Love, Actually

Last week we had our farewell service in chapel and some of the leavers spoke about their experience of university and chapel community.  Here are the reflections of our very own Hannah, a fourth year English Literature and Spanish student.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says that ‘all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another’. If I had to summarise my experiences of chaplaincy while at university in one word, it would be love. In my first week of university, I got overwhelmed by the size of the campus and ducked into Chaplaincy House to seek refuge and it has acted as a safe harbour ever since. Even if it’s empty, the love stored in those walls makes me feel calmer and less frantic and less argh. At the core of all the memories I want to share is a sense of community, friendship and fellowship. 

I was the only first year to regularly attend chapel in my first year and when I think back, I feel like I was kinda the baby of chaplaincy? That’s not to say that I was babied, but I think chapel community has a way of letting that sense of fellowship and love wrap around the youngest ones? You’ll probably have to ask the current first years how they feel. I was particularly looked after by someone called Hannah, who was studying a PGCE, and a third year Geography student called Christa, but really, everyone in chapel community cares because, as Christians, we love each other.

UntitledOf course, the biggest demonstration of the community showing me their love was that time I got baptised. That was pretty cool. The nicest thing, obviously aside from actually being baptised, was the number of cards that had someone’s name followed by the words “chapel community” in brackets. I think the fact that multiple people thought “you probably don’t remember who I am exactly, but I am thinking of you and wishing you well on this day” demonstrates the love inside this community.

I also really liked the Chaplaincy trip to Liverpool that happened in my first year. Three Hannahs and two Sophies went on the chaplaincy trip to Liverpool in 2016, because that was the year of Hannahs and Sophies. If you didn’t know someone’s name, guess one of those and you were probably right. It was a lot smaller than the trip to the zoo we just had but the sense of fun and feeling of community were exactly the same.

Second year was bookended by pretty massive displays of friendship and love: the first service of the academic year had us announcing our engagement. Joseph told me he vaguely remembers that happening in the first ever chapel service he went to, so we do envelope everyone from the beginning. The other big Moment of friendship was definitely that time these two first met.


Peter and Vicky had guests over that day, guests who never got a word in at the dinner table because the history nerds got into a discussion about the Byzantine Empire. And why we shouldn’t call it the Byzantine Empire. For about four hours.

UntitledAnd then that weekend, we went away and it was sad! But then we came back! And there were new people, and suddenly I was the grown up in my fourth year of study taking freshers under my wing. And I was one of those final year students hanging around Chaplaincy House discussing my dissertation. And there were new things I’d never done before, like mobile ashing and baking. I started going to Faith & Food. There were more Chaplaincy trips. That sense of community grew stronger, like I’d never been gone. Sure, some people are gone and some people are new, but the love remains. Only faces ever change, the core of who we are as a community remains the same.

May we all strive to follow these principles of worship, learning, mission and friendship throughout our lives, but the greatest of these is friendship. The greatest of these is love. A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another as I have loved you. Amen.


By Hannah Buchanan


A Short Dissertation on Honey

Perhaps there should be a period in the year which is officially known as Dissertation Season. In the last couple of weeks much of the conversation around Chaplaincy House has been about putting the finishing touches to the most major piece of work most undergraduates have ever produced. Well done to everyone who has passed through the rigours involved and submitted their dissertation!

The other day I happened to read this:

It’s said that in traditional Jewish society, a child, when he was six or seven years old, was carried to the schoolroom for the first time by a Rabbi, where he received a clean slate on which the letters of the Hebrew alphabet had been written in honey. Licking off the slate while reciting the name of each letter, the child was in that way made to think of his studies as sweet and desirable. (Cott, 2013, p.50)

Honeycomb, Pollen Warehousing, Honey

Education, learning and training involves a lot of hard work. If you want to play a musical instrument, you need to practise scales until you are utterly fed up with them; learning a language entails hours of tedium going over vocabulary lists again and again until you find yourself reciting them in your sleep; writing a dissertation means getting to grips with the (sometimes seemingly utterly pedantic) minutiae of referencing in APA (unless, for reasons beyond me, you happen to be in the Department of English or Law), but …. (of course you knew I was heading for a ‘but’!) …

… but education should have an element of sweetness, desirability, joy, excitement and pleasure. There should be a rewarding sense of achievement in learning something or doing something new simply ‘because it’s there’. The University’s Foundational Values tell us:

we find joy in discovery;

we take pleasure in invention;

we celebrate human creativity;

and we seek wisdom, embracing it wherever we find it.

