Ebb and flow at Rievaulx 

We spent yesterday at Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire. The site contains the ruined remains of a Cistercian community who lived, worked and prayed in the area for over 400 years. 

The condition of the ruins, along with the thoughtfulness of the information provided by English Heritage, make it easy to imagine the Rievaulx ways of life. But, more than this, half a century of faithful prayer and simple living have left spiritual footprints on the area that are impossible to miss. 

Faced with this ruined grandeur and remnant spirituality, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if history had been kinder to Rievaulx. 

What if it hadn’t struggled so badly in the 13th Century with livestock loss and debt? 

What if it had not been pillaged by the Scots in 1322?

What if it had not been struck by the Black Death in 1348?

What if more than 15 monks (down from 650) had survived to the end of the 1380s?

What if it had not been suppressed and dismantled in 1538?

What if the dissolution of the monasteries had not taken place? 

What would Rievaulx be today? 

These questions turned naturally on their head, to the institutions and ways of life that I know and love. The ones that seem strong, and yet are as fragile as Rievaulx. 

What if the bricks in the wall of my life – the bricks that offer security and hope and a future – one day lie as ruined as this once-great abbey? 

Rievaulx’s most famous abbot was also one of its first: Aelred. As Aelred watched his community strengthen and prosper, I wonder what he knew about life’s ebb and flow? 

Did he hope that Rievaulx  would become one of the richest abbeys in England? 

Did he fear the challenges that eventuality brought it to its knees? 

Did he wonder about the imprint of holiness that his community would leave on the area for centuries after its death? 

Halfway through our visit, we set up a groundsheet on the site of one of the many chantry chapels. The significance of sitting down for a picnic where, centuries earlier and for hundreds of years, monks and locals had gathered to break bread, was not lost on us. 

And so the questions that have stayed with me – questions about me and about the institutions and ways of life that I take for granted – are these:

When I am gone and forgotten, who will picnic on the remains of my chapel? 

What spiritual footprints will I leave? 

How might my holiness (or otherwise) impact a place? 

What grandeur I see now will lie in ruins? 

What of these ruins will people wonder at? 

Rievaulx was a good reminder of life’s ebb and flow. We grow, we prosper, we struggle, we fade away; leaving only our footprints in time. 

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Contemplative Leadership

20170112_142438Along with several colleagues, I have recently discovered Keith Lamdin’s Finding Your Leadership Style. Keith’s work is full of common sense, optimism, realism and encouragement. He examines different paradigms of leader: the monarch, the warrior, the servant, the elder, the contemplative and the prophet. Each of us, he argues, will have a dominant paradigm in our leadership (and, he says, if leadership is “influencing others”, then anyone can do it and most do). David Herbert has written a helpful overview of Keith’s book in his blog post Leadership Styles and a Political Divide.

If there was a part of the book that was disappointing, it was the chapter on contemplative leadership, which seemed to lack detail and depth. Keith recognises a growing desire in church ministers to connect more fully with this paradigm and to claim something absolutely distinctive for Christian leadership. He acknowledges the core value of contemplative living as holding God in your heart and knowing that you are precious… and loved for who you are, and yet by the end of the chapter I was left wondering what he felt contemplative leadership might look like, or why it is needed.

Well-rested leaders

In my own ministry, I often return to Wayne Muller’s quote on Sabbath: The world longs for the generosity of a well-rested people. Here, I interpret “rest” not necessarily as sleep or holiday, but as the radical, life-giving, world-changing rest that we find at the heart of life with God. Rest that relieves us from the burdens of isolation, overwork, and self-interest, and places us in a secure centre from which we interact with and relate to the world around us. It’s the rest that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 11:28: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

Rest (in this sense) is at the heart of the contemplative life. It is the rest that the world craves for its people. Rest enables us to be outward looking, non-anxious, compassionate, unhurried, positive, unruled by our ego, and champions of the other. These are values I see rarely in leaders. They are generosity in action.

