Becoming a Welcoming Cathedral

Someone who is visiting Glasgow at the moment and who has been to St Mary’s a couple of times, said to me this week, “Well, whatever you are telling those people about Welcome, they are actually doing it.”

It reminded me of someone in the congregation who said early on in my ministry here, “You are doing something to us from the front of the church and I can’t work out what it is. Something to do with the language you use. But it is making us nicer and like one another more.”

The truth is, one of the core goals that I had when I came here was to help the congregation to become more welcoming. That was one of the things that the people who were interviewing me named as a hope when I was considering coming here.

Nowadays, people commonly say that St Mary’s is indeed a welcoming place.

Whenever I hear that I get scared that we will rest on our laurels and stop working at it. You are only as welcoming as the experience that someone turning up for the first time had last week. There will inevitably be people who do come who don’t catch the welcome that is in the air that other people feel and turning a congregation into a more welcoming congregation is one of those jobs that is never done.

However, I do think that we’ve come a long way and that St Mary’s is indeed a much better place for someone turning up than it used to be.

So what are the keys?

Well, most people would think that it starts by organising people into “welcoming teams” and launching them at unsuspecting new meat.

In fact, that’s not where I think it has to start.

Becoming a welcoming church or cathedral starts somewhere else. For me it begins with moods and attitudes and does indeed have quite a lot to do with the message coming from the front.

Have you noticed that I’ve never once used the word “Visitor” in what I’ve written above? Have you noticed that I don’t use it in church either? Here at St Mary’s we don’t have visitors. We do have people who are there for the first time and we do speak of people finding a way into the congregation. However, the V word is absent from our vocabulary at the front of the church.

There is nothing less welcoming than standing at the front of a church and saying, “Good morning everyone, today we welcome lots of visitors to St Marys”.

Why? Well, it sets up those there for the first time as aliens and strangers and it also sets up an ugly dynamic of those who are the We and those who are the Them.

I try very hard not to think like that and stop myself from speaking like that – it just doesn’t help.

For the same reason, our notices are all written in neutral 3rd person language – you don’t find groups imploring people to “Join us on Thursday for a great….”

Because there is no us and them in the kingdom, that’s why.

There are people around in church who are trying to look out for folk who might want a conversation but we also know that lots of people come to St Mary’s and don’t want to talk yet either. They’ve got to be allowed to sit behind a pillar and make a quick exit for as long as they want to.

One of the strangest things that churches do to people who come for the first time is offer them coffee at the end of the service as though that is hospitable.

Consistently people tell me that church coffee hours can be terrifying if you’ve just turned up. Putting coffee on after a service is a good idea but only if you are prepared to ensure that those who’ve been coming for years don’t use it to huddle. If they do, I’d say that you’d be better off doing something entirely different.

In some parts of the world, there’s quite an emphasis on identifying new faces with badges and pins and that kind of thing.

By far the worst welcome I ever received in a church was in a cathedral which said on its bulletin, “If you are here for the first time, please make your way to the Welcome Desk and ask for a Welcome Button (ie a badge for UK speakers). Wear the button to our Coffee Hour and everyone will know to give you a special welcome”. Dutifully I made my way to the welcome desk expecting to be given a discrete badge an inch across with a picture of the church on it. Instead I was given an enormous stick on label that covered my heart, on which they wrote my name in large black marker-pen and I was launched through a set of double doors into their coffee hour feeling that I was wearing something that was designed more for target practice than anything else. I then found myself standing around on my own wearing this large and prominent marker of my newness whilst all around me proceeded to ignore me. Five minutes later I was, predictably, doing a runner.

That was a good example of a church that had thought a lot about it and was still getting it wrong.

I can’t claim that St Mary’s is getting it right all the time, but I think we are trying to do so in ways that some people haven’t thought about. You can find out a bit of what it is like to come to St Mary’s at the 10.30 service by checking the “First time?” section on the website.

