Crib talk for Carols by Candlelight


This is a first for me, leading a carol service that properly features a crib.

It’s great to have a visual focus like a crib, at Christmas.

We can experience God in a different way when we really focus visually on something, rather than hearing words.

I invite you to look and really LOOK into the crib this evening, and see what it says to us about Christmas time.

The nativity is a hugely iconic image that still resonates today.

I’ve been thinking a bit about Christmas adverts this year – the Mulberry ad (high end handbags) from a few years back showed a young middle class couple sitting by the fireside as she gently unwraps a gift that he has given her.

She is so excited because it’s a very special gift, a gift she’s been longing for for a while.

It’s a Mulberry handbag – in soft red leather.

She praises the gift over and over and she thanks him, and it all feels reasonably normal (except I’m thinking that I could never afford a Mulberry handbag and even if I could I wouldn’t want one).

Then there’s a knock at the door – a couple of guys with a sheep come in and approach hesitatingly and kneel, and wonder at the gift of the bag.

Another knock on the door and three guys with paper hats come in, carrying wine and perfume, and look on in wonder at the bag.

After a moment the woman’s boyfriend (looking slightly uncomfortable) says “guys, it’s only a bag”.

Everyone looks puzzled, then they laugh and the music fades and pans to a bright light shining over their fireplace.

The ad works because it suggests that the bag is not a proper object of worship, but also subtly suggests that it could be.

When we look into the crib today we see what is often called “The Holy Family”.

I’ve always found that term slightly off putting!

I wonder how you view family at this time?

We’re acutely aware at Christmas that not having a family, or having fled from a dysfunctional one, is a main reason that many feel lonely and isolated at Christmas.

The Church family is an alternative and very effective and loving one (when it works) for those who do not have actual family.

For those of us lucky to spend time with family at this time, it can also be a source of stress (let’s be honest).

I don’t think the Holy Family was without it stresses.

In one sense, their stresses might sound quite familiar!

I wonder how many you identify with?

Firstly there was the gossip about how Mary got into that state in the first place.

And there was misunderstanding.

And there was marital tension around how to handle the situation.

Then they had to travel at a difficult and busy time of year, when everyone else was also travelling.

Their accommodation plans were thwarted and they had to think on their feet.

They had to deal with physical, emotional and spiritual pressures that were at times overwhelming.

Their new surroundings weren’t really all they had hoped for.

They would like to have remained at home in a place that was familiar.

The place wasn’t as clean as she would’ve liked it!

They had unexpected visitors.

Some of the visitors stayed longer than expected.

They were given things that weren’t on anybody’s list and that couldn’t be returned.


But also, for the Holy Family, there were unlooked for blessings:

I hope, by God’s grace, you can also identify with some of these:


Despite everything, they experienced the guidance of God.

Despite everything, they experienced the provision of God.

They were given one message loud and clear: “Do not be afraid”.

They found themselves right at the centre of God’s good purposes.

They discovered God was with them.

Their experience was a source of blessing for other people.

They were surrounded by joy.

God was glorified through their obedience.

When all was said and done, there was much to ponder and be grateful for in the stillness and quiet of one human heart.


May we all know God’s blessing in our holy families this Christmas.


And now a blessing for the crib.










Advent nourishment

At this time of year we get to enjoy seven “Advent Antiphons” when we say Morning Prayer, and I always look forward to them.

The ‘O Antiphons’ developed in the early church as sung prayers before and after Mary’s hymn, the Magnificat. They refer to different names of Jesus from the Old Testament Wisdom and prophetic books.

And like hymns, they do sing. Even if you don’t know any Latin, having them interlace the daily Office is like having swallowed something rich and fulfilling that will last you throughout the sometimes tiring preparation for Christmas. They’re a veritable feast of linguistic/poetic/theological allusions.

O Sapientia: 17 December.

Sapientia is wisdom. The feminine divine perhaps. The word drips juice, like sap. Sapientia…’Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven, like the first dew fall on the first grass…’ Wisdom – she was there at the beginning.

