Sermon for Christ the King 2014

Sermon preached on 16 November 2014 by Kelvin Holdsworth from Kelvin Holdsworth on Vimeo.

Well, I wonder how many of you have met the Queen. Or indeed any other head of state. For in a congregation that is as diverse as this one, we have people here from a variety of places – some from republics of various kinds, some from constitutional monarchies and some from states with forms of government that verge on the tyrannical. Some of us have always known some form of democracy. Others have come to this country seeking that form of government and the liberties that go with it. Some here want to change the way we are governed either by changing the configuration of the United Kingdom or by moving away from principles of hereditary succession and moving towards a system where the head of state is elected by the people.

And how seldom the church thinks about the different forms of rule that even the people gathered here will have encountered.

But I wonder how many of you have met the Queen.

The Feast of Christ the King is a bit of conundrum and quite tricky to preach on.

We often presume that the Feasts of the Christian Calendar have come to us from the mists of time, worked out long, long ago. But the reality about this feast day is that it dates back only to 1925 and was instituted for decidedly modern reasons by an Italian Roman Catholic church trying to stem the tide of secularism.

All of a sudden a Feast was created which emphasised the image of Christ the King. Now that image of Christ as King certainly existed before that but it was a novelty to make a festival out of the monarchical images of Christ that we can find in the Bible and focus on his kingliness and majesty.

We would be well to proceed with some caution with such a festival.

Not all the political movements in Europe in general and in Italy in particular in the 1920s were benign. We should be a little wary of a feast which seems to focus on something that is very political and all about God being seen in terms of power. Monarchy can’t be anything but political in one way or another these days.

But I wonder whether you’ve ever met the Queen. [Read more…]

A kiss is just a kiss


Can it really be that many are happier to see a gay couple marry than give one another a kiss?

Someone asked me recently whether the time had come to stop campaigning on LGBT issues. After all, he said, the gays have got everything they want now. They can get married and everything.

Well, leaving aside that the fact that “the gays” can’t get married in Scotland for another month or so and that when they can do so they will not be able to be married according to the same protocols as “the straights”, marriage in church not being an option for most same-sex couples initially, the truth is, the marriage debate is not the end of gay rights but the start of them moving into the mainstream.

The incredible thing about the campaign to open marriage to same-sex couples is that it wasn’t just same-sex couples who pressed for it to happen. It was a grand coalition of diverse folk – interested people like parents who have gay children, brothers and sisters, workmates and friends as well as gay folk, including gay folk who have no personal interest in marriage for themselves. But it was more than this too – it was a coalition of people who didn’t need to claim a direct interest in the debate. It was a coalition of those who thought that in a modern society the gender of the two people involved is of secondary significance to their love, their hopes for permanence, their promises of fidelity and so on.

In short, it was a coalition of the decent.

Now, that kind of statement gets me into trouble. “How can you say that those who were opposed to this are not decent people? Are they not good people, upright people, moral people too? They just didn’t think this was right – how dare you say they are not decent people?”

Well, the thing is, it isn’t me who is saying that – it represents the huge shift in public opinion that has happened. I’ve helped to shape those changes and am happy to continue to try to do so. Seeing the opinion polls shift so dramatically over the last 10 years is one of the most satisfying things that I’ve ever been involved in.

What happened is that we changed common perceptions about the kind of values that decent people could be expected to hold.

That’s why this is so hard for those who have not shifted much themselves. It must feel to them as thought they are on shifting sand. Moral judgements which once were those which good people could be expected to hold, became those which decent people were not expected to hold.

For some this has been a wonderful seemless recognition that the rights and responsibilities of being human apply to gay and lesbian people just as much as to anyone else. For those outside the big tent it must feel as though something dear has been shattered and broken. I don’t underestimate that, but it isn’t going to get any easier because we’re not done yet.

