Science hymn

This has been written for Ely Cathedral’s Science Festival (May-June 2017).  The tune is Love Unknown.

Praise for the depths of space,
its endless scope and scale:
in such a vast embrace
our words and numbers fail.
For what are we,
that mortal mind
should seek and find

Praise for the rules that show
the patterning of time,
creation’s ebb and flow
expressed in reason’s rhyme.
Can these great laws
contain our awe,
a formula
for wonder’s cause?

Praise for the complex codes
each spiral strand conveys,
as chemistry explodes
to life in myriad ways.
Can we compare
what’s ours alone
if we are known
by all we share?

Praise for the drive to know;
from human nature springs
a need to learn and grow,
to understand all things.
Yet wisdom’s prize
is never won:
from all that’s done
new questions rise.

Praise for the gift of sense,
for touch and sights and sounds,
for all the tastes and scents
with which Your world abounds.
For love made known
in every thing,
in praise we sing
to You alone.


Ely Cathedral, 28th February 

As soon as you walk out of the chilly evening air through the West door,
you know that something is about to begin.
The pool of light in the Octagon draws you closer,
and you walk the length of the darkened nave,
your quiet footfalls on the stone floor.

As you approach the light,
you see that there are others sitting, waiting,
and you pause, wondering…
The air of expectation is palpable.
It’s then you notice that the lit space in front of you is not empty:
there are people standing, forty of them,
in a loose circle around the octagon,
each of them holding what look like a broadsheet newspaper.
Some kind of performance – but what?

Intrigued, you draw closer – almost afraid to come into the light,
and stop just short, taking a seat behind the nearest performer,
and you can just make out what she is holding:
it is no newspaper, it is music,
forty staves, most of them blank and empty,
with just a handful of dots floating among the top few lines,
as if they are yet to succumb to gravity.

As you sit the silence becomes so intense you can almost hear your own heartbeat.
It’s the silence of the Spirit of God sweeping over the deep,
before the universe is spoken into being.
The potential, of all that might be,
and is not yet.

You hardly dare breathe.

And then, into the silence, comes a single voice,
joined by another, and another, like an echo:
Spem in alium’ they sing to one another.
Spem in aliumall my hope on God is founded.
The Spirit moving over the face of the deep
gives breath to the dawning universe,
and it speaks its first word,
sings its first song.

The music grows.
The singer in front of you turns a page,
and the you see the notes falling further down through the lines of music,
like raindrops down a window pane.

You risk a glance around the circle of singers
– the sound has swelled and fills the space,
but still not all are singing.
On the vast sheet of music that those last few lines are still empty.
There they are – the singers who have yet to sing a note.
Are they waiting, perhaps as you were waiting, before it all began?
But watching  them, you see that their silence is active, attentive,
hanging on every pulse of every bar.
It is their silence that allows the others to be heard.
It is their silence that gives hospitality to each new voice,
each soaring phrase that belongs to another.
It is the silence of listening, the silence of generous give and take.
It is the silence of the forgotten people of God
– the women and men whose stories were never told,
and yet whose very presence has hosted the story of salvation.

As you listen to the music ebb and flow, and swell and grow,
your own silence joins the performance,
you feel your own heart start to beat in time with the collective pulse,
you breathe with the arc of each new phrase.
Your silent listening gives a voice to hope, to beauty, to the praise of God.

And so the music flows, and grows, until all forty voices sing,
each line unique, the sound intense and complex
– tiny phrases escape like tendrils of flame caught in echo,
before the music subsides a little, only to build again
into a near-cacophony of disparate voices.

Then suddenly, there’s a single beat of silence when all forty singers breathe as one.
It’s not the silence of potential, nor of generous hospitality,
but a silence that enables common purpose,
a silence that draws many voices into one voice,
the silence that says, ‘here we are, and here is God, with us:
spem in alium: my hope on God is founded’
but it is no longer my hope alone, our separate hope,
it is the hope of all humanity, and that is why we can sing – why we must sing.’
The silent breath is the silence of the Bethlehem hilltop
in the moment just before the angels sing their Gloria,
the silent breath that draws shepherds and magi alike
into the common song of all heaven touching earth.

The music goes on, the voices soar
and each new phrase flies upwards,
settling like doves in the high arches and carvings
of the lantern above you.

Amid the oscillating chords and echoes,
another sudden silence breaks the pattern,
and a startlingly different chord, as if from nowhere, takes us in a new direction,
snapping your attention from the lofty arches back to the ground.
This silence was less a gathering, a collective sigh,
and more an abrupt halt that allows the turning of a corner,
a choice, a new direction.
It is the silence of Elijah’s mountain,
the momentary retreat from the cacophony of warring factions
that lets him hear the still small voice of God speaking:
‘This is the way that you must go’ it says,
‘the way is hard, the path is new,
but take heart, and do this new thing that I am giving you’.
Without the silence, there could be no change,
no strange and striking chord,
no new revelation of God’s grace…

One final silence emerges from the sound, the longest of the three.
A long, long breath, a sigh.
It is almost the silence of Gethsemane, or even of the cross,
it is the silence into which Christ prays, ‘Thy will be done’,
the silence of obedient acceptance.
The choir breathes in: ‘Respice’ they sing,
‘respice’ – be mindful of us, O God, in our humility.
It is the silence when we take all that has gone before,
and place it into the hands of God.
It could be the silence of our own Gethsemane, our own cross.
It is the silence in which we see that we are not forsaken,
but that God is mindful of us,
and that, despite everything,
we are held.