Hopefully we really do! Hopefully those of you who have just submitted a dissertation can see beyond the hard work and experience a real satisfaction in completing a worthwhile piece of work. Remember: it really is OK to get excited about your work! It has been rewarding to hear the genuine enthusiasm with which some people have talked about their dissertations recently. Thanks to those of you who have let me read your work; you have produced some great scholarship. Well done!

Math, Blackboard, Education, Classroom

… and, just to show that the ability to navigate APA is a very useful life-skill, I have referenced formally the above quote about honey and now add a bibliography in case you wish to read it in context:

Cott, J. (2013). Dinner with Lenny. Oxford, UK: Oxford University.




Walking in the Way of St Cuthbert


I recently went on pilgrimage with a group from my church community. Over the course of 6 days, we walked St Cuthbert’s Way, a 62.5 mile walk between Melrose in the Scottish Borders and Holy Island in Northumberland, taking in some of the terrain and places traditionally associated with St Cuthbert’s life, ministry and death.

Cuthbert began his monastic life at Melrose Abbey, which was where our journey began. We were excited but a little nervous about how we would feel on our journey and cope with the physical challenge. We started out from Melrose, taking in panoramic views, often surrounded by the warm vanilla scent of gorse and the aroma of wild garlic. Cuthbert was known for his asceticism, which we weren’t particularly aiming for – we had a comfortable bed and breakfast and a good meal to look forward to at the end of each day. But each day brought its own physical and emotional challenges and tested us in different ways and we appreciated the kindness and hospitality we received along the way from all sorts of people.

After a couple of days of walking we were able to take stock of how far we’d travelled, as we could look back at the hills through which we’d walked. This was a boost before we had to climb the highest part of the route up to the halfway point at Wideopen Hill, where we had lunch in the pouring rain with our backs to a stone wall for shelter.

One of the definitions of pilgrimage I heard recently was that it is about connecting with an outer landscape in order to reveal our inner landscapes. The longest walking day of our pilgrimage was the most difficult for me. The scenery was stunning, but it was a challenging uphill walk and I was tired. But having friendly companions helped a lot and reaching the border between Scotland and England felt like a significant moment – there was a sense of lifted spirits and renewed energy, as we got closer to Holy Island. On the last long day of walking we stopped for lunch at St Cuthbert’s Cave, where legend has it that monks from the Lindisfarne community hid with St Cuthbert’s body as they fled from Viking raids on Lindisfarne.

Eventually we found ourselves at Holy Island and for a while relished the fact that we had ‘arrived’ at our destination and spent a couple of hours on the beach with our packed lunches watching the seals bob around St Cuthbert’s Isle, reputedly one of the islands where St Cuthbert lived as a hermit. We spent time exploring Holy Island, at times feeling close to the mainland, at other times, when the tide turned, completely cut off. I could appreciate how St Cuthbert spent time wandering, preaching and teaching, but also felt the call to island life, to set himself apart from the mainland and devote himself to prayer.

Our pilgrimage came to an end when we took taxis from Holy Island and only an hour later, arrived back in Melrose, which put into perspective our long journey of the last week. But perhaps what we could take from that is that after death, St Cuthbert’s legacy continued (find out more about St Cuthbert at and so our shared journey, the friendships we formed, the hospitality we experienced, the respect for the natural world, would continue, but in different forms and in different places.

Alison Upton


The Divine Creative Spark

I have never been to California, but if I ever do find myself somewhere near Los Angeles, I will not be able to resist the temptation to go to a rather run-down suburb called Watts, essentially to visit someone’s back garden. At the end of a cul-de-sac, in a non-descript house backing onto a railway line, there once lived an Italian by the name of Simon Rodia. His profession was listed as ‘cement finisher and tile setter’. He moved into Watts in 1921 and once there he spent every available moment of the next 34 years in his garden building Things. These Things became known as the Watts Towers. The centrepiece is a tower a few inches short of a hundred feet tall. The Towers look like a giant 3D spider’s web. It all claims to be the largest structure ever made by one man working alone. Rodia was offered help many times but he said this: “Nobody helped me. I think if I hire a man he don’t know what to do. A million times I don’t know what to do myself.”

Rodia 2

Every surface of the towers is covered with eccentric, brightly-covered patterns which on close examination include all sorts of everyday objects embedded in concrete. The decoration includes 15 000 tiles, 11 000 pieces of pottery, 10 000 shells, 6 000 pieces of glass, various bits of railway equipment and all sorts of other things.