I was very struck this week in reading an opinion poll in the USA which indicated that there was strong support for changing the law to allow same-sex couples to get married. However, when the same people were asked what they thought of a gay couple kissing or holding hands in public the support somehow seemed to melt away. And there were different perceptions relating to gender too. It wasn’t so bad seeing women holding hands but gay men kissing in public was something that the decent still were not ready to see.

Can it really be that it is OK for a couple to get married, with all the support of the expectations of the institution of marriage, but that those who support them still feel squeamish about seeing such a couple display their affection.

I’ve a feeling this is an issue here.

When I’m conducting the nuptials of couples here in St Mary’s, I always have a rehearsal and quite often we address the question of whether the couple is going to kiss during the ceremony and at what point. (I think they should do what they feel comfortable with).

I’m aware that when I ask straight couples that question they can usually answer it easily. When I ask same-sex couples that question there is a big intake of breath as they think about giving their beloved a kiss in public.

I very occasionally see a same-sex couple coming to church on a Sunday hand in hand. (I see opposite sex couples doing so often enough not to notice). It is worth remembering that there are perhaps only a few hundred yards of the streets of Scotland where they would consider themselves safe to do so and only at particular times. And that’s just holding hands, never mind a wee gay kiss.

It would appear that we’ve a way to go yet before we get to the point where same-sex couples and opposite sex-couples are treated alike and can expect their affections to be regarded in the same way.

The campaigning will change in months to come but it is far from over yet.

I want a world where a kiss is just a kiss. And so much more too.

[Picture Credit – Ron Frazier Creative Commons attribution license]

Art by Syrian Refugee Children

Syrian art poster590x300

We’ve an exhibition on in church over the next week. It is an exhibition of art by Syrian Refugee Children. Its fantastic and a way of seeing what is happening in that part of the world through different eyes.

There’s a preview tonight (Friday) at 6.30 pm. If you’d like to come to that preview, consider this your invitation.

See you there.

Church AGM season

At this time of year, most of the churches I know best in this part of the world are having their Annual General Meeting. In some denominations it is called something different, but whether it is the AGM or the Annual Congregational Meeting or the Annual Stated Meeting or whatever, the dynamics are generally pretty similar.

Here’s a secret – most clergy absolutely hate the AGM. It is something that people in my job often dread.

It is perhaps worth thinking about what an AGM is for and even better, what it is not for.

The annual general meeting is a legal device to make sure that the church is being run properly. It is particularly there to make sure that no-one is running off with the money. It is also there to give the congregation the opportunity to elect people to the body (here’s it is a Vestry) which has control of the affairs of the church. This is the group which makes sure that the gas bills are paid, the stipended clergy have somewhere to live and an income stop them having to seek work, the building is secure and insured and things like that. In my own denomination, the Vestry also has a responsibility for sharing with the clergy the spiritual oversight of the congregation. This works differently in different places.

One of the reasons that many clergy feel miserable about AGMs is that they can be used by the grumpy to have a go at other people. It is very easy for someone to get on their soapbox and have an audience for clergy bashing. And clergy often feel the expectations that they will be nice and calm and loving when dealing with people.

Here’s a quick guide to how to upset your clergy at an AGM:

  • Criticise the worship – “Why don’t we keep the Feast of St Eucalyptus that you know is so dear to us?”
  • Criticise the preaching – “I once heard a really good preacher, someone who managed to keep me awake during the sermon…”
  • Criticise the spouse of the clergy person – “Why are we putting in a new kitchen in the rectory for her when she never teaches in the Sunday School?”
  • Criticise just about anything – “It is obvious why no-one comes to this church, it is because….”
  • Criticise what the clergy cost – “Now, if we could move onto the next page and talk about these travel expenses…”

The truth is, there are better ways of dealing with most of the issues that might be bugging you than raising them at an AGM. If you’ve got comments about the liturgy then don’t wait a year to make your point before an audience. Most clergy will be happy to talk about how and why things are done in church. Mostly they have the job of balancing the needs and expectations of a diverse group of people. The thing to remember is that clergy are put in charge of trying to put on worship that will attract, inspire, encourage and move a group of people with needs that differ. Worship in particular isn’t there to meet any one person’s needs and isn’t just about what the clergy want either.

