Wednesday, 23 December 2020

What can I offer? A sermon for Christmas Eve

(for context: since Pentecost, our Hodge Hill Church community has been following a journey of exploring and deepening our discipleship that we've been calling 'Trees of Life' - sharing together in weekly readings and reflections that can be found here:

What can I offer

this Christmas Eve?

This Christmas Eve
in particular,
when this year
there has been
so much…

so much…

so much…

And so much
has gone unmet

And we have lost so many
and so many
have fought
for breath
and we have been sick
and tired
and have had enough
more than enough
of this year.

What can I offer?

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Christmas at midwinter
is no coincidence.

for those
who set the date
back in the mists
of time
amid the longest of
Northern hemisphere

when the waiting
for dawn to break
seems to take

when moods
can be as dark
and icy
and low
as the temperature
of the air

when food
is scarce
unless you are lucky
to have squirrelled

when the earth
is cold
and hard
and all life
is hiding
or hibernating
or dead

at midwinter
is no coincidence.

Not then

Not now

when the waiting
for dawn to break
seems to take

* * *

And yet.

Under the surface.

In the depths
of the dark night
and the depths
of the dark earth
and the depths
of the dark womb

is stirring

That was
our Advent

* * *

So now

in the darkness

we offer

our wintered world

our wintered earth

our wintered longings

our wintered hearts

this unending


and we wait



this space

* * *

Our God, heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain,
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty —
Jesus Christ.

The light,
says John,
shines in the darkness

And all the ends of the earth,
says Isaiah,
shall see
the salvation
of our God

The God
who cannot be

The light
that cannot be
put out

The song
that cannot be

The upside-down kin-dom
that cannot be

The mighty
the rich
the lofty

the lowly
the hungry
the thirsty
and out
and into
in all
its fullness…

* * *

in the bleak

in the dark
of the longest
of nights

has the brightness
of mid-day

has midsummer

is the desert
in full flower,
the trees
the bees
the birds
the lion
and the lamb
in the

* * *

Or is something
less dramatic

in the shadows,
at the edges,
betwixt and

in the common
as muck
decomposing on the
compost heap

the quietest
of dew drops
on the leaves

the tiniest
of buds
on the branches

* * *

‘The unchristmas tree’,
by Rosie Miles & Nicola Slee

The unchristmas tree has no lights
except what filters through its spaces

no tinsel
except its own astringent needles

no star
except those caught in its branches

no presents
except the gifting of itself

The unchristmas tree costs nothing at all
except the grace to notice where it grows

* * *

are these
the signs
of the kingdom
we are
looking for

the humble
in our

will these
be full
of grace
and truth

if we
but the grace
to stop
and look
and look
and notice
where life –
unbought –
where life
as gift

will that

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
worship night and day,
a breastful of milk
and a mangerful of hay;
enough for Him, whom angels
fall down before,
the ox and ass and camel
which adore.

‘and a little child
shall lead them’

not the usual
un-kind of

but the only
who can lead
in hand
with love

vulnerable love

patient love

slow growing
trust growing
walking speed

falling and
getting up
again love

feeding the
turning the
tables love

gurgling love


Angels and Archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and 
Thronged the air;
But only His Mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

so simple.

And yet
in our bleak-masked
locked down
with iron-hard
from each other
a stone’s throw
or more,
a kiss
a hug
a cuppa
a song
none of these
is simple
and for that
we grieve
we are torn
hollowed out

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am? —
If I were a Shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man
I would do my part, —
Yet what I can I give Him, —
Give my heart.

writes a wise woman friend,
‘presents people
of faith
with challenge.
Not least
among the challenges
is a question
of how the arrival
of God
as a baby
can be any sort
of serious gift
at all;

when we ask
what on earth
our own gift
to God
might look like
in return,
we find
an analogue…

The God worshipped
by Christians
cannot be held
by heaven
or sustained by earth
and yet is –
in the moment of Nativity -
nothing more
than a baby.

