I SPENT the night before a speaking engagement in the Cotswolds with a former colleague, in her 19th-century cottage in the hills. In the bathroom, the following morning, I discovered that the top had come off my bottle of shower gel, and its contents had emptied themselves into my washbag. Grumbling, I fished out my toothbrush and deodorant, which left me with a bag full of liquid soap.
I decided that the best thing to do was to carry the bag across the room, step into the shower, and wash myself and the whole slithery bag together, but en route I managed to spill some of the contents on to the cream-coloured carpet. I inspected it gingerly: not exactly stained, but definitely discoloured. It was in a shady part of the bathroom, however, and I thought to myself, “I can get away with this.”
I ate an uneasy breakfast, and said nothing about it until we opened the front door to leave. “What on earth has happened?” my host gasped. I had underestimated the effect of an entire bottle of shower gel and the soft water of the Cotswold Hills in ageing pipes. A volcano of bubbles had erupted out of the drains. There was foam everywhere — on the lawn, over the drive, across the flowerbeds. Reddened with shame, I had to confess everything.
I was reminded of an elderly man who, when I was young, walked up and down Croydon’s shopping streets with a placard that read “Be sure your sins will find you out.” I treated him with curiosity as a boy, and disdain as a teenager. As an adult, I reluctantly admit that he had a point. I will never again question the importance of confession.
ONE of my final tasks before retiring from my job as a training officer for Southwark diocese was to introduce a seminar by the Very Revd Andrew Nunn, then Dean of Southwark, who preceded me into retirement by a matter of days. I had gathered a group of clergy for a workshop on the theology and practice of hearing confession.
Introductions over, I sat in the back row, expecting that I would only half-listen to an event that wouldn’t have much relevance to me as a lay minister. Unexpectedly, I found myself tremendously moved by Andrew’s description of Jesus, immediately after his resurrection, passing to the apostles the responsibility of declaring to fallible human beings that there is forgiveness for their sins; and of that forgiveness then tumbling down through the Christian centuries, generation after generation.
Facing the embarrassing prospect of actual tears in the diocesan office, I dealt with it in the time-honoured way — by sniffing energetically and handing round the biscuits.
ANDREW NUNN will be sorely missed as Dean of Southwark, but there is genuine excitement about welcoming his successor, the Revd Dr Mark Oakley (a regular contributor to this column), who will be installed next month.
The Dean’s house is a modest but enviably located building overlooking the River Thames. The river marks the boundary between Southwark and London dioceses, and the house has a magnificent view of St Paul’s Cathedral. This, however, means that Southwark has the only Dean in the country who draws back his bedroom curtains every morning knowing that the first thing his eyes behold will be the splendour of someone else’s cathedral.
PROMPTED by something that Mark wrote, I paid a visit to Crossbones Graveyard, a short walk from Southwark Cathedral. This tranquil space amid hectic streets is the final resting-place of 15,000 women and children, residents of brothels near by, who — for 400 years, until the 16th century — were licensed to ply their trade by the Bishop of Winchester. As Mark pointed out, their episcopal licence was not enough to allow them a Christian burial, and they are interred in this patch of unconsecrated ground.
Friends of Crossbones have created a community garden. Every year, in the summer, the clergy of Southwark Cathedral make a procession through the streets, robed and with incense, to conduct a service of “Regret, Remembrance and Restoration”. Every month, however, there is an event to honour the memory of all women who have died as a result of the wrongdoing of men.
The ceremony that I attended was a completely secular occasion. Bells were rung; candles were lit; blessings were read; silence was kept. It occurred to me how many of these rituals have been appropriated from Christianity and secularised. It is the reverse of what St Augustine did in the sixth century: Christian traditions are being unbaptised.
Clouds of blessing
AN IRON gate at the edge of the garden is festooned with thousands of ribbons, each added to remember an individual. I had brought a green ribbon to recall “T”, whose life was too short and too sad; as I tied it, I was on the edge of tears for the second time in a month.
I turned to walk to the railway station, and it began to rain — one of those gentle rainfalls that are not disagreeable. And, as the rain fell, I thought of God’s forgiveness, cascading down through the centuries, and showering a tender mercy upon the living and the dead.
Until his retirement, Peter Graystone was Lay Training Officer for Southwark diocese. He is a Reader at the Good Shepherd, Carshalton Beeches.