If a church is running well then there’s usually better ways of getting answers to questions than waiting to ask the question at the AGM. “Why didn’t you wear that beautiful ephod that my family gave in memory of my grandmother?” is likely to get a better answer if you ask the priest directly.

The best guideline for AGM questions is to ask whether you need an audience to ask the question. If you don’t need an audience then approach the church treasurer to ask for clarification about something in the accounts before the meeting. If you don’t need an audience then don’t wait for the AGM to ask why the priest never preached on the book of Obediah. You’ll probably get a better answer from her if you have a coffee to talk about it rather than raising it on AGM day.

Some churches manage to reach above all this and have refocused their church AGM as a vision building exercise. I’m impressed by that and want to learn more about it.

And I’ve been saving up a couple of announcements for this Sunday’s AGM which I hope will give joy to the heart. (But my lips are sealed for now).

St Mary’s AGM will take place on Sunday. I’m looking forward to it because it gives me the chance to reflect on the immense thing that we are doing in being the congregation of St Mary’s, Glasgow in our day. The reports and the agenda are all in the Annual Report which is available online. At the AGM I get to look at the people responsible for all that is represented in that report and to be thankful for all that people do. The invitation to those coming to the AGM is for the members of the congregation to read that report and to do the same.


Counting our many blessings – Scottish Episcopal Statistics

This Sunday is the day when the Scottish Episcopal Church counts how many people are in church. It isn’t a count of the number of people who want to be Episcopalians, it isn’t a count of those who say they are Episcopalians – in fact it isn’t even a count of Episcopalians at all. It is simply a count of the number of people who happen to be there on that particular Sunday.

I like this Sunday because when the people are counted, I find myself counting them as so many wonderful blessings.

I think that statistics are important and that they can tell us things. They can’t tell us everything but they can tell us a huge amount.

Now, whenever we talk about the stats in the Scottish Episcopal Church we end up talking about how we gather them and there’s always people ready to say that the numbers that we gather are the wrong numbers.

Some people want to make a case for gathering them as an average over a number of weeks. Others say that counting the number of people at Sunday services doesn’t come close to saying how many people the church deals with.

To an extent that is true but it then leads on to absurd suggestions that instead of counting the number of people at worship we should count the number of people who come through the building. You get people wanting to count the Tai Chi group, the AA group that hires the hall or the dog club. I think some people are so desperate to pretend that their numbers are not in fact going downwards that they’d be happy to count the dogs.

The truth is, we need to be fairly consistent in what we count. It isn’t the actual number that we arrive at that matters that much, however interesting it might be in any given year. The real question is how we are doing over time.

I’ve been in many a meeting in the church where we assign money or other resources to something that we claim to be mission and then talk in the rest of the meeting as though we have no expectation at all that the numbers will go in anything other than a downward direction.

I wish we did more with our statistics and I’m quite keen that we keep gathering them.

The extraordinary thing that we discovered last year was that there are over 100 000 people in Scotland who think they are Anglicans, Episcopalians, C of E or some other Anglican variant of answering the question in the Census. The question that really should have been at the top of the agenda of a lot of our meetings is why we don’t seem to see more than about 15 000 of them on a Sunday.

Here’s what I think:

  • The numerical trend has been going downwards for a long time.
  • The really steep fall is in those who claim to be part of the church but who are not communicants.
  • We shouldn’t be surprised that non-communicants have disappeared when we’ve been pushing communion as the main service for 40 years or so.
  • We don’t generally behave as though we believe our mission plans, policies and strategies are likely to succeed.
  • All the evidence points to the fact that our mission plans, policies and strategies (and we’ve had tons of them) have not succeeded.
  • The national profile of the church needs to be fixed.
  • We need to discover a new, respectful ecumenism that will help us to turn our backs on the kind of ecumenism that harms our ability to speak of having something distinctive.
  • Getting people to turn up on more Sundays in the month would give an immediate and dramatic boost to our numbers. We need to speak of why it is important to worship weekly again.
  • Churches with poor websites are going to go going out of business and for good reasons. They shouldn’t expect bail-outs from others.
  • The Scottish Episcopal Church has only ever really grown when it has been in the business of  opening new congregations.
  • You don’t plant new congregations unless you are confident that you’ve got something good that’s worth sharing.
  • The Scottish Episcopal Church may not be doing as badly as some other churches. We may be increasing in market share but need a bit of research to see whether that is the case.