He is helpless,
unable to feed
or look after himself.
He is so vulnerable
that he could not
defend himself
if we sought
to hurt him.

his only gift
is to elicit
our love,
our kiss,
the offering
of a beating,

(Rachel Mann)

The offering
of our faith,
we might say,
as a leaf’.

is what I can
what you can
what the child
the stable-place
that suffices

The breath
of this child

our wintered world

our wintered earth

our wintered longings

our wintered hearts

and where
it warms
there Spring
and branches
reach out
break forth

* * *

Drawing near, by Jan Richardson

It is difficult to see it from here,
I know,
but trust me when I say
this blessing is inscribed
on the horizon.
Is written on
that far point
you can hardly see.
Is etched into
a landscape
whose contours you cannot know
from here.
All you know
is that it calls you,
draws you,
pulls you toward
what you have perceived
only in pieces,
in fragments that came to you
in dreaming
or in prayer.

I cannot account for how,
as you draw near,
the blessing embedded in the horizon
begins to blossom
upon the soles of your feet,
shimmers in your two hands.
It is one of the mysteries
of the road,
how the blessing
you have travelled toward,
waited for,
ached for
suddenly appears,
as if it had been with you
all this time,
as if it simply
needed to know
how far you were willing
to walk
to find the lines
that were traced upon you
before the day
you were born.

* with deep gratitude to Rachel Mann for her wonderful commentary on Christina Rosetti's carol/poem, 'In the bleak midwinter' (in the book by the same name)

Thursday, 15 October 2020

#BeingInterrupted - HeartEdge zoom conversations


A series of online conversations hosted by Al Barrett, Ruth Harley and Sharon Prentis, as part of ‘Living God’s Future Now’, the HeartEdge online festival of ideas.

Using selected content from the book Being Interrupted: Re-imagining the Church’s Mission from the Outside, In (co-written by Al Barrett and Ruth Harley, to be published by SCM Press, 30 November 2020) as a starting point, these 6 sessions will seek to confront the multiple privileges, divisions and obliviousnesses that haunt both wider society and the church itself, and especially race, class, gender, and the marginalizing of children and the non-human world. We will tease out the ways in which these fault lines are reinforced by the ways in which we imagine, talk about, and practise ‘mission’ – and explore how they might be interrupted, disrupted and transformed.


The sessions will be introduced and facilitated by Al Barrett, Ruth Harley and Sharon Prentis, and also include contributions from special guests, opportunities for small group conversations in breakout groups, and a final plenary putting some questions and comments to the panel...

  • Al Barrett is Rector of Hodge Hill Church in east Birmingham, and has spent the last 10 years living and working on a multi-ethnic outer estate.
  • Ruth Harley is an ordinand at Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham, is attached to Hodge Hill Church, and came into training for ordination as an experienced minister with children and young people.
  • Sharon Prentis is Intercultural Mission Enabler and Dean of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Affairs in the diocese of Birmingham.


Session title & details

Invited guests

Fri 16 Oct, 2pm

‘Fault lines in society and Church’

multiple privileges, divisions & obliviousnesses

·         Anthony Reddie

·         Lynne Cullens

Thu 22 Oct, 3.30pm

‘Missional economies and institutional anxieties’

…and how we imagine our neighbours

·         Guli Francis-Dehqani

·         Robb Sutherland

Thu 5 Nov, 12pm

‘Jesus, interrupted’

…how and where we think about Jesus, when we think about mission

·         Jennifer Harvey

·         Augustine Tanner-Ihm

Mon 9 Nov, 4.30pm

‘Life at the edges’

…exploring an ‘alternative missional economy’, discovering abundance (and challenge) in the edge-places

·         Paul Wright with Clare McLean & Sahra Farah (Hodge Hill)

·         Cathy Ross

Mon 16 Nov, 4.30pm

‘What would the Roman centurion do?’

…cross and repentance

·         Azariah France-Williams

·         Rachel Mann

w/c 23 Nov (TBC)

‘Resurrection from the compost heap’

·         (TBC)

·         Annika Matthews

How to book...

Keep an eye on the HeartEdge website - and their 'Living God's Future Now' Facebook page- to book your place in any of these conversations - or search Eventbrite for 'Being Interrupted'.

How to buy the book!

Being Interrupted: Re-imagining the Church's Mission from the Outside, In, by Al Barrett & Ruth Harley (with illustrations by Ally Barrett), is published by SCM Press on 30th November 2020. You can pre-order it from SCM Press here:

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Living through liminal times

'Living through liminal times'
A reflection for Wed 24th June (Birth of John the Baptist):

  • Isaiah 40:1-11
  • Psalm 85:7-end
  • Luke 1:57-66, 80

Psalm 85, ‘righteousness and peace kiss’,

Do you remember when ‘going into someone’s house’ was something we took for granted?! When we didn’t give a passing thought to the moment we stepped over someone’s doorstep? When ‘popping round to see someone’ meant going into their kitchen for a cuppa, not knocking on the door and then taking four steps backwards?