O Adonai: 18 December

Adonai is Lord. Adonis. Beautiful One. Christ identified as beautiful man and God Almighty. A trinitarian allusion and a fairly clear one at that.

O Radix Jesse: 19 December

It means Root of Jesse. Jesse’s more famous son was King David. Like in Cinderella, Jesse was asked ‘are these all the sons you have?’ after he paraded out all his older strapping lads. But there was still David the shepherd boy:’Great David’s greater son’, and a pre-echo of God’s only son. Radix: root. Radishes. Radical. Allusion upon allusion.

O Clavis: David: 20 December

Clavis means key. The key which opens and no one can shut. The key which locks and no one can open. Better to be on the right side than the wrong side of that key then, because once he opens up something, there’s no stopping it, despite all the depressing church attendance statistics you might read of.

O Oriens: 21 December

Oriens is the Morning Star: ‘O Morning stars together proclaim the holy birth, and praises sing to God the King, and peace to men on earth.’
Then there’s Venus, the Morning Star, hanging there in the dewy mist as the day breaks…

O Rex Gentium: 22 December
It means King of the people, as in: ’God rest ye merry, Gentium, let nothing you dismay…’!

O Emmanuel: 23 December
Easy, this one. God with us.’O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.’

I think of the O Antiphons like a plum pudding – rich and full of goodness; ancient and long lasting. A wonderful mixture of things which fill and nourish in ways supermarket Christmas food adverts cannot compete with.

Happy munching.


A New Priest in Newtown


St John And Stephen’s church is very excited to soon welcome the Revd Claire Alcock as our new Vicar.

Claire’s installation service will be held on the 2nd October 2019, in the evening. Further details to be announced. All are welcome!


If you want to know what attracted Claire to this exciting parish then you can look at our Parish Profile found here



Mediocrity and the Death of Imagination

When we think of the word mediocrity it easily conjures other words in our minds too…

Dull, boring, banal, unimaginative, humdrum. Mediocrity speaks of thoughtlessness, of expediency, ‘necessary evils’ compromised ethics, maybe even bureaucracy?

The poet, the artist, the rebel, the dreamer within us wants to resist mediocrity yet we also (slowly) come to realise that mediocrity is part of the picture. The human condition has its share of highs, lows, passions and sufferings, and residing somewhere in the middle.. the mediocre; the long commute to work, the financial struggle to make ends meet, the moments of utter boredom and tedium, call-centre frustrations, and the challenges of illness or grief.

Within dull blandness, (and maybe because of it), a more sinister seed of totalitarian is may be planted. In the horrific stories of genocide, such as the Stalinist purges, Nazi death camps and the SL21 Execution Centre of Cambodia, are symptoms of a lack of imagination, compassion and ultimately boredom. Violence, it appears can come from the most mediocre places; In these horrific histories we see over and over the banality, the mechanisation, the industrialisation of death, destruction, and terror.. we might think of climate change here too. The suffering bought upon individuals is all too real; families traumatised; victims forever changed. But the process of destruction is often banal, often mediocre. This is the perverse imagination of power; destroying human imagination destroys people and destroys reverence – it numbs people, it is truly an existential threat.

If this idea of mediocrity is about banality, crushing imagination, and disposing of inconvenience. We may ask once more, ‘why was Jesus killed on Good Friday? Did Pilate have Jesus killed through passion, anger or rage; or was it simply a mundane political expediency, (a trouble-maker, a rabble-rouser, a pretender to the throne?
Note for example the ‘satire’ of riding a donkey triumphantly through a small gate into Jerusalem, when Pilate would have – probably only recently – done something grand on a white Stallion trumpets and flags and high pomp through the main gates. Would that imaginative, challenging and usurping satire have gone unnoticed?

At that seems to be Jesus all over; as he walked and talked, laughed and challenged, he freed the human imagination. To this day he sets our thoughts on new possibilities. opens up a world of wonder.. announces/evokes/alludes to the arrival of God’s kingdom. Like the disciples on Palm Sunday, we are asked ‘do we dare see this holy imagination?’  and if we cannot will even the stones see it?