So, in short, if you want to be welcoming:

  • Don’t use the V word – there are no visitors in heaven.
  • Don’t talk about us – there is no us and them either.
  • Don’t serve coffee unless you are prepared to work hard to make sure it isn’t a collection of closed groups.
  • Do think about language.
  • Do concientize people in the congregation about what a welcoming church feels like – it is a culture that has to be built over years
  • Do presume that the website is for those who’ve never looked at it before and for those who’ve never yet turned up.

Ah, websites! But that can wait until another day.

Beware of the Celibate

beware of the celibateThere’s rather a lot of silly talk going on online about celibacy at the moment. This is largely connected to a couple of recent publications, not the least of which is Richard Coles’s new autobiography. Rather a lot of the publicity surrounding the book has made much of the idea of someone moving from a rockstar lifestyle to that of a celibate vicar.

This is connected to the idea that gay priests are OK “so long as they are celibate”, an expectation which seems to have something to do with what gay people (by which we mean men) desire to do with bits of their bodies. (The unspoken and rarely challenged presumption being that straight men don’t do these things with their bodies).

Alongside this, we’ve also got a small number of the usual suspects saying that the churches can’t legitimately adopt a positive attitude to same-sex couples getting married because it would somehow invalidate the experience of those who reject the legitimacy of their own gay desires and have pledged to live without doing anything about them. This is linked with the specious phrase – “same-sex attraction” or even worse, “unwanted same-sex attraction”. This phrase is only ever used by those denying that God might delight in God’s gay children and have given them their desires so that they might delight in one another. Let me be clear – the phrase “same-sex attraction” is intrinsically homophobic and only ever used by those, usually motivated by religion, who have bad news for gay men.

In the midst of all this, it seems important to get back to first principles.

Let us begin with the bible and what St Paul had to say about marriage.

In 1 Corinthians 7 we find Paul saying that it is better to marry than to burn. Now, this is important. Firstly this is not an argument in favour of marriage – it is a rather sniffy comment from someone who thought that Jesus was about to return and turn the world so far upside down that marriage wasn’t really important. Secondly, it is important to recognise that this isn’t someone advocating celibacy as being a higher calling than marriage either. Rather it is someone usefully pointing out that enforced celibacy, particularly celibacy enforced for religious reasons, is a dangerous thing.

Enforced celibacy is something that we should all be wary of. I’m far from being the only person who thinks that all kinds of abusive behaviour can arise from enforced celibacy that is demanded of those who have no sense of vocation towards it.

Many years ago I knew a nun who knew a thing or two about psychology and she used to say, “Wherever you see a virgin, there you see a witch.” Now, virginity is not the same as celibacy but it is a comment that I often have reflected on. All kinds of behaviour are linked to psychosexual hopes and dreams. When we hear people advocating celibacy as a lifestyle we should at least see amber lights before us. It may be the right thing for some people and it quite certainly isn’t the life for everyone.

One of my big reservations at the moment about the current discussions about celibacy is that they seem to settle on the notion of celibacy as being about what one does (or doesn’t do) with bits of one’s body. In fact, Christian spiritual teaching about celibacy was always about something rather more than that. It was (and is) about someone responding to what they perceive to be a call from God to live a life free from distractions not simply for its own sake but so that they are then free in God’s name to love the world. What one doesn’t do with one’s bits is rather a secondary consideration.

The truth is, a couple of people who are living in respectable coupledom with all its compromises, arguments and trips to IKEA are not living in a celebate relationship in the grand scheme of Christian spirituality just because they declare (or are presumed) to be putting limits on what they do with their bodies. Christianity is certainly an incarnate religion and does indeed claim that bodies matter but it is also about more than bodies too.

Some Christians are called to celibacy. All are called to chastity. The trouble is, and it is interesting very interesting trouble indeed, we don’t all agree what chaste living is any more and that applies to straight people (including particularly those not yet married) just as much as it applies to those who are gay.

By all means let us talk about celibacy but let us do so in a grown up way, beginning from being cautious about those trying to argue either by their words or their lifestyles for the enforced celibacy of others. Let us also not confuse the idea of not having sex, with living celibate lives.

