The numbers game.

photo (58)

Despite dire predictions, thus far the weather hasn’t been too cold this winter (yet).

St. Michaels has no proper heating. There are some overhead infrared heaters that heat the top of your head, and some butane fuelled industrial plaster dryers, which just take the edge off the chill, but they are too noisy to keep on during Mass. Ever had a face full of propane gas, while trying to light an industrial plaster dryer at 6.30am on a Sunday morning? It’s awful, let me tell you.

I’ve recently offered the congregation the opportunity to worship in the school hall should it get too cold this winter. Unusually for me, I’ve gone about this in a democratic way. The people must weigh up the pros and cons, and let the churchwardens know what they would like to do. It seems likely though that they will want to stay in church.

There are no easy answers to dealing with a building like ours. I don’t blame the congregation for wanting to stay in their church, but I’m also conscious that we have recently lost three people because of the cold. I love the building, and have spent a lot of time and effort to bring it back to life again, but to the average newcomer it is cold, depressing and uncomfortable.

We are fortunate to have a lovely welcoming, and friendly congregation, who have been faithful through thick and thin over the years. If this wasn’t so, I feel sure that St. Michaels would have closed long ago.

The reality is that it is unlikely that we will be able to have proper heating and a comfortable space to sit in for the foreseeable future. We need to be thankful for the blessing we do have. Beautiful liturgy and music, a warm and friendly church family, and a faithfulness that remains steadfast come what may.

It disappoints many of the folk that there aren’t more people in church. Does the Vicar do any visiting? Why don’t the children from the school come to church? The reality is that this parish is now a place of many faiths, predominantly non-Christian. It is also crime and deprivation ridden. We are about to undertake an exercise with external help, to understand more about our community and how we might serve its needs better. Brought to fulfilment, this may or may not fill the church, but more importantly it might place us more at the centre of this community again, in a ministry of servanthood and ever Christian faithfulness.








The Rookeries aka Birmingham New Street.



I’m a bit of a fan of the revamped New Street Station. The building itself has no architectural merit whatsoever in my opinion, though altering the existing pile of reinforced concrete into an entirely new space is a really impressive feat. What attracts me are the shopping opportunities I’m afraid. Excellent new bookshop that stocks my favourite german fountain pens.

What the project has achieved is the opening up of the area behind the station building, with a sizeable new entrance. There are some lovely buildings behind there, now the Old Rep and the Electric Cinema are more visible than they have been for years. It’s unfortunate that the gems are sandwiched between dirty and rather unattractive concrete carbuncles. These days, ugly 60’s towers that cannot be demolished are normally painted dark grey or black to soften the ugliness when an area is redeveloped. It’s no surprise that here in Birmingham, nothing has been done to improve the environment around one of the biggest redevelopments the city has ever seen.

in the 19th century this area was populated by the poor, it consisted of slums and was renowned as being the haunt of undesirables, and because of this it was referred to as the Rookeries apparently.

I recently discovered that this area was served by a church, St. Jude’s Hill Street. Built in 1847, it was a brick built gothic building. There appears to be a difference of opinion regarding the identity of the architect, but it was one of the poorest livings in the town, at only one hundred and fifty pounds a year. Whatever it’s tradition when it was founded, it was later to be cited during the ritualist controversy. Indeed in 1905 the Society of the precious blood was founded here. That might give an indication as to the style of churchmanship!

Sadly the church was demolished in 1971 to make way for the ‘Albany Banqueting Suite,’ which is looking as hideous as ever.

The organ from the church was recently installed at St.Michaels in Exeter. I’m sure that the people who loved St. Jude’s would approve.

National Prisons week.

National Prisons week was marked in Birmingham last night, at my branch in Winson Green (Latimer Hall), a few hundred yards away from the walls of HMP Birmingham. One of the things that it didn’t realise until a few weeks ago, is that the daily prayer themes for this are focused around kind of faith matters. For example praying for prison workers in the material, focuses on christian volunteers going into prisons. I thought that it would be about praying for volunteers, prison officers, chaplains, governors, and all those who work in prisons. We prayed for everybody anyway, and had an excellent discussion, that could have gone on many hours if time had allowed. We prayed within the space of a prison cell I had marked out on the hall floor.

Thanks to Rosie and Michael for mobilising the faithful from St. John’s Perry Barr, Gill from St. Michaels, and my colleague Adella from Winson Green for supporting. We were few in number, eight in total. I wonder if travelling to Winson Green on a cold winter’s night was a drawback, or perhaps as I said at the beginning of my talk last night, prisons are not something any of us really want to sit and think about for any length of time. Next year I’m aiming for a slot at Birmingham Cathedral to get some debate and prayer going on all over the city.


old master

Circle of Carlo Maratta 1625 – 1713. The faithful receiving the sacraments. Provenance: my dining room.