The Latin word for ‘doorstep’ is limen – from which we get the English word ‘liminal’, the name for those ‘threshold’ times and spaces that are ‘betwixt and between’, ‘neither here nor there’ – times and spaces of ‘comings and goings’, of transition and change.

We’re in one hell of a liminal space right now. As a church, we’ve just (Sunday 21st) said farewell to Jenni, our curate for the last 3 years; we’re just about (Sunday 28th) to formally welcome Gloria into her new role and ministry among us as curate. As a country, we’re entering into a new phase in the easing of the COVID-19 ‘lockdown’ – and there are more possibilities for where we’re allowed to go, and what we’re able to do, whilst still having to be very careful to limit the risk of spreading the virus that hasn’t simply ‘disappeared’. And as a world, we’re continuing to dig deep into the questions of how we might live life differently, order our societies differently – what a ‘new normal’ might look like, in the wake of COVID-19, with the ongoing global environmental emergency, and in a world where, finally, many of us who are white are waking up to the racism that is so deeply ingrained in both our collective history, and in the present-day structures of our society. And then, to come full circle back to church, we who are Christians in Hodge Hill need to spend time asking ourselves, what might/should ‘church’ look like, in this different world? Yes, we really are in a profoundly liminal space right now.

Our readings today, on the day the worldwide Church celebrates the birth of John the Baptist, offer us a number of images that help us think a bit more about this experience of being in ‘liminal’ space.

In our Isaiah reading, we’re in the wilderness. The people of Israel – or many of them, at least – have been invaded, captured, and taken into exile. They’re a long way from the place they’ve called ‘home’. The place where they find themselves isn’t a desert, where there is hardly any life at all, but a wilderness, a wild place, where there is plenty of life, but that life feels strange, uncomfortable, threatening even. The wilderness is where nettles and brambles thrive, and the kinds of animals that we call ‘wild’ because they’re not necessarily friendly, and certainly not domesticated. Wildernesses are, by definition, not places that are easy to spend time in, or to travel through.

And it’s into this experience of wilderness and exile, that through the prophet Isaiah God speaks words of ‘comfort’ and ‘tenderness’. Enough is enough, the time has come, ‘here is your God’, coming to you, coming to feed you, gather you, carry you, lead you. God is coming to be with you in the wilderness, and to guide you through it.

I wonder, what parts of life – for you, for our church community, for our society and our world – feel like ‘wilderness’ right now?

I wonder what it might mean for us, to know that God is with us in the wilderness, and is guiding us through it? I wonder what we might do, very intentionally, to actively put our trust in that God, in the midst of everything that is going on in the world?

In our reading from the beginning of Luke’s gospel, we find ourselves with Elizabeth, in the middle of childbirth. As moments of transition go, giving birth is one of the big ones in many people’s lives – and being born is a universal experience, even if we probably don’t remember it! Childbirth can sometimes be quick, and can sometimes feel like it’s taking forever. I remember, over the hours in which Janey was giving birth to Rafi, praying the ‘how long, O Lord’ of Psalm 13, repeatedly. And however good the drugs are, labour always involves pain – a pain that some of us who’ve not been through it can barely imagine. When we talk of ‘new beginnings’, we would be wise not to forget the real, lengthy, painful labour that our most embodied of new beginnings involve. It can’t be rushed – it will happen in its own good time. It’s painful, and it’s fraught – even today – with risk, and the potential for grief as much as joy.

And then there is something quite particular about this birth, to Elizabeth and Zechariah. A birth heralded by an angel, a messenger of God. A birth that has involved a literally dumb-struck father – for a whole nine months – because he can’t believe what is happening. A birth that sees the child’s mother breaking with tradition, because it is she who names the child (not, as expected, the father), and because the name she gives him is a new one to their family lineage. Truly God is doing something new here, and Elizabeth, who had been cruelly labelled ‘barren’, is the one who brings it to birth. The onlookers are right to wonder, ‘What then will this child become?’

I wonder, what signs have we seen of something new coming to birth – in our own lives, in our church community, in our neighbourhood, in our society and our world?

I wonder where it is time to break with tradition, time for different voices to be heard, or time for us to use a new name, or new language, beyond the familiar?