These things matter far too much. When you encounter the C word, let it flag up some warnings. Celibacy is a complex, tricky and fascinating thing. If we don’t have any knowledge of that or interest in understanding it then we should beware of the “celibate”.

Living together and not having sex is perfectly legitimate and perfectly uninteresting. Indeed it is no-one’s business but that of the couple themselves. We must ask couples wanting to make much of that way of life why they are doing so.

It doesn’t seem particularly godly to enquire about (or advertise) what is happening in particular bedrooms. That applies whether there is a lot going on there or not much going on at all.

Sermon for Dedication Sunday 2014

26 October 2014 – Dedication Sunday from Kelvin Holdsworth on Vimeo.

You have come to something that cannot be touched – in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

I suppose I should give the full verse of the text that I want to preach on this morning. The verse I’ve chosen comes from the letter to the Hebrews and the portion that Wolfgang read to us a few moments ago.

You have not come to something* that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.

I suppose it takes a certain kind of preacher to dare to preach on the verse that refers to a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.

But I guess I’m that kind of preacher anyway.

But I really want to leap off from that first phrase – You have come to something that cannot be touched.

For today we are celebrating our Dedication Sunday – a day when we step outside the usual cycle of Sunday readings and set aside some time to give thanks for what we have around us.

And I’m being deliberately ambiguous about that – for I give thanks not simply for the building around us but for the building that is the saints of God in this place who are all around us as we worship together each week.

St Mary’s the building can certainly be touched. Indeed if you touch it in some places a bit of it will flake off which you can take home for a souvenir. But today I think we are doing a bit more than giving thanks for lumps of sandstone.

For you have come to something that cannot be touched. You have come instead to Mount Zion – the city of God itself.

By the time the Epistle to the Hebrews was written people were gathering together in groups to worship Jesus Christ. The idea of the weekly gathering to worship was already established amongst the Jewish people and adopted by those who found God through their experience of Jesus. But it was important to remind them even at the beginning that they had come to something that could not be touched.

I remember asking one of you a while ago what it was that he thought bound everyone at St Mary’s together. He thought for a moment and said, [Read more…]

La Cenerentola – Scottish Opera – Review

This review first appeared at Opera Britannia.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

A couple of top-notch singers rescue Scottish Opera’s new production of La Cenerentola from the doldrums but sadly it is a production that lacks a sense of direction and purpose from the word go. Uncertainty in the pit and a very mixed bag of voices contribute to an evening that is neither a complete success nor a complete disaster.

Things got off to a very uncertain start with a very scrappy overture that suggested that the orchestra were under rehearsed and underprepared. Though tempi were rollicking along, there were no riches in the orchestral sound at all. Dynamically there wasn’t much on offer – the only real variation being between fairly loud and too loud.

Meanwhile, there were some interesting though curious things happening on the stage. Firstly we had snow falling at the back of the stage. Little scraps of paper were falling in the darkness and very dramatically lit. Then a series of wooden cabinets could be seen moving about the stage, which were to remain in view for the whole evening. Finally, La Cenerentola herself could be seen sleeping central stage. A curtain revealed a number of cast members who then crept about the stage amongst the cabinets. It turned out that most of them were the chorus, dressed in dark grey jumpsuits with large ruffs around their necks. Oh, and the ruffs were illuminated from within.

What was happening on stage was certainly striking but what did it mean and where were we? Having had the whole of the evening to think about this, I have to confess that I’m none the wiser. The best guess that I can make is that the opera was set in the mind of someone reading about postmodernity in the early 1980s. A bit of modern dress here and a medieval ruff around the neck there; a few visual references to carriages all over the place and beautifully lit fluttering snowflakes which were not referred to again. Sometimes the ruffs were lit up and sometimes they were not. It was all quite clever but it was no way to tell a story.

The large wooden cabinets were to remain on stage throughout the whole evening, from time to time, doing their little ballet. Most of the entrances and exits were through the cabinets, leading members of the cast to be seen bounding from the wings into the cabinets in order to appear. Again, one simply doesn’t know why.