During my time as a prison chaplain, I learnt quite quickly to speak in very vague terms about my work ‘inside’. For most people prisons are an unknown world and they are interested to know more. I am embarrassed to admit that on a few occasions in the past when I’ve been invited out to dinner by friends, who have invited other friends, my work as a prison chaplain has dominated the conversation for almost the entire evening.

One of the areas people are most interested in, concerns the sort of conversations that go on between prisoners and prison chaplains, and what the boundaries are in such conversations. If for example a person confessed to a murder would I be duty bound to report it?

After seven and a half years ministry in various prisons, I would struggle to recall many times when a prisoner told me something of such grave significance during a pastoral conversation, that I would need to report it. On a few occasions in the exercise of general pastoral counselling (not confession), I did establish the ground rules of the conversation, Namely, that if a disclosure was made that suggested that either the prisoner, or another person was in danger, or that the security of the prison was going to be compromised in some way, I would be duty bound to report. Sacramental confession is something which is practiced in prisons, and during my ministry ‘inside’, nobody ever told me anything in confession which would have caused me to withhold absolution.

The forthcoming debate in general synod concerning the possibility of repealing the seal of the confessional is alarming. The practice of the seal of confession was enshrined in church law in 1603;

‘Provided always, that if any man confess his secret and hidden sins to the minister, for the unburdening of his conscience, and to receive spiritual consolation and ease of mind from him; we do not in any way bind the said minister by this our Constitution, but do straitly charge and admonish him, that he do not at any time reveal and make known to any person whatsoever any crime or offence so committed to his trust and secrecy (except they be such crimes as by the laws of this realm his own life may be called into question for concealing the same), under pain of irregularity.’

Of course the legislation merely gives recognition to the fact that the seal is intrinsic to the sacrament, it doesn’t create it.

The current concern about the absolute confidentiality of the confessional is of course related to the reporting of crimes against children and vulnerable adults. I understand that in one part of Australia church law has already been amended to allow clergy to pass on disclosures which give rise to a safeguarding concern.

A couple of observations from my experience. In common with other people who have worked with the complexity of sexual offenders, I quickly discovered that many are in denial about their offending. An experienced prison officer once told me when I first started working in prison, that it would be unlikely I would ever meet a guilty sex offender. Many people who have committed sexual offences, if not in denial, minimise or trivialise the impact of their behaviour on their victims and society in general. Sexual offenders are often by their nature extremely manipulative, deploying smoke screens and other defences in order to distract others from their deviant thought patterns and behaviour. I would suggest therefore that the majority of sexual offenders would not perceive the sacrament of reconciliation as particularly helpful or reassuring if it came to a focus on their offending behaviour. In short it is unlikely to be something they would seek out.

My second observation is that properly trained and experienced clergy will stop a confession if a crime against another person is disclosed, and tell, not ask the person concerned to go to the Police without delay. Absolution is withheld until this has taken place.

It is a source of regret that over the last thirty plus years, the sacrament of reconciliation has become less and less a part of church life. I have lost count of the number of times I have sat in various churches over the last ten years on Good Friday, ready to hear confessions when there were no penitents. Interestingly at Walsingham people do seize the opportunity to go to confession, in good number. It is often offered as a part of a spiritual direction. But to think that members of the public are lining up in Anglican churches up and down the land every week for confession is in my experience at least, not a reality, and probably never has been. Today, confession seems to be the preserve of the regular church attendee, who wishes to take their spiritual journey a little further than attending a service once a week.

It is a wonderful gift from God to his church, and only those who have experienced it can know the stunning grace it can bestow.

For me there is a very clear distinction between a pastoral conversation and confession. It is entirely possible that a pastoral conversation will lead to the sacrament of reconciliation, but they should be distinct, and I wonder how distinct they are in general pastoral practice in the Church of England. In my mind, the rules governing these two distinct but related  areas of pastoral practice are very different.

That leads me on to public perception. Should the seal be repealed, I think that the general public, those who turn up at the at back of the church, or at the clergy house door seeking solace, might well assume that they cannot talk to a priest in confidence, because without doubt that is how such a scenario would be portrayed in the mainstream media. There is no doubt assumptions would be made without reference to fact.

So what should clergy do if the seal is repealed? There are probably a range of possibilities. Some may choose not to offer the sacrament of reconciliation at all, but then the purpose of ordination is surely to make available the seven sacraments as we have received them.

If the duty to report was enforced I feel confident that friends and colleagues of mine, would rather accept a penalty or imprisonment rather than breaking the seal.

I do think better training in the art of being a good confessor should be developed in our theological colleges, and in clergy professional development.

The greatest question of all however is how we respond to sexual offenders in our churches, those who are in many ways the modern day leper, whilst always ensuring the absolute safety and wellbeing of children and vulnerable adults.