Anyway, all that being said, this Sunday counts because this is the Sunday when we do count.

If you want to be counted yourself then you need to turn up.

Like with most things.

Prayers on converting a Civil Partnership into a Marriage

In a few weeks time, here in Scotland, it will be possible for those couples who have entered into a Civil Partnership to convert that into a marriage. It is clearly a significant moment though interestingly, legally they will be regarded as having been married from the time they entered into the Civil Partnership rather than the time of the conversion.

Some have had Civil Partnerships followed by a blessing (ie a ceremony which recognised them being married to one another) in church. Others may not have had anything in church but may want some way in which this moment in their life together might be marked and celebrated in church.

Most couples in this situation made much of their Civil Partnership and regarded the ceremonies surrounding that as their wedding. For that reason, they don’t seem to want to go through another wedding. However, those wanting to mark the fact that they are legally now regarded as married have no resources to do so in church.

So here are a few prayers that may fulfil that need and which might be used at the offertory of a Sunday Morning Eucharist.

Prayers for a couple converting a Civil Partnership into a Marriage.
The couple stand in front of the priest holding their marriage certificate.

Priest: N. and N.’s relationship is a great journey that,
in different ways,
we have travelled and will continue to travel with them.
Today we pause along the way
to gather at a decisive and important moment,
recognising that they have been married.

The couple lay their marriage certificate on the altar of the church.

Marriage cannot exist on its own.
God’s call to live faithfully together,
to love one another with respect, tenderness and delight,
is part of the call to love all people.
This love empowers them to care for others [and to nurture children].
By this love human dignity will flourish and deepen.

This is the life that N. and N. have begun,
and in which we will support and strengthen them.
We pray that God’s presence may surround and enfold them,
today and in the years to come.

God the Father,
God the Son,
God the Holy Spirit,
bless, preserve and keep you;
the Lord look upon you with favour and mercy
and so fill you with all spiritual benediction and grace,
that you may so live together in this life
that in the world to come you may have life everlasting.

The priest may sign and date the back of the marriage certificate in the presence of the people.

N. and N., having been joined together according to the law of the land
I now declare in the presence of God and before those gathered here
that you are married.

We meet in Christ’s name.
Let us share his peace.


We love you, American Episcopalians!


Two hundred and twenty five years ago today, something special happened in Aberdeen.

Two hundred and twenty five years ago today, Anglicanism in the USA was set ablaze with the consecration of the Rt Rev Samuel Seabury, their first bishop.

The fact that the consecration took place in Aberdeen is one of those quirks of church history which has shaped, and continues to shape the church of today.

The short version of the story is that the American church needed to have a bishop and elected one of their own and sent him across the Atlantic to be consecrated by the Church of England. The Church of England in its turn was having none of it, frightened off appearing to offer support to revolutionary tendencies in the United States. Frightened of promoting revolution.

Seabury had come a long way to be made a bishop and needed to look elsewhere. He had previously studied medicine in Edinburgh and perhaps we can presume that his thoughts turned back to Scotland because he had previously been north of the border. He made the the trip up to Aberdeen where he was consecrated by Robert Kilgour of Aberdeen (who was the Primus), along with two other Scottish bishops, Arthur Petrie (who had connections with my own congregation here in Glasgow) and John Skinner.

The deal was that they would consecrate Seabury so long as he took back the Scottish Liturgy to the American church and work for it to be adopted on the other side of the Atlantic. When you are in the know about matters liturgical, you can still see the similarities between the liturgies from our two churches.