However, this was an opera not a cabinet ballet, so we had better consider the singing. First up it is probably best to deal with the high points. This is simple – this opera is worth seeing in order to hear Victoria Yarovaya in the title role as Angelina and Richard Burkhard as Dandini. They are each in their way superb.

Ms Yarovaya had a lovely rich voice – that was clear from the outset but of course, Rossini makes his audience wait for the fireworks. Though she sang well all evening, this Cinderella saved the real sparks for the coloratura of the final aria “Non più mesta”. This was an astonishing virtuoso performance delivered full face to the audience with no pesky stage action to distract from what was going on.

Ms Yarovaya’s triumph came just after Rossini’s set piece sextet “Questo è un nodo avviluppato”. This itself was was also stunning – the singers managing to roll their Italian consonants in a completely grrripping fashion. Taken altogether, the finale was considerably more exciting than the rest of the evening, which, one supposes, is how it should always be.

Richard Burkhard’s Dandini, the valet, exuded confidence and it often felt as though he was taking command of the stage. His sexy swagger and knowing ways with the women were exciting in themselves but oh, his voice was a dream. Always cutting right through the chatter of the other voices and soaring above the over-eager orchestra, Burkhard could not only be heard but one wanted to hear him too. This was an outstandingly rich, would-you-like-cream-on-top-of-that-hot-chocolate of a voice. Like Ms Yarovaya, it is worth going to see this production just to hear him and to have the two of them in one show feels as though one has come up trumps twice.

The unfortunate consequence of these two great voices is that the ensemble was thrown a little out of kilter as the others were no match for them.

John Molloy as Alidoro was the best of the rest. His long tall frame and rather creepy presence brought something malevolent to the stage. Vocally he was self-assured and confident. Nico Darmanin as the prince, Don Ramiro had the confidence and the vocal dexterity he needed but not the power to reach over the top of the orchestra. The two frightful step-sisters Rebecca Bottone and Máire Flavin had a reasonable line in comedy pouts and faints but sometimes could not be heard. Ms Flavin had the clear edge here but the pair of them were drowned out too often. The same fate befell Umberto Chiummo who was a last minute substitute singing Don Magnifico. His voice was great when singing with the forte-piano continuo but I couldn’t really pass any judgement on his singing with the orchestra – too often I couldn’t really hear him.

When the chorus were not bearing their strange cold light on the stage they were being given silly things to do by choreographer Pascaline Verrier who for some reason thought it would be a good idea to get the men to do camp little dances behind the other action for a cheap laugh. The men of the prince’s palace had glitter in their hair. No, I don’t know why either. Perhaps they had been having a girls’ night in, to prepare for the ball.

Particular mention must be made of Angelina’s outfits. The dress which she wore to the ball was by some distance the most unfortunate outfit I’ve seen on stage for a long time, looking as though a swan was auditioning for the role as the ugliest of ugly ducklings. She looked far more pretty back at home in her Cinders outfit.

And thereby hangs the central problem with this production. A lot of attention had been paid to details that didn’t matter whilst the basic story was ignored. Add to that a mismatched cast and you have a fairly patchy evening.

There were good bits, certainly, but this didn’t really hang together as a whole. Director Sandrine Anglade was making her Scottish Opera debut with this piece. Though she had thrown a lot of creativity to the exercise things simply didn’t hold together at all. At the end, we had the snow effect again that we had seen at the beginning. It was quite beautiful. However it had nothing whatsoever to do with the story at all.

See it to hear some cracking singing from a couple of great voices. During the silliest of the action, close your eyes.

Rating: ★★★☆☆


A Kestrel for a Knave – an Owl for a Provost

Black cloak and owl

Sermon preached on 12 October 2014

20141012 kelvin holdsworth – gnashing of from Kelvin Holdsworth on Vimeo.

‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Here in St Mary’s we end our Gospel reading with the response – Give thanks to the Lord for his Glorious Gospel, Praise to Christ our Lord.

In many churches, they end readings with the response “This is the Word of the Lord – Thanks be to God”.

I think that is one of those readings from scripture that would tempt me greatly, if that was the response that we were used to, to say, “Is this the word of the Lord?”