Forward in Faith have put forward a response to the debate which is well worth reading. Its available on their website.

A disturbing night.


Handsworth was very noisy last night, I was awoken at 2am by noise outside the vicarage, and at 4.30 this morning there was a double shooting a street away from the church. We are praying that this is an isolated incident.

Generally the streets behind the church are very quiet, although there is a good deal of low level crime, drug dealing etc. The Soho Road is busy 24/7 of course. We are fortunate to have a good police presence in this area, and of course this morning the whole area is cordoned off for the purposes of evidence preservation.


What price our history?


One of my favourite churches in this country, is very close to where I was brought up in Devon. St. John’s ‘over the harbour’ in Torquay is a local landmark. It is crafted from steely gray granite, and a soft honey coloured sandstone. It was designed by G.E Street in the mid 19th century. Pevsner describes it as, “one of the leading centres of late 19th century Anglo Catholicism”. It is a real feast for the senses, complete with a full immersion baptismal pool, Salviati mosaics (the same artist decorated the dome at St. Paul’s Cathedral), and Burne Jones stained glass windows, not to mention decoration by William Morris and Co. Many other delicious fixtures and fittings, have been translated from other local churches which have long since been made redundant. It all dates back to a time when the great and the good retired to the seaside, and spent a great deal of time and money embellishing their churches.

The pipe organ is also very fine, and has an interesting history. When I was growing up, I was told that it was haunted, and would sometimes play hymn tunes all by itself ! I believe that one of the manuals (keyboards) comes from an ancient baroque instrument.

Around twenty years ago, a routine inspection of the church building brought to light something very interesting. The two vast and gloomy paintings which hung either side of the high altar, turned out to be very important works by Sir. Edward Burne Jones. Over the years incense and candle grease had darkened the pictures to such a degree, that it was virtually impossible to see what was depicted in them. The Nativity and the King and the shepherds, both monumental works, were restored to glory, and sold to Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber for £1.5 million pounds. This has funded the complete restoration of the church, which looks even more glorious. The two paintings were replaced with very good copies.

This story is something that most clergy and PCC’s can only dream of. Unfortunately most of us don’t have the odd Burne Jones lying around the place.

A while ago, I was asked by a colleague how much I thought the stations of the cross in his church might be worth. The answer was a great deal more complicated than he had envisaged. There is little doubt that if the Diocese in question would allow a sale to take place, a London sale room would snap up said paintings for auction, with an estimate of £20,000 – £30,000. The saleroom would charge 20% in commision, (if a sale were made), and additional charges would be levied for photographs and illustrations in a lavish auction catalogue. If the paintings didn’t sell, some of these charges would still be due – and there might well be storage charges as well. That’s how the big auction houses make their millions. Only 50 – 60% of items actually sell in any auction anyway.

Replacing the said paintings with a set of similar age and style from a dealer would cost considerably more than an auction estimate – even if an appropriate set could be found. Commissioning an artist to produce something of similar quality would be a vastly expensive enterprise. An insurance valuation would therefore be quiet considerable in this particular case. Best ring the man from Ecclesiastical Insurance.

Luckily there are safeguards in place to prevent treasures from our churches being sold off. Church contents are as important as the buildings themselves, and often have a fascinating story to tell about people as well as places. YES, if your victorian chalice is stolen you can claim on the insurance, but its unlikely you’ll ever find another one like it. Often an items story is as precious as its monetary value. Shockingly most stolen silverware is sold be thieves for scrap value anyway – an average chalice would probably make £70 scrap, melted down and never to be seen again.

Gatwick your London Airport.


I’ve been noticing this morning how worn out the North Terminal at Gatwick Airport looks. I’ve travelled from Gatwick a number of times recently, but always from the South Terminal.

It’s no surprise that it’s American owners haven’t got around to refurbishing this side of the airport. After years of underinvestment it’s a massive task.

Gatwick Airport always gives me the creeps. Before a major UK crackdown on people trafficking, people trafficked into the UK were often collected and even sold on here. When I worked at a women’s prison in Middlesex, many of the prisoners I encountered were arrested at Gatwick for attempting to bring drugs into the country. Most were desperate, frequently elderly, and sometimes disabled. Gatwick is where a lot of the cheaper long haul flights land, so it’s inevitable that it should attract drug trafficking etc.

Many of the traffickers I encountered in prison, came from countries where God is discussed at the breakfast table. After the initial shock of arrest and imprisonment, many would reason with themselves that The Lord had called them to prison, in order to bring the gospel to other women who were guilty of far greater sins. They knew the Bible inside out. I could read out an obscure passage during a church service, and at least one prisoner would know, chapter and verse, which book of the bible it had come from.