And finally, in between Isaiah’s prophecy and Luke’s story of John’s birth, we have the words of Psalm 85. Words of a people longing to see God’s presence, to hear God’s voice, to live in God’s peace. ‘I will listen,’ says the Psalmist, ‘to what the Lord God will say’. The Psalmist who elsewhere says, ‘I will wait for the Lord’ (Psalm 130:5-6), ‘I will seek your face’ (Psalm 27:8), ‘I will hope continually’ (Psalm 71:14). Wait, seek, hope, listen. These are Advent words – for today’s Advent story. The Christian calendar does this at times – throws us into different seasons, especially in the long expanse of what is called ‘ordinary time’ that we’ve now entered. But even in this time of lockdown, when every day blurs into the others, there is no such thing as a time when ‘nothing much happens’. Now is the time for waiting, seeking, hoping, listening. Now is the time, even when our attention spans feel limited, for straining to pay attention to what is going on – both within us, and around us. And when we pay attention in a way that cuts through the media hype, the political spin, and the excitable adverts of re-opened shops, what will we hear, and see? Even in the midst of this time of distancing, disconnection and division, we will, with the Psalmist, see faithfulness springing up from the ground, justice looking down from the sky, steadfast love and faithfulness meeting together, justice and peace kissing each other – and inviting us to join them.

I wonder, how can we practise ‘listening to what the Lord God will say’? What will help us to pay attention, beyond the media hype, political spin, and advertisements to consume, to what God is doing? And when we do, what are we hearing and seeing – and how can we join in?

Sunday, 7 June 2020

Some questions for this time...

Some questions I’m pondering, inspired by these quotes..
1. Have we come to the edges? What have we found there? How prepared are we to make those edges our home - rather than stepping away from the edge and ‘going back’?
2. What is the ‘new garment’ beginning to look like? Whom/what is it fitting well? Who’s doing the stitching? Who’s being stitched up?
(Arundhati Roy)
3. Who is bearing the ‘rupture’, and/or prepared to stay with those who are? What are we, consciously or unconsciously, dragging through this ‘portal’ with us? And what are we prepared to relinquish, leave behind? *** I wonder, what other questions should we be asking at the moment...?

Friday, 5 June 2020

"We take a breath"

In the last few days, the world has witnessed the very public racist murder of George Floyd by police in the USA, the global wave of grief, anger and solidarity in response, and the ways in which this has highlighted ongoing, structural, socialised white supremacy and anti-blackness in our world, in our society here in the UK, and in our churches.

In a tiny, personal way, the last week for me has also marked the end of co-writing with Ruth Harley our book, Being Interrupted: Re-imagining the Church's Mission from the Outside, In. The book begins with the 2016 Brexit vote, and ends with the 'great interruption' of COVID-19. In between, it tries to explore the interconnected structural divisions in our (specifically UK) society - and church - down lines of race, class and gender, and also acknowledging the ways in which we push children, and our other-than-human neighbours, to the edges of visibility, value and power. And it tries to do that exploring - particularly my voice in the book - in a way which is critically conscious of my own multiple privileges, as a white, middle-class, male, adult, ordained priest in the Church of England.

Before the book's Epilogue, which reflects on the interruption of COVID-19 that we're still right in the middle of, the final two chapters of the book focus on the cross and resurrection. We imagine the journey of conversion that the Roman centurion at the cross might have gone on, becoming a traitor to the oppressive Empire of which he has been a representative. And we try to catch, and point to, glimpses of what a fearlessly honest, painstakingly careful 'joining together' in resurrection community might look like.


The chapter on resurrection finishes with a reflection on breathing - or 'respiring', to use a more technical or old-fashioned word... 

respire   /rɪˈspʌɪə/    verb
gerund or present participle: respiring
1.       breathe.
"he lay back, respiring deeply"
(of a plant) carry out respiration, especially at night when photosynthesis has ceased.
"lichens respire at lower levels of temperature and moisture"
2.       (archaic) recover hope, courage, or strength after a time of difficulty.
"the archduke, newly respiring from so long a war"

Breathing is a theme in the resurrection stories. Jesus comes into a locked room, and breathes on his fearful disciples. The Holy Spirit at Pentecost is encountered as rushing wind - powerful breath - that sends them out, to connect and communicate with others.

Breathing is something of a universal necessity. We breathe, to live. The rhythm of breathing, taking in, giving out, is something every moment needs, but is also an invitation to move, journey - to pay attention to the cycles and spirals within which we are moving.

