On lemonade and lament

I am not nice at present. The words ‘grumpy’ and ‘old bag’ all fit. Some might want to deny this because I’m a vicar and generally quite cuddly and a bit funny, and sometimes even lovable. But the truth is that there is a peed-off menopausal woman behind this dog-collar, and you might want to take cover! Mind you, I suspect that I am not alone in my grumpiness, so – as I pray for my own forgiveness – I’ll pray for yours too. Lockdown brings out the best and the worst in us, so if the cap (with fitted spit-proof shield made in heroic school DT department) fits, then wear it. If not, then polish your halo, sanitise and carry on!

It’s this virus business, of course. It absorbs everything like some gulping blob in a 1950s sci-fi movie and affects all of us in different ways. I am offended by the fact that everything is being held to ransom by a germ. I try, with conspicuously mixed success, to submit to God, but am annoyed at having to bow the knee to a bug with a number for a name. I’m not sure what else I expect under these infectious circumstances, but I do know that I have recently perfected the art of the Intolerant Humph. You could try it at home and then share it with your friends on Zoom. It is quite gratifying to build your personal playlist of ‘Sounds of the Virus’ – in fact, it is almost as good as watching yourself crying in the mirror when you were little. (Surely I’m not the only one?) It’s interesting how, when you grow up, all the pleasure goes out of watching yourself go blotchy, counting how many tears drip into your ears and observing with fascination what emerges from your nose, although non-waterproof mascara can still offer adult diversion at such times, I imagine.

So what occasions the Intolerant Humph? There’s one for national news coverage, about which I harbour dark suspicions. There is another because we have become a nation of experts and critics, although nobody really knows which science is right or whether our national leaders are callously gambling with our lives and economy or simply trying their best. I would not want to be in charge because nobody’s best is ever going to be good enough in our unforgiving culture. There is another Humph for all the nastiness on the internet, and (Lord, forgive me!) another one for all the saccharine niceness on the internet. I must confess that I reserve some of my most horrible Humphing for that.

A regular internet aphorism is ‘When life gives you lemons, make lemonade’. As advice goes it is not bad, and we are seeing a lot of lemonade being made in the form of kind acts and charitable initiatives. Bring on the lemonade! And yet lemons are perfectly nice things, just a bit sour. For those who are cheerfully making the best of an inconvenience and taking the opportunity to learn new things, spend time with the family or clear the garden, it’s a great saying. For others it isn’t. Fear, loss of livelihood and prospects, separation from family, boredom, abuse and grief are real for countless people, and we already see consequences like depression, anxiety, violence, bad behaviour, broken relationships, hunger and homelessness. Telling the victims of the consequences of this virus to ‘make lemonade’ of the situation is trite and, dare I say, a bit typical of our society which prefers not to face unpalatable facts but covers them with euphemism or blames someone else.

The truth is that real strength is to be found in confronting reality head-on, crying over it and fighting on through in the light of genuine hope. That is the power of faith. I love the Psalms in the Old Testament. They do real emotion, not lemonade. The most powerful are the psalms of lament, which howl and plead and shout at God in anger and fear when life is turned upside down.

The reality today is that life has dealt many of us onions, not lemons, and the right thing to do is to make onionade and cry painful tears in front of the mirror of God’s love. Corporate lament at our losses, repentance for the uncomfortable things we have learned about our society, and hopeful, expectant prayer to God who loves us, who builds beauty out of brokenness and hope out of despair, would be a healthy way forward for Peterborough as we start to work ourselves out of this situation.

To which, of course, some may shout “Amen”, some may simply shrug and others will just go “Humph”.

On being turned upside down and inside out

I notice that my parting shot last month was to wish you: “the compliments of this challenging season.” I had no idea. None of us had any idea that within weeks the things that we thought challenging would look positively rose-tinted and the things we thought were so important would turn out not to be.

In the face of a real threat to our health, our livelihoods, our freedoms and our loved ones, I’m struck by the apparent irrelevance of so much of what sucked up our energy, time, money and passion. I’m moved at hearing furloughed colleagues expressing love in their heartfelt “May God bless you”, “Look after yourself” and “See you on the other side” messages.

I’m gutted at the closing of the cathedral doors, even though our ministry continues. I am challenged by the logistics of helping to care for the most vulnerable. Three cheers for Light Project Peterborough and the housing team taking responsibility for this, and for all those involved in getting food out to those in need and managing unpredictable supply.

My first ever carrot-related injury (just a blister – no actual amputation) was sustained this week helping make vast quantities of soup, and we are dealing with an immense glut of date-expired grapes donated for the homeless. In order to prevent our guests from requiring more than their allotted quota of loo roll, some of the grapes are being turned into jam. Americans are apparently fond of ‘grape jelly’. It remains to be seen whether our guests are.

I’m alarmed at having to embrace technology in a hurry in order to offer public worship. They did not teach us this at vicar school! I was thrilled when I managed to explain over the phone to an elderly parishioner how to set up something called FaceTime. It was only at the precise second that we triumphantly made video contact that I remembered that I was still wearing my penguin pyjamas!

