learned a lot about the Tudors and ancient saints and what cathedrals might be for. I’ve stood under the moon in a darkened building, watched with astonishment as all Peterborough filed past a space kettle, and had great fun doing things I never thought I’d do in a church!

More seriously, the Cathedral has vastly improved its finances, welcomed thousands of visitors and pilgrims, and entered into partnerships to benefit the city, with the Garden House Day Project for the Homeless and a Church Urban Fund Community Cohesion Project being highlights. What a difference a year makes. And yet it is just a year. One year in the long life of Peterborough Abbey and Cathedral, and a mere speck in God’s eternity. However hard we work, whatever success and failure we meet, whatever seems dangerous and alarming politically, and in our lives, it is part of God’s bigger picture; realising that sometimes is a healthy thing! Last year I was full of blissful ignorance. This year, the Cathedral’s 901st year, I’m still full of blissful ignorance but feeling better about it. Because God holds it, and us, always.

On building a link

Cathedral prayer station.JPG

I am, in some respects, a 1980s throwback. True, it is a long time since I looked good in shoulder-pads that would not shame the Tennessee Titans, huge gilt buttons that don’t actually fasten anything, tight midi pencil skirt, cinched-in jacket, killer heels and a South Fork perm. Those days are done, thank the Lord, but musically I am still rooted in the 80s. I must add that I also truly love the exquisite choral music at the Cathedral, but it has a few limitations when it comes to grooving with the beat and finding lurve. Mind you, I had my first serious smooch to Madness’ ‘Baggy Trousers’, which is not an obvious contender either, but where there’s a will and a boy drenched in Lynx and with absolutely no sense of rhythm, there’s a way. Lionel Richie was a safer bet. Blondie, Abba, The Police, Wham, Phil Collins, Duran Duran and even St Winifred’s School Choir (presumably now all grandmas themselves) provided the soundtrack of my youth. But the best were Simon and Garfunkel, for cultivating pseudo-intellectual angst, and Chris de Burgh, master storyteller before he went all mushy in the 1990s. (Before someone corrects me, I know that some of those were 1970s creations, but I discovered them in the 1980s and that is what counts. I’m the writer. I’m in charge!)

A Chris de Burgh Track comes rather cornily to mind because the Cathedral is quiet at present. It is full of a great and awesome hush. After almost 180,000 visitors to the Tim Peake space exhibition in three months, it feels as if the building is physically exhaling. In 900 years there have never been so many people across the threshold in such a short time. Never before have so many written prayers been left and candles lit for struggling families and friends and lost ones of this city. Cathedral staff have been run ragged keeping up with an apparently insatiable demand for candles and pencils and post-its. Our chaplains have been busy providing care and prayer. People who had never set foot in the Cathedral before came to see the space capsule and were simultaneously wowed by Something Else. Many have commented along the lines that they have realised that Peterborough Cathedral is their cathedral; that it is a place of peace; that although they may not have noticed Him for years, God is for them and that they faintly sense long buried needs that are whispering to be met.

I am thrilled. I want everyone to know the love of God, and I’ve been wondering how to offer encouragement to those who dislike organised religion but who may quietly be reconnecting with God’s love through God’s initiative, helped along by the ultimate scientific artefact displayed in the ultimate house of prayer. And that is how Chris de Burgh burst unsubtly into my brain with ‘A Spaceman Came Travelling’ and his unusual take on the birth of a baby in a stable. It’s a contrived link but it gives a clue.

The next big thing is Christmas. And like the spacecraft, Christmas in the Cathedral is free and it has something for everyone. It also happens to be the whole point of the building. So come back over Christmas and see what you find here this time. It is for you. God is for you. Even if you do still dress like Alexis Carrington or Adam Ant.

12 out-of-this-world facts about George Alcock

George Alcock was one of the 20th century’s most successful discoverers of novae and comets, and he came from right here in Peterborough. Here are 12 amazing facts about this legendary amateur astronomer.