The particular thing that the Scottish Rite had was the Epiclesis a prayer invoking the holy spirit over the communion elements. The Church of England didn’t have it thought they’ve come close to adopting it since. Here in Scotland, that prayer is part of who we are and was part of our gift to America. Any true Episcopalian on either side of the Atlantic knows that the Scottish Episcopalians didn’t just hold up their hands to consecrate a bishop, but blessed the American church with something else that was holy too. And along the way, of course, we helped to kick what was to become the Anglican Communion into being. One sometimes feels that the C of E has never entirely caught up with the implications of that in the years since.

Today, on this anniversary, I want to celebrate the US Based Episcopal Church. I wish they hadn’t tried to change their name to The Episcopal Church a few years ago, as it is downright confusing, but they’ve done so much good that I try to forget about that as much as I can.

In the various disputes within the Anglican Communion in modern times, we must never forget that the Scottish Episcopal Church was the Church that liked to say, “Yes”.

May it ever be so.

The US church received the Epiclesis from Scotland.

They’ve been using it well ever since.

God Bless America and God Bless the US-based Episcopal Church today.

Prayers for Remembrance

Ruined Church

Last Sunday evening we had an extraordinary Choral Evensong. The idea was simple – to mark the start of the First World War by singing some of the music that the cathedral choir was singing 100 years ago. The idea came from Pam Barrowman, one of the members of the choir whose historical research includes work on what the choir here used to sing. In the event, Sunday evening’s service was one of the most powerful remembrance events that I’ve ever been part of.

When that war was declared the congregation here responded on the next Sunday by singing four verses of the national anthem and the organist played the Elgar march which features Land of Hope and Glory. There clearly was a something of a gung-ho spirit around. That was in the August. By November, the news was arriving back in the cathedral and its daughter churches of lives already lost. There was, or course, no memorial to put their names on. There was just the news and the dawning realisation that it would not all be over by Christmas. The mood had changed by now and they were singing movements from Brahms’s Requiem (yes, German music, just as we used music by a German composer to end our two minutes silence yesterday morning) and the Russian Kontakion of the Departed.

Somehow the shadows drew close. I’m not sure whether I wanted to reach back through time to comfort those who were listening to the same music one hundred years ago or whether I wanted them to do the same to us. Anyway, prayer came easily. And compassion. And love.

Several people commented on my prayers. I don’t have a copy as I tend not to write them in advance and pray extemporaneously at Evensong. (Something I always teach people not to do when I’m doing workshops on how to do intercessions).

However, here’s the gist of what I said:

The stone walls of this church surrounded those who went off to war.
Hear us, O Lord, as we remember those who gathered here in in this place to sing and to pray before going off to war.
Help us to remember their sense of hope and adventure and the joy of human companionship.
We remember those who showed courage in leaving for war and also those who showed their own courage in refusing to fight.
Those who went to war went believing they were putting the world to rights.
Help us to try to do the same.
Lord in your mercy. Hear our prayer.

The stone walls of this church surrounded those who remained at home.
Hear us, O Lord, as we remember those who remained home, so many women waiting for news of their men, so many children waiting for news of their fathers.
As we remember them we remember those who went on waiting throughout all their lives.
Help us to pray for those who today wait for news of those whom they love who have gone to war.
Lord in your mercy, Hear our prayer.

The stone walls of this church have surrounded those who in this place have tried to bring peace.
They have surrounded those who have left this place to go on demonstrations.
They have surrounded those who have debated.
They have surrounded conversations and discussions and hopes and dreams.
Hear us as we pray for those who have decisions, important decisions to make which affect the lives of others.
Lord in your mercy, Hear our prayer.

And now the stone walls of this church surround us.
What will we make of the world that we have inherited? How will we live in the world of today?
Help us O Lord to seek out peace and build a world of justice.
Teach us what to do and how to live.
Lord in your mercy, Hear our prayer.