All forty voices reach a final cadence,
and one last chord soaks slowly into the stone walls.
There should be a moment when the last sound is gone,
when one can say at last that ‘it is finished’.
But this silence speaks not of ending, but of beginning,
the anticipation palpable as before it all began.
It is the silence before applause,
before we all start to breathe and move again
and go our separate ways.

It is the silence of the first dark Easter morning,
the silence of the empty tomb,
before the resurrection was made known.
It is the silence into which God speaks your name,
and sends you from the garden, like Mary,
to share what you have heard.
It is the silence into which we speak our own Amen,
our own ‘thy will be done’ to all we’ve heard:
our excitement at creation and re-creation,
our willingness to change and grow,
our desire for the grace to listen generously and be heard joyfully.

O God, give us breath and speech,
that we might join with angels and archangels,
and echo the silent music of your praise.


I never used to understand some people’s fixation with Mary.

That is, until one Christmas when I was at theological college. One of the other students had written a really rather good and thought-provoking nativity play, and I went along to the first read-through as I thought there might be some stuff to do with music that I could help with (I was chapel musician at the time).

The parts were dished out, and by the time it came to me, only Mary was left, so I said I’d read the lines. By the end of the read-through I actually wanted the part, and I got it. It was in that moment of being chosen for something that I hadn’t expected and hadn’t asked for, and then a second, separate moment, of realising that I really wanted it, that I got an insight into why people are so fascinated with Mary and why they venerate her.

Then, on 21st December 2003, which happened to be the fourth Sunday of Advent, I took a pregnancy test first thing in the morning, and then went to church, and, as deacon, read the gospel set for the day: Luke 1.26-38 (the Annunciation), full of the fresh knowledge that I, too, was with child.

I sometimes wonder whether Mary’s been so esteemed by the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England, that the rest of the church hasn’t really known how to honour her.

Her being a virgin has been made into something moral – as if sex is sinful, and as if virginity was somehow an idealised state of womanhood.  All this even when a good few commentators tell us that Isaiah’s prophecy was merely about a ‘young girl’.

Mary’s youth and unquestioning obedience may also elevate her to the status of beautiful-doormat-on-a-pedestal, whereas the real Mary that we read about in the gospels is anything but: she’s thoughtful, courageous, and a prophet of social and political change.

In iconography Mary almost always appears holding the Christ child. Quite rightly, she is often pointing at him, too, as if to say, ‘Don’t look at me, look at him’.

But there are a few images that break the mould – works of art that dare to see Mary as a person in her own right, whose vocation went far beyond being an innocent vessel, and who had a role to play in the growth in body, mind and spirit of the Son of God.

One is the ‘Walking Madonna’ outside Salisbury Cathedral, striding purposefully and full of strength.

The other is Ely Cathedral’s statue of Mary who appears above the altar in the Lady Chapel, hands raised not just in praise of God at the magnificat, but also as Eucharistic president.



The Way of Life

Way of LifeIn Ely Cathedral there is a simple, yet spectacular, relief sculpture in cast Aluminium.  It  is mounted on what used to be the blank north wall of the area at the west end of the cathedral.  When people look at it, they see many things:

  • a winding path – the journey of life is not a straight line
  • dark areas and light areas – the journey of life is not all all in the light
  • a cross at the end – there are moments of suffering, as well as a sense that we are travelling towards God
  • a rough texture – the road is not always easy
  • a very tiny crucifix, very near the top of the sculpture, almost too small to be seen with the naked eye


The image of the Way of Life quickly became iconic of Ely Cathedral as a place of pilgrimage and iconic of the journey of life. Its simplicity makes it immediately appealing and fascinating.  The fact that its creator, Jonathan Clarke, was himself exploring faith during the time the sculpture was being conceived and made, may also contribute towards the appeal of the work to all who see it.

This time of year we might see the winding path, with its pits rough edges, twists and turns, as the journey of Jesus to the cross.

We might see it as our own journey – and we might identify the twists and turns that we have faced, or are about to face, the challenges that we can foresee, and those that may confront us with no warning.

ImageWe might see the path as our own journey of faith, for the progression of faith is rarely straight and smooth either.

We might even see the path as a sport relief mile: a short (but for many people, hugely challenging) journey undertaken in order that so many people whose life journey is unimaginably hard might find their path made a little easier. 

ImageIf there is one thing about this image that leaves me troubled, it is that the tiny crucifix is so alone.  Christ’s path to the cross was lonlier than it might have been (to the mortification of the disciples who failed to stand by him) and our own paths of suffering, or of doubting enquiry, can seem equally lonely.

But we are not alone. When we look around us in church, or at school, or at work, or to our neighbours, our friends, our families, we see fellow travellers. Their path and ours will not be identical, but they are nevertheless travellling, if not with us, then at least near us.  And we are also not alone because the fact that Jesus has already been on the human journey of life, all the way to the cross means that there is no height, no depth and no breadth of suffering (or indeed of joy, or thinking, or challenge, or worry or any other human experience) that is beyond the scope of his love.