The contemplative life

In Streams of Living Water, Richard Foster identifies seven “characteristics and movements” of the contemplative life (words in italics are his):

Love: A deepening love for God. A love that is sometimes intense, and sometimes cold, but deepens and strengthens over time.
Peace: A firmness of life orientation that grounds us. This is not a feeling of freedom from anxiety and pressure, but rather a feeling of security and centredness within it.
Delight: A sense of friendship and fun in our relationship with God: God laughs into our soul and our soul laughs back into God.
Emptiness: A dissatisfied satisfaction. A sense of frustration within the intense highs of contemplative living. This might be a yearning, an emptiness, a dryness or a darkness.
Fire: A growing, painful knowledge of everything within us that doesn’t please God, and an awareness of his purifying work within us.
Wisdom: A deepening knowledge of God: not intellectualism, but a knowing and inflowing of God himself.
Transformation: The gradual changes within as God captures our heart, will, mind, imagination and passions.

Contemplative leadership

Mary is often cited as an example of a contemplative leader: known as the God bearer, she bore Christ not only in her womb, but in all the sufferings and heartache that came with nurturing a beloved child who also happened to be God incarnate. Her life and ministry were rooted in inner contemplation. Amidst the activity that surrounded her new born baby, there was a simplicity in her own response: But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart (Luke 2:19).

As Keith Lamdin notes in passing, the metaphor of God-bearer is a good one for contemplative leadership. If, as Richard Foster argues, a potential peril of the contemplative tradition is a separation from the real world, and a lack of engagement with real life issues, perhaps contemplative leaders are those who manage to do both: to gently nurture and fiercely protect their inner life, while allowing God to flow out from that life and into the world. Contemplative leaders become the God bearers within our communities. Another way of phrasing this might be (as many contemplative traditions do) active contemplation.

So what might contemplative leadership look like in the present-day? I wonder if these characteristics are a good place to start, although there will be more:

Awareness. Contemplative leaders are growing in their awareness of God, self and other. They manage their own inner life effectively, and deal with their own negative emotions and reactions (or seek help in doing so). They are expert listeners and observers, and are able to identify where God might be at work in any number of situations. And they often help those they lead to identify and work on spiritual, emotional and material blind spots, bringing God into the ordinary, the painful and the hopeless.

Prayer. Contemplative leaders have a prayer life rooted not in cerebral knowledge, but in hard-won experience. Their prayers will often go beyond words (indeed, words may be a barrier to prayer) but this enables them to pray in any number of ways and moments. Just as contemplative leaders are God bearers, so they become people bearers, holding in prayer the lost, the lonely, the suffering. The practice they devote to prayer in private enables their whole living to become prayer.

Creativity. Contemplative leaders usually have active imaginations and lively dreams! They give time and attention to thinking creatively about problems and situations, and the space they allow themselves enables a better response than ‘we’ve always done it this way’. Fresh expressions of faith and worship are rooted in this time alone for the contemplative leader to reflect and create. The active imagination of the contemplative allows for possibilities for God to minister in ways not otherwise enabled. (Keith Lamdin discusses dreams and visions as an expression of the prophetic paradigm, but I wonder if they are perhaps more an expression of the contemplative?)

Depth. Contemplative leaders do not offer quick, superficial fixes. Their response – to God and to others – is measured and thoughtful. This can be frustrating for those being led in the age of the instantaneous. Often problems arise, and are addressed and dealt with more quickly than the contemplative can sit down to consider them. Their own response to a problem will be to step back, to reflect, to consult and to wait. If they are allowed time to do this, they will often find solutions that are more deeply effective and longer lasting than the quick fix. The challenge for the contemplative leader is to make themselves heard, and persuade others to slow down and allow time for a deeper solution to emerge.

Security. Contemplative leaders are rooted in God, and devoted to nurturing attention to God above all else. This growing awareness of God and their own place within his love enables them to be centred and secure. Because of this groundedness, contemplative leaders are perhaps more able than other paradigms to lead in ways that are differentiated and non-anxious. This, in turn, enables the community as a whole to flourish free of anxiety. A secure leaders forms a secure people. For more on this see Edwin Friedman’s Theory of Differentiated Leadership. Because of their centredness, contemplative leaders are strong leaders, but not in the ways we would expect: their strength manifests inwardly as much as outwardly.