So no points for preserving clerical mystique, and the poor soul probably needs trauma counselling!

Yet even as our dignity is trashed and our certainties upended, even as our places of worship and conviviality are closed down, there is hope. Signs of the Kingdom of God are bursting out everywhere and not just because children are painting rainbows in the street! If we have to suffer a pandemic then it may as well be now (imagine this in November or January!). At least there are blue skies and daffodilly ‘trumpets of the resurrection’. At least in this season of suffering and death there is the hope of Easter; a hope that can be translated directly into this situation on so many levels.

Easter is all about the beginning of a whole new world, but we may, like Jesus on the cross, have to go through hell first, particularly if (as predicted) the virus peaks that weekend.

Many people in our “woke” generations yearn for a better world of kindness, fairness and peace. Some get so carried away by the vision that they use oppression and intolerance as the means by which they seek to improve things – which rather misses the point! For the Christian, the Kingdom of God is the ultimate endgame. It is a future time when we so co-operate with God and one another that there will be no need for politics or religion or competition – when the values of our human power structures will be turned on their heads and all will thrive. Apparently this is still some way off, but in the wasteland of selfishness, pride and fear that we have sometimes made of the world (and perhaps at this time more than ever before) there are beautiful green shoots of love and life, and signs of God’s topsy-turvy Kingdom springing up everywhere. I hope they last.

When we genuinely honour and reward our truckers, hospital porters, shelf-fillers and carers as much as we have honoured our celebs and athletes (and go on doing so beyond this crisis); when the air stays clear over our cities, the ozone layer repairs, the fish still swim in previously fouled waters, and we give back to society and the planet more than we take, then the Kingdom of God will truly be in sight.

May God bless you. Look after each other. See you on the other side.

On not living in an ivory tower

Last week, I delivered a ten minute bedside pastoral soliloquy to a dead man. I didn’t clock with my conscious mind that he was dead until I heard myself asking him if he was. I think it was his unblinking gaze and the fact that he was not breathing that gave it away. Just call me Sherlock. Once I had cottoned on to the fact that my pastoral efforts were probably unappreciated, I prayed for his soul and went to find a member of staff to inform them of his passing. The care manager of the nursing home looked at me in astonishment.

“Yes. He died half an hour ago. We thought that was why you had come.”

It is a relief to know that the direct death-alert hotline between the Almighty and his ministers is functioning efficiently. My arrival was (probably) an accident, although the next of kin was clearly impressed at the service when he arrived and I transferred my ministry to him, covertly checking out any vital signs before I started. Clearly, God is better at his job than I am. Failing to distinguish between life and death is a rookie error to put it mildly.

That episode took place the same day as the Shrove Tuesday Pancake Race, which has become Peterborough’s answer to the Pamplona Bull Run but with extra blood. In this sporting extravaganza, lithe athletic young things in Lycra (and some Morris Men) run insanely around the precincts. For some reason the clergy competed. I, at least, remained upright (the doughnut diet proves its worth once more – a large bottom and short stumpy legs provide a low centre of gravity and structural solidity). Not so my willowier colleagues. The Dean and Vice Dean both went down in style, filling their faces and hands with finest Cathedral pea gravel, and are still black-eyed and fearfully scabby.

So when I received a letter from a former parishioner enquiring about life in my (I quote) “ivory tower”, my first response was to laugh. The Cathedral may be many things – House of Prayer; Beacon of Hope; Iconic Image of Peterborough; Place of Pilgrimage; Passport Office Waiting Room; Repository for Dead Queens; Home for Abandoned Pomegranates; Dinosaur Enclosure; Gin Palace – but Ivory Tower is not one of them. If an ivory tower is distant from the realities of life and the problems of the world, then a less appropriate description is hard to imagine!

It is true that the Cathedral’s function is to point heavenward beyond the muddled realities of life, and that some of what we do there is rarefied with our prayer and choral aesthetic, our quiet daily services, the hushed peace of the soaring arches and the beauty of light on stone. Maybe some of these things look like ivory towers, but the truth is that those things proclaim God and attract real life like a magnet.

Every day my colleagues and I meet more real life than we are quite equal to. The sick, the sorrowful and the frightened are regulars here, as are the mentally ill, the cold, the hungry and the homeless. We try to help in God’s name with love, prayer and practical help through collaboration with others in the city. Hurting human beings can be volatile and difficult. In the last two years I have been stalked, received death threats and played the inscrutable card while someone, for kicks, engaged me in a highly explicit barrage of innuendo. I’m not complaining. Most frontline public servants and charity workers get the same thing. It’s just ordinary everyday life in your local, ordinary, everyday ivory tower! We also encounter the curious, the loving, children, the impassioned, the faithful, the creative and the practical. All of which points to the muddled, messy, terrible and sometimes splendid reality of being human.

The Church is currently marking Lent. This is a season for remembering our potential through the lens of our vulnerability and our propensity to screw things up. It is a time to seek newness of life in Christ because the old life is frankly not that great. Facing up to the realities of life (and death) is what we do. Ivory tower? Pah!

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.

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.