There’s no denying at all that it is a tricky gospel reading for many people who will be sitting here this morning.

Maybe you don’t think so and find it an obvious way of reinforcing what you believe – that anyone who doesn’t conform with what God wants will be thrown out of the feast unto the outer darkness.

Well, if that’s you, then good luck living your life with it. I know it isn’t for me.

Conformity to anything is a challenge to me and I find myself immediately troubled by the poor victim of Jesus’s tale who gets thrown out of all that is good and nourishing simply for breaking a dress code. What’s that all about?

Well, perhaps the best I can do this morning is to tell a few more stories. Let us see whether we can start to unravel this parable by telling some more parables.

Here’s one about dress codes to soften you up and we’ll come back to the gospel story in a minute.

Once upon a time (about four weeks ago) in a land far away (the West End of Glasgow) there was a Provost. And the Provost would strut around his cathedral the Lord of all he surveyed. He was young (or at least he still thought he was still young) and witty (or so they told him at the end of the service in about half an hour’s time) and he was handsome and fair…..and thanks be to God, he was modest and humble too. [Read more…]

Same-sex Marriage Date for Scotland – 31 December 2014


Exciting news this morning – we have a date for the first same-sex marriages in Scotland. The date is within this year – just. The first day on which most couples will be able to get married will be 31 December 2014, the day known in Scotland as Hogmanay. There’s going to be some parties north of the border that night, I can tell you.

The law will actually change in mid-December, as expected but the Scottish Government has delayed its proposal to increase the notice period to 28 days. Thus, same-sex marriage becomes legal on 16 December 2014. If a couple have been married in another jurisdiction (eg England) then they will be regarded in Scotland as being in a Civil Partnership until midnight on 15 December and regarded as a married couple on 16 December. Couples can give notice to marry on that day and a couple of weeks later can get married on 31 December 2014.

From 16 December 2014 a couple in extenuating circumstances will be able to apply to be able to get married more quickly – this usually applies if one partner is near to death. It is entirely possible that such a couple may be the first to be married but the big celebrations will come right at the turn of the year.

From 16 December, trans people can get gender recognition without having to be divorced.

Couples who have entered a Civil Partnership will be able to apply to a Registrar to convert that to a marriage from 16 December 2014 and it will be free to do so for the first year. (You pay for the marriage certificate just like anyone else but there is no processing fee). Alternatively, couples may pay the usual fees for a marriage ceremony. Couples will be able to be married in a Register Office or by religious or humanist celebrants in certain circumstances.

Couples will be able to be married in the Scottish Episcopal Church with the permission of the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy and the House of Laity meeting in General Synod.

Any couple who has entered into a Civil Partnership who converts it to a marriage is welcome if they wish to bring the certificate to St Mary’s where it can be laid on the altar at a Eucharist in thanksgiving for the partnership and for this change in the law.

Civil Partnerships will continue to be available to same-sex couples (but not to straight couples) and I am more than willing to go on blessing such couples.

I’m also willing to bless all couples who have married by a Registrar, using the Service of Benediction that I drew people’s attention to earlier.

Here’s the prayer I will be using to bless couples in church:
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.

Straight couples marrying who wish to express solidarity with gay couples who wish to get married in Scottish Episcopal Churches should get married in a Register Office and come to church for the Benediction of their marriage just like anyone else wanting to get married.

I’ve yet to decide whether or not to continue to perform legal marriages for straight couples in church after 31 December 2014.

Congratulations are in order not only to those who will be getting married soon but also to all those campaigners who worked to change the law, to parliamentarians who voted for it and civil servants who have been working on it. The brilliant campaigning of the Equality Network has been a powerful force in bringing about change. And inevitably, my mind turns in awe to the members of St Mary’s Cathedral, particularly those belonging to the LGBT group who went out collecting signatures to bring in petition to the Scottish Parliament long before the big campaigns got going.

We changed the world.



Picture Credit – Peter Kolkman Copyright – Creative Commons Some Rights Reserved

Come out and carry on

Today has been designated as National Coming Out Day.