Leading by example

Every person is called to contemplation. Every person deserves to give time to nurturing the inner life. As we become more attentive to God within us, so we notice him more around us and beyond us. Contemplative leaders help us, by their example, to pay attention: to God, to ourselves, and to others. Attention, depth of character, and love are increasingly absent from modern life, and so who better than the contemplative leaders among us to draw us back to our still centre? In the coming years, contemplative leadership could be a prophetic task for the whole church, if we were equipped and ready to offer this to the world.

I have not only repeated the affirmation that contemplation is real, but I have insisted on its simplicity, sobriety, humility, and its integration in normal Christian life.
Thomas Merton.

All travelling safely home: A meditation for Epiphany

On January 6th, we reach the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and the Christian calendar celebrates The Feast of the Epiphany: the arrival of the three wise men in Bethlehem, bringing gifts for the promised Jewish saviour. 

But these men were not Jews. They came from foreign lands, and their entrance onto the Nativity scene is a reminder of a divine love that is offered not just to an elite, select group, but to every person, regardless of their nationality, gender, sexuality or social status.

The prophet Jeremiah talks about God’s people being “gathered from the farthest parts of the earth” (Jer 31:8). I have tried to write this meditation from a “farthest corner” of my own – the deflated sense of normality that I return to after our Christmas celebrations, in what ought to be one of the most joyous times of the Christian year. Perhaps in the relative stillness of “normality”, away from the distractions of Christmas, we might receive again the real gift of Christmas: the love, acceptance and adventure of a life with God.

As ever, use this as it is helpful, and ignore it as it is not. 


On the thirteenth day of Christmas
The tree is well away
The house is hauntingly empty 
And the wind seems so much colder.

January’s darkness is not like December’s:
Pregnant with anticipation
As light and warmth swell
And holiday loiters promisingly on the horizon.

January’s darkness is bleak:
The embers of Christmas grow dim
And we notice (as if for the first time)
The gloomy days filled with worry and bustle.

But on the dark chill of Christmas’s thirteenth day
A band of angels gathers
As a day is just yet dawning
And a quiet herald whispers poems of hope.

In our darkest, furthest corners
Something in our souls is stirred.
A hand reaches in, to lead us from our gloom
As December’s embers flame again.

Star is swallowed by brilliant sunrise, and
Rising, we leave our emptiness behind
Drawn by Epiphany’s brightest light
To join a company of kindly strangers

All travelling safely 
Home.

Arise, shine; for your light has come
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
Isaiah 60:1

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Sunrise over Lake Galilee

Bridging the (generation) gap

Generalisations are as good as it gets!
Ann Morisy, in Borrowing from the Future (2011).

It’s been quite a day. The consequences and opportunities of today’s Brexit will not be clear for some time. Our politicians, civil servants and economists have a massive job ahead.

The rest of us need to start building some bridges. The best people, nay, the only people, up to this task are you and I. Where to start: Social class? Nationality? Politics?

How about age?

Lord Ashcroft Polls have shown that in the EU Referendum, the older the voter, the more likely they were to vote to leave the EU. Social media was quick in its condemnation: the youngest in society (many of whom were not allowed to vote) will pay the price (and arguably bear the brunt) of this decision, perhaps for the rest of their lives.

Baby Boomers have been pitched against Millenials (and before you read further, revisit Ann Morisy’s quote at the top of this post!).

Here’s the thing: I’m a Millennial. At times I feel undervalued, disenfranchised, hard done by, and misunderstood. I am frustrated that the Establishment doesn’t seem to hear or value my opinions, probably because fewer of my contemporaries vote than those of older generations. I feel sad that my generation and younger are often caricatured as lazy, uncaring and disengaged. I believe that for someone in their teens, 20s or early 30s life is tougher now than it was a generation or two ago.

But I spend a lot of time with Baby Boomers. I see how hard life can be for someone living on a state pension. I hear how uninspired, confused, and frightened many Boomers are by the pace of change that my generation seem to thrive and capitalise on. I know how painfully aware Boomers are that they may be ‘out of touch’ with younger generations. And, critically, I am yet to meet someone of my parent’s or grandparent’s generation who doesn’t care about the future of their children or grandchildren.