  1. Born in Peterborough on 28 August 1912, Alcock became one of the 20th century’s most successful discoverers of novae and comets (five of each) before his death in December 2000 at the age of 88.
  2. Alcock was self-taught. His interest in the night sky was awakened by the large partial solar eclipse of 8 April 1921, and by the early 1930s his life as an observer was underway.
  3. Alcock had a spectacular memory. In order to aid his observations, he memorised the position of 1,000 stars. He explained the reason for doing so: “If you have to check the published charts every time you spot a suspicious object, you’ll spend half the night indoors”.
  4. It is fair to say that Alcock had an unusual working day. His profession was a teacher, but once school had finished for the day, his true passion could begin: “If it promised to be clear, I’d leave school at 4.30, go home for tea and then to bed till 8pm, observe 8.15 till 1am or 3am, if there was a lot of activity. After a couple more hours’ sleep, I’d send my results to Manning Prentice (at the British Astronomical Association) by express from the city centre, before cycling to school.”
  5. On 25 August 1959, Alcock discovered ‘comet C/1959 Q1 (Alcock)’ – the first comet discovered from Britain since 1894!
  6. Just five days later, on 30 August 1959, Alcock discovered another comet. He named this ‘comet C/1959 Q2 (Alcock)’.

    Alcock-memorial
  7. His discoveries led to him appearing on The Sky at Night on 5 October 1959. Years later, Sir Patrick Moore would describe George Alcock as “one of the best and most dedicated comet and nova-hunters of all time”.
  8. Alcock discovered ‘Nova Delphini 1967 (HR Del)’ on 8 July 1967. This was the first nova discovered from England since 1934.
  9. On 7 February 1979 Alcock was awarded the MBE by Her Majesty the Queen for services to astronomy.
  10. The asteroid ‘3174 Alcock’ was discovered by American astronomer Edward Bowell in Arizona on 26 October 1984. This minor planet was named in honour of George Alcock.
  11. Alcock’s discovery of ‘Nova Herculis 1991 (V838 Her)’ on 25 March 1991 brought him the all-time record for discoveries of comets and novae in the UK.
  12. Five years after his death, on 19 April 2005, a plaque was unveiled in Alcock’s memory at Peterborough Cathedral. The plaque features an image of a comet transposed from one of Alcock’s drawings.

Dr Richard McKim from the British Astronomical Society will be talking about the life and work of George Alcock at The Knights’ Chamber on Tuesday 23 October at 7.30pm. Tickets are £5 per person – you can book your place here.

Jesus and ‘Doctor Who’

It’s wonderful to have Tim Peake’s Spacecraft in Peterborough Cathedral. A spacecraft has orbited our world, touching the heavens, so to speak, and has now come to Earth. There is more than just our planet in the wider universe. There is ‘more’ to be found ‘out there’.

Don’t we all like the idea of something ‘out there’ coming ‘down here’? This can take the form of a well-beloved alien character, such as The Doctor. Although The Doctor is from ‘out there’, she is intensely interested in Earth and human beings ‘down here’.

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This reminds me that God, the divine, wanted to reach out to humans here on Earth. He did this in Jesus, the Son of God who was born in Bethlehem 2000 years ago.

How is The Doctor like Jesus?

First off, both of them look human, but are ‘something more’. The Doctor is an alien, with two hearts and a respiratory bypass system (whatever that is!). Jesus was born into our world, was fully human, but he was (and is) fully God. That ‘something more’ is obvious when The Doctor, instead of dying, regenerates into a new body. Jesus died, but then was brought back to life by God.

Secondly, The Doctor and Jesus are willing to die for their friends. The Doctor has sacrificed his life to save even just one person (Wilf in the episode ‘The End of Time’). Jesus went to the cross to die because he wants us to have friendship and eternal life with God.

Thirdly, the Doctor reminds us that although God is our friend, God is still different to us. A lot of people found it strange that, after all these years of looking like a man, The Doctor now looks like a woman. This makes us think about what it means to be a man, or a woman. And guess what? You can be brave and loving whichever you are.

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We call God ‘Father’ quite often, but the Bible also mentions God as being like a woman searching for a lost coin. Jesus compared himself to a female chicken who gathered her chicks under her wings. God isn’t male or female either.

But, in the end, The Doctor is not Jesus. There is only one person who is both human and divine, and that’s Jesus. And he invites us to have a relationship with God, both now and in the next life. There is much more ‘out there’!

Revd Chrys Tremththanmor

On fear of heights

abseil at Pboro Cathedral 2018 Credit David LowndesI have never felt inclined to put my trust in nylon. Well – that is not entirely true – I’ve worn a lot of tights in my time. Put it this way: I avoided the Cathedral abseiling challenge earlier this year in order to let the Dean have his moment of glory (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it!) and would never agree, as did gallant Tim Peake, to sit in a space kettle and freefall miles to earth dependent only upon a sheet of allegedly flameproof nylon to slow my descent enough to prevent the formation of a vast crater and the eradication of me and whole civilisations. The fact that it is Very Clever Science Indeed would not give me any more confidence. I would not even do it for charity. The big charity Sleep Out on September 28th is about my limit. It will be cold and uncomfortable but at least it will be on the ground. I may even break the nylon prohibition on this one. I think my sleeping bag is made of it.