Totalitarian regimes still to this day oppress the artists, musicians, comedians, poets and writers first; those who conjure new worlds, these are the tricksters the un-tameable; and this might be a way to think about the crushing weight brought against this beguiling Jewish teacher from Nazareth.

“The Christ that emerges from Mark, tramping through the haphazard events of His life, had a ringing intensity about him that I could not resist. Christ spoke to me through His isolation, through the burden of His death, through His rage at the mundane, through His sorrow. Christ, it seemed to me was the victim of humanity’s lack of imagination, was hammered to the cross with the nails of creative vapidity”. Nick Cave.

From this perspective it makes perfect sense for Jesus to be executed… who needs this kind of stirring of the imagination. And if that was so then, is it still the same today? Who wants to listen to climate change protesters, or women’s rights campaigners, who wants to see their privilege and power toppled? Who wants the status-quo to be upset? ‘Evil is banal’ wrote Hannah Arendt in her appraisal of the Nazi occupation.

And so what is the cross if not the final subversion? A resistance to numbness, a final unforeseeable act of the imagination, ‘a deeper magic before the dawn of time’ CS Lewis says…the old magic is powerful, but not as powerful as the deeper, holy magic of love. The cross resists power – it overcomes with love, solidarity, it speaks of a hope beyond hope.

And for us….? Where do we go with this?

Our lent film series was all about people’s dealings with mediocrity. Sometimes it was explicitly shown, like Lady Bird’s teenage angst and naive desire to leave a stifling home-town and to ’live through something’. More often the theme of mediocrity was subtle because mediocrity is ‘our world’; we all have to deal with the mediocre, the mundane, the humdrum. Many of the characters we met existed on the fringes of mediocrity, trying to resist, or at least compromise with it. They showed that something about imagination keeps us all free…like the dissidents, poets and writers in Gulags. In The Breadwinner, the mediocrity (and terror) are found within religious fascism – telling story becomes an escape route, a way to process horror and grief. In Leave no Trace, the father and daughter wanted to live outside, on the edge; to form identity beyond community. Yet community still calls, reaches out, both good and bad. For the Shoplifters we witnessed a different, alternate community (family), made of misfits and chancers, (like the church?), they lived beyond mainstream society, and yet something beautiful, loving and tender held them together. Mediocrity was never mentioned but always there, looming, until it broke into their world. And in Cold War we witness the machinations of political powers beyond our control, (hence the film framing characters low down in each view, like some giant presence looming above them). The political mediocrity labels, divides, terrorises and kills, yet small lives, small stories which try to live and love through these times. We are left to ask what survives, what gets broken?

The work of fostering this holy imagination is left to artists, mystics, poets and prophets, and in whose company the Church finds itself.
It is signified in the Eucharistic exchange, it is the source of our ‘mission poise’. Imagination offers a new reverence, and funds compassion, awe, wonder, the possibility of impossibility… Christ may have been killed through a lack of imagination, a resistance to what he showed people. His passion was simply too much to allow to continue… but Easter shows us that this imagination is always calling to us. In the final moments of ‘The Last Temptation’ Nikos Kazantzakis writes,

‘He uttered a triumphant cry: IT IS ACCOMPLISHED
And it was as though he had said: Everything is begun.’


GS Collins, Easter 2019


Engaging the Powers – Hamish Preston

Hamish Preston’s mammoth project is complete!
Committed to ‘Engaging the Powers’ and to discern and resist the violence and domination in political, economic and social structures, Hamish began a task of condensing and summarising key academic texts. The summary papers take the big ideas and lay them out clearly in a few pages.

The work now exists on his own website Engaging the Powers and all the short summary papers can be found there.

If you want to think deeply about the spirituality and interiority of what is going on in the world, then these papers provide an excellent introduction.

Hamish is a respected member of this congregation and has bought many insights and gifts to us over the years, we are glad and thankful for all his work and passion.

Image taken from Walter Wink’s seminal book ‘Engaging the Powers’