The problem seems complex, and yet it’s actually very simple. The problem is this: The world is changing so fast around us that we have lost the ability to talk to one another. The pace of change we are trying so desperately to keep up with affects not only our technology. It has an impact on our relationships, our behaviour, and our language. And it has hit our inter-generational relationships especially hard.

Maybe we have lost the ability to say and hear (Boomers to Millenials, and Millenials to Boomers):

I care about you.
I feel let down by you.
I want the best for you.
I am worried about you.
I’m confused.
I feel that life is hard for me.
I’d like you to challenge yourself.
Life isn’t like that for me.
It seems like you had/have things so easy.
I’m frightened about the future.
I don’t understand.
Please tell me about…
I love you.

We have bridges to build. So let’s talk. Let’s talk free of blame and guilt and anger.

Boomers, hear us when we say that life is so very different for us than it was for you. Some things are much easier. Other things are tougher – or different. Let us tell our stories of hardship without feeling that we are blaming you. Listen to our cries for help – our need for your wisdom of experience and your encouraging words of comfort that remind us of what is really important (and we know it’s not property, pensions or prosperity!).*

Millenials, know that Boomers care deeply about our future. Open your eyes to see that they carry a burden of guilt, bewilderment and responsibility about the fact that so few of them were able to sustain such a good quality of life for more than a generation or two. Hear their words of wisdom about life’s real priorities. Listen to stories of what has made their lives so wonderful (and know that it is not wages or wealth).

Perhaps, just perhaps, as we talk, and as we hear, we may come to a better understanding of one another. We are parents and children. Grandparents and grandchildren. We want to see each other happy and we love one another dearly.

Listening, really listening, is rarely comfortable. It will challenge and move us, sadden and gladden us. Hearing one another’s stories will ask us to acknowledge our own weaknesses and fallibilities.

And yet what bricks do we have for our bridge, but our stories and our questions and our ears? The rebuilding must start now, and it must happen quickly. Without this bridge, we will lose something precious and irretrievable. We will lose each other.


* And a personal note. Thank you to those Boomers – Ann Morisy and my parents and many, many others – friends and relatives and colleagues – who have noticed and drawn attention to the plight of Millenials. Thank you to every person who has already listened, and heard, and understood, and asked. You have taught me so much.

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A Lament for Love

We gather
Under storm clouds of our own bigotry
As Spite pours down his torrent upon our heads.

Clouds settle
Marring our vision and dimming our light
As Darkness binds and chokes and snatches hope.

Thunder rumbles
Silencing words that stick in our throats
As Grief cries loud his pangs of painful wrath.

Lightening burns
Casting eerie shadows on our down-lit faces
As Fear takes hold and rests in our bright eyes.

We gather
Sharing tight the umbrella of our likeness
As Hate, invited, batters and beats us cold.

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Out of the chancel

The chancel is the domain of the parish priest. It’s where I am seen in my most public moments. It is the place I minister in, and from, on Sunday mornings and through the week. It is the place where I dump my priestly paraphernalia, tucked away on shelves and ledges: service books, scribbled notices, carefully typed sermons, bottles of water…

The chancel is the domain of all of us. It is a place of passage. Through it we journey up, to receive from God as we share in the sacrament of Holy Communion. Through it we journey back down, ready to continue our work as Kingdom builders out in our communities.

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The chancel is not my home, nor yours. It’s a corridor; a stopping place; a conduit. Out of the chancel we flow; through that passage which links our Sunday worship and our spiritual nourishment with whatever we choose to do in the other 6 and a half days of our week. Our journey through the chancel is a reminder of the dynamic nature of God’s love: responsive, engaged, incarnational.

Some will know that we priests spend very little of our working time in the chancel. And now on maternity leave I find myself, in new ways, very much out of the chancel, and fully engaged with the gritty, fleshy world of parenting a newborn.This blog is a place to share, to reflect, and to engage, by one priest spending time out of the chancel.