There’s been so much going on recently in the media and social media about gay bishops in the Church of England.

This seems to me to say it in a more elegant way than all the letters to the press, editorials, blog posts and twitter posts by the score.

come out and carry on

How twitter and facebook can save your blog rather than kill it

One of the things that anyone keeping a blog must be aware of at the moment is that things are not the same as they were. At one time you simply had to put up something even vaguely interesting and people all over the world would read and comment. Blogging was like the Wild West – for the attention seeker there was gold to be mined her.

I remember Mother Ruth saying to me before she started blogging, “All you have to do is ask ‘Who teaches cats yoga?’ and you’ve an audience”. If you could supply an entertaining picture of the cat in question, you were immediately set to dominate the blogging world.

Nowadays, things are more difficult. One-liners like that have long since moved over to social media. Facebook and twitter are a more appropriate place for compact wit and if you are initially trying to reach friends and friends of friends then the social media platforms are the way to go. It is, to a large extent, what they are for.

I made a prediction in one of my new year posts that the number of active bloggers would decrease but the influence of those who remain blogging would continue to increase. I still think that is true and I can see when I look through my blog feeds in a morning that there really are far fewer people making the effort. The fad has past but there are some who continue. Those who continue tend to be those who have learned to harness social media and quite often those who have  given up have simply moved to social media instead. Perhaps blogging gave them connections with people that they are happy to retain in a different way.

For some people, starting a blog is about keeping up with those whom you know. For others it is like taking a few tentative steps into the limelight and tottering onto a very public stage. It is the latter type of bloggers who are persisting and they have even greater potential now to become global voices. The blogosphere is becoming free of some of the clutter. Now the cat pictures have moved to facebook and twitter, maybe posts with more substantial thinking matter more.

It is very obvious that quick witty thoughts are going on social media whereas blogs are now being used for more substantial thinking. Successful blogs these days quite often seem to have fewer posts than they once would have done but the posts themselves are more substantial.

Who would have guessed that blogging would have reinvigorated the essay as a writing style?

Anyway, it seems to me that you can write as much as you like these days, if you are not engaging on social media then you are unlikely to see many readers.

Here’s how to make social media work for you and keep the readers flowing in.

  • Post links to your latest blog entry on twitter and facebook (it isn’t rocket science, that’s where your readers are).
  • Note the plural! – Post a link in the morning to get the morning audience, one in the afternoon (for when America is waking up, if you are in Europe) and another one later in the day.
  • Don’t be ashamed to work for your audience.
  • Remember that email is a form of social media and offer people the chance to sign up to receive your posts. This way of reading blogs is growing.
  • Remember to provide an RSS feed for those who receive blogs that way. (For readers, I recommend Feedly now that Google Reader is long gone).
  • A witty link on twitter that gets retweeted is the gold you are chasing
  • A photo of a cat doing yoga is never wrong.



  • Oh and one last thing. Why do you think it is important to ask questions on a blog?


Picture credit – Mel on Flickr  Copyright (CC BY-ND 2.0)


Dinner at the Trades House



Out last night to a lovely dinner with the Trades House of Glasgow.

Glasgow is one of those cities where the Medieval Guilds of the city still exist. The various trades in the city formed themselves in to Incorportated Crafts which were ways of regulating (and monopolising) trade as the city grew.

Nowadays they give away a lot of money (over £600 000 a year) and maintain various traditions centred around the Trades House in Glassford Street.

Last night’s dinner was the choosing dinner for the Deacon Convener of the House. This is the highest honour for those involved and the person takes on a civic role in Glasgow for their year of office.

This year’s Deacon Convener is the Rt Rev Idris Jones, formerly the Bishop of Glasgow and Galloway and so it was good to be there to cheer him on as he took up his new role.

It was a great night out and fascinating to see an institution which dates back to the middle ages still functioning and still doing its bit to offer relief to those in need and training to the young.

The dress code was “Official, Evening (White Tie) or Highland Dress. Insignia and Decorations” so we were all very spruced up.

The best I could manage for Insignia and Decorations was the cufflinks pictured above.

I made them on Monday.