And here in this place, surrounded by these same stone walls, I hold in my hand a bible.
It was carried by a soldier in World War Taken from place to place and returning to this country when he returned at the close of the war.
And inside its tattered cover is a prayer that we may each make our own prayer
this night.
Almighty and Everlasting God,
by whose Grace Thy servants
are enabled to fight the good fight of faith
and ever prove victorious:
We humbly beseech Thee so to inspire us,
that we may yield our hearts to thine obedience
and, exercise our wills on Thy behalf.
Help us to think wisely:
to speak rightly:
to resolve bravely:
to act kindly:
to live purely.
Bless us in body and in soul,
and make us a blessing to our comrades.
Whether , at home or abroad
may we ever seek the extension of Thy Kingdom.
Let the assurance of Thy presence
save us from sinning:
support us in life,
and comfort us in death.
0 Lord our God accept this prayer
for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.

[Picture Credit – Ruined church at Vie Chapelle, France Great War Primary Document Archive: Photos of the Great War –]

Jericho, Berlin and what wall next?


I remember going on a school trip to Germany when I was a young teenager. I don’t remember that much about the visit to be honest, but I do remember the wall.

We were not in Berlin but we were staying near enough to the border between East Germany and West Germany to warrant a visit. Indeed the teachers organising the trip clearly thought that it was something that we all needed to see.

It made a big impression. I can still remember being told that we all had to behave – no larking around and no running into the grass near the wall lest we risk being shot.

That in itself was shocking.

I remember the stillness around as we climbed up a lookout tower to look over into this other country – a strange place which you could be shot at for meddling with.

And looking into the other side, we could see members of the military looking back out at us in the West.

What were we really each looking at?

In many ways I think that the anniversary this weekend of the fall of the wall should have been more of a celebration for the whole of Europe. Even those tiresome Eurosceptics in the Tory party might have been expected to have got on board for a celebration of the end of the Cold War and the fall of repressive communism.

The incredible thing to my mind is that something which seemed so fixed, so immovable has gone. How often we need to be reminded that things can change.

The Berlin Wall wasn’t just a physical wall, it was something which existed in the politics of Europe and something which existed in our minds too. The physical represented something much more.

So, what walls need still to fall. Where does Joshua’s trumpet still need to sound?

Inevitably, thinking about the Berlin Wall one’s mind turns to the wall separating Israel from Palestine and cutting right through people’s lives. Thoughts turn too to Korea.

Berlin reminds us that such divisions are not eternal and that things can change utterly.

And there will be mental walls which we can barely recognise that will yet fall too.

Freedom isn’t just a passport to the West.


[Photo Credit: Gavin StewartCC Copyright Attribution 2.0]

Somewhere over the rainbow


I’ve just heard that I’ve been included in the Independent on Sunday’s Rainbow List. This is the new name for the Pink List – a list of gay, lesbian, bi and trans people whom the newspaper wants to celebrate as people who have made a difference in the past year.

To be honest I’m surprised to be included again – I’ve been on the Pink List for the last few years and was really expecting to be nudged out of the way this year. But there I am and they’ve very kindly bumped me up over fifty places to number 34 and I’m in company that takes my breath away.

It is great to see Vicky Beeching, Richard Coles and Colin Coward on there too, Bishop Alan Wilson heading the straight allies list, Jeremy Pemberton listed as one to watch and it isn’t too difficult to think of other heroes in the church who haven’t been listed this time around.

I’ll be looking forward to meeting others who make a difference at the Rainbow List Party which takes place in London this week. Congratulations to everyone on the list and to everyone who was nominated. The world is changing. It isn’t changing fast enough for my liking, particularly in the church, but there’s much to celebrate and much to give thanks for. We shall overcome, one day.

I remember when I was first named on the Pink List – it meant a lot, to be honest. You don’t get many thankyous for relentlessly going on about LGBT equality issues in the church. To have been named again a couple of times and again today is a great honour.

My thanks to those who nominated me and those who quietly (and sometimes noisily) support me in this area of my life.

You could say I’m over the moon.

You could say I’m somewhere over the rainbow.