In my twenties I was induced to go on a management training course at a castle in Wales. It was hell. Trust me, I’m a vicar. I know about hell. I was the only girl and the only coward. To put a good spin on it, my instinct for self-preservation was immensely impressive. I didn’t get past ‘go’ with canoeing because they wouldn’t let me out on the sea until I had proved that I could hang upside down in a capsized canoe for 30 seconds before righting it in a controlled fashion. Capsizing was easy but I could not persuade myself to wilfully remain upside down under water for even a second so just rolled round and round like a huge spluttering crocodile trying to kill a wildebeest, only without the wildebeest. Abseiling was worse. I could not, yet again, put my trust in nylon and when lowered off the edge of a cliff hung on like a limpet about 3ft down until they hauled me up again. At the end of the week I was awarded the most patronising prize possible. As my colleagues received plaudits for their superhuman strength and acts of heroism my prize was for The Person Who Best Knew Their Limitations. Thirty years on I can still feel the shame.

Being clergy, I need to find theological justification for why, as community-minded Canon Missioner, I am not prepared to do anything involving heights even to raise money for worthy causes. I have not even taken the excellent Cathedral Tower Tour in case my limitations get more unwelcome public recognition. I seem to recall that when Jesus was invited to jump off a high place and told that he would be quite safe and receive a large reward, he was categorical in his refusal. In a nutshell, he said “No.” I’m so with Jesus on this one.

The bible says that perfect love drives out fear. If I’d been in that space capsule I’d have prayed continually to the author of that love. I guess I would still have been afraid minute by minute but come what may I would have known that dying or living I was held by God.

Now that term has begun we welcome school parties as well as the public to discover the capsule and the Cathedral and hope that all who come will be inspired both by human courage and endeavour and God’s.

On wondering what we are doing

soyuz web

I am sorry to tell you that my Tardis is delayed. I was expecting it to materialise at the Cathedral a full 8 days ago and it is nowhere to be seen. I am not sure of the reason for such tardiness (I’m sure there is a pun there somewhere!). Perhaps it went to St Petersburg by mistake and is now busy confusing the Russian intelligence services. Or maybe it is in a TNT depot somewhere. (I believe that they mislaid a 23ft model of the moon a few weeks ago, so a Tardis is probably small beer in the lost property stakes.) Anyway I’m not worried. E-bay will sort it out.

You may gather that my missing Tardis is a pale imitation of the real thing and, assuming it ever arrives, will take its position in the Cathedral over the next few weeks as part of a display designed to complement the Tim Peake space capsule exhibition on loan from the Science Museum. At the moment the Cathedral is torn between business as usual as a place of worship and wonder and ‘Space, the Final Frontier!’ In the midst of trying to help prepare for the biggest tourist attraction to arrive here in 900 years, deceased Tudor royalty and Oswald’s Marvellous, Miraculous, (Missing) Arm apart, (and if you don’t know what I’m talking about come to the Cathedral and find out!) I find myself wondering what an alien arriving from another dimension would make of us. What strange and contradictory things happen in this place! Spaceships and plainchant, incense and virtual reality, what can it mean? Houston, do we have a problem? Has the church lost the plot?

A Cathedral is many things but it is first and foremost a centre of Christian worship. It is also a heritage site and an icon for this city. It is a place of sanctuary and peace, story and prayer, of education and exploration and a place for the whole community to know themselves welcome in Christ’s name whether they come with faith or none. And here we are branching out with a range of public events, some more helpful than others (we are learning as we go along!) and some which bring great and unexpected joy. We anticipate that the Soyuz Space capsule will fall into the latter category and look forward to sharing it and our great building with all who come. But events of this kind must never overshadow the Cathedral’s purpose, which is to stand symbolically between earth and heaven, to signpost the God of time and space and make sense of what it means to be human in the light of his love shown in Jesus Christ. Faith is all about asking the big questions about human existence. So is science actually. The questions are framed differently and the data is different but we are all after the same thing really. And one worldview alone is likely to be only part of the whole story of humanity and our place in the universe. It isn’t a competition. I think that God is the ultimate scientist!

So when you walk in through the great West Front in search of a space craft we hope that you will engage with us in a bigger conversation. About Science and Faith; about creation and the universe; about what it means to be human; About people of faith who are also physicists, cosmologists and astronomers and about scientists who are also committed Christians, even priests.

Let us boldly go….