"I can't breathe," gasped George Floyd, repeatedly, as he was choked to death under the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis. "I can't breathe" gasped Eric Garner 11 times, as he was choked to death by a police officer in New York in 2014. Victims of state-sponsored, white supremacist, anti-black violence, six years apart, with so, so many in between. "I can't breathe," gasp Black sisters and brothers in the US, the UK and across the world, as our globalised white supremacist structures refuse to allow space for Black bodies, Black voices, Black lives to matter in the same why as white bodies, white voices, white lives apparently matter.

"I Can't Breathe" - graffiti art by Mohammed 'Aerosol' Ali, in Birmingham, June 2020

So what does breathing mean for those of us who are white, or whose identities are entangled in other forms of structural privilege? For many of us, even our breathing requires particular kinds of attentiveness. Some of us are just beginning to wake up, just beginning to pay attention, to our entangled pasts and presents, in ways that might make our future breathing, speaking, acting, more conscious and more consciously in solidarity with the multitudes of our kin - human and other-than-human - that struggle to breathe.

I wrote the words below, which conclude our chapter on resurrection, from that conscious position of multiple privilege, in the days after George Floyd's murder. They are not, as I say, the last word.


We take a breath
to resist the temptation to seize the initiative.

We take a breath
to avoid being the first to speak.

We take a breath
so we are better placed to hear others to speech.

We take a breath
to relax our defences,
to be better able to receive
as gifts.

We take a breath
to stay put,
to look,
and look again,
and to notice
the glory
in our common flesh.

We take a breath
to enter
into a shared unspeaking
with those human and other-than-human kin
who do not speak in words,
with those who have been silenced,
with those fighting for breath
because there is a knee on their neck,
a hand on their throat,
or because the air they inhale
is poisoned with toxic chemicals,
or because
they are breathing their last,
crucified by today’s Empires.

We take a breath
to ‘stay with the trouble’,
to let in the pain,
to be interrupted by the losses,
with cries too deep for words,
to breathe them in
and breathe through them,
to let them pass through our hearts,
‘making good rich compost
out of all that grief’.[1]

We take a breath
to let the work of relinquishing
and repentance
and reparation
begin in us,
to let the decomposers
and the processes of decomposition
do their thing,
break open,
chew over,

We take a breath
to let ourselves be stretched
even to aching point
into wormhole solidarities
beyond our familiar horizons.

We take a breath
to ready ourselves
to follow after
and among
our respiring
‘mass of swarming neighbours’,[2]
a ‘force field
of speechlessly breathing bodies’,
catching a breath
in shared silence,[3]
stretching the Moment,
opening the window,
leaping and racing
blown on the wind of the Spirit,
into the Background Realm
of Wild Reality
that is the kin-dom
of God’s shalom.

We take a breath
to pass up the last word.


Recommended reading - for white Christians especially (not remotely exhaustive!):

  • Reni Eddo-Lodge, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race (London: Bloomsbury, 2017)
  • Akala, Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire (London: Two Roads, 2018)
  • Afua Hirsch, Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging (London: Vintage, 2018)
  • Anthony Reddie, Theologising Brexit: A Liberationist and Postcolonial Critique (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019)
  • Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Boston: Beacon, 2018)
  • Ibram X. Kendi, How to be an Anti-racist (London: Vintage, 2019)
  • Layla Saad, Me and White Supremacy: How to Recognise your Privilege, Combat Racism, and Change the World (Quercus, 2020)
  •  A.D.A. France-Williams, Ghost Ship: Institutional Racism and the Church of England (London: SCM, 2020)
  • Mukti Barton, Rejection, Resistance and Resurrection: Speaking out on racism in the church (London: DLT, 2005)
  • Michael N. Jagessar & Anthony G. Reddie (eds.), Black Theology in Britain: a Reader (London: Equinox, 2007)
  • Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010)
  • Ben Lindsay, We Need to Talk about Race: Understanding the Black Experience in White Majority Churches (London: SPCK, 2019)
  • Anthony G. Reddie, Is God Colour-Blind? Insights from Black Theology for Christian Ministry (London: SPCK, 2009)
  • James Perkinson, White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) 
  • Jennifer Harvey, Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014)

[1] Macy & Brown, pp.276-8
[2] Tom Dewar, in a global #TogetherApart conversation, April 2020
[3] Keller, pp.164, 167