One day the Los Angeles Building and Safety Department woke up to the fact that for 30-odd years someone had been building 100-foot towers without planning permission or any safety checks. So an aerospace engineer devised a ‘load test’. A steel cable was tied to the tallest tower in an attempt to pull it over. It turned out that the towers are so strong and stable that the test had to end because the Tower refused to fall down and the steel cable snapped because it was under so much tension.

Over the years Simon Rodia gave a lot of interviews and, of course, he was always asked, “Why?” He was only too pleased to give an answer. The trouble is, he always gave a different answer. He seems to have been incapable of communicating coherently, except by building giant Things. There are various suggestions about how best to understand what Rodia thought he was doing. Some people have looked into the life and work of this eccentric and see in him an extreme example of a trait which is in all of us: the need to be creative. One aspect of his story is quite revealing: when Rodia deemed the Towers to be finished, for a time he disappeared. He never wanted his creation to make him famous or rich; his motivation was the pure, fundamental, enjoyable, satisfying act of creating as an end in itself, an inbuilt drive to bring into being something which was not there before.

I first came across the Watts Towers through an account in The Ascent of Man, the history of science which was the brilliant creation of Jacob Bronowski. Bronowski says that Simon Rodia “had learned his engineering skill as he went along, by doing, and by taking pleasure in the doing.”  That’s a good basis for life; we learn best by doing and taking pleasure in the doing.

The Bible begins with two creation stories. In the first of them, in Genesis 1, we read that on the first ever Friday afternoon, we humans were made in the image of our creator. But if you’ve read from the beginning of the Bible, at that point you only know two things about God. The first is that he has spent five days making things. The second thing is that he looks at what he has brought into being and he sees ‘that it is good’. So the most fundamental thing about us, in his image, is that we have an inbuilt drive to create and a propensity to take delight in what is; our fundamental humanity is found in being excited about bringing things into being and in finding joy in what exists … hence we occasionally finding ourselves building giant Things colourfully, magnificently and extravagantly. However, creating is not always about making physical things; for some of us the creative satisfaction is in creating music or literature or knowledge or understanding or insight or community or family; bringing into being something intangible is no less creative. It is worth taking a little time to wonder what exists which would not be there without us; whatever you have brought into being is a reflection of the divine creative spark in each of us which is fundamental to who we are.

Peter Jenner


From Candlemas to Valentine’s Day

Did you know that as many faculties decrease with age, wisdom is thought to continue to grow?  It increases throughout your life, and I would argue that growth in wisdom can only be achieved through love.  Last week the church celebrated the presentation of Christ at the Temple, and in the gospel story from Luke 2, we meet Simeon and Anna.  Simeon tells us that Jesus will be the light to lighten the nations.  And so, the church traditionally blessed the candles that are to be used for the year, and it became known as Candlemas.

In all that Simeon says about who Jesus is, one thing sticks out for me: the words to Mary: “and a sword will pierce your soul.” Imagine those words being spoken to you as you go in joy to present your five week old baby in the Temple.  We don’t have a Gospel of Mary, so we don’t know, but if I was Mary, I would have taken in that my child would be the light to lighten the nations, that my child would save the people of Israel, but I would have left with one thought: tell me more about this sword that is going to pierce my soul (But I am much more self-involved than Mary).

Yet, fear for ourselves, the world our children is entirely natural. We are wired to look out for danger and threat.  That’s why when we have an appraisal at work we ignore the hundred positive things that were said and hang on the one negative.  It is in our make up to be aware of threat, and so we hang on to negative thoughts. I believe that in neuro-science if you ask someone to have a positive thought and record how long that lasts, it is only a few seconds.  However, negative thoughts hang on like Velcro. We have to make a concerted effort to focus on the positive.  That is why I think 1 Corinthians 13 is so important for our understanding of how to be a good human and a good Christian. There are faith hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13


The white board in chaplaincy house, where the last verse of 1 Corinthians 13 appeared in many languages.







We know that God is the very source of love, and Richard Rohr says, all love flows into us as open-heartedness. That’s why 1 Corinthians 13 tells us that we are nothing but noise and cleverness without love.  When we are in that flow of God’s love, then we know it, because our energy can flow out of us, and others can see it.  When we are not in that space, then energy is sucked inwards.  When we find ourselves not liking “those people”, or focussing on how we have been wronged, then we are hoarding love, rather than letting it flow through us.

Spirituality and growth in wisdom is about keeping that heart-space open.  It is daily work, because our natural inclination is to judge, dismiss and fear.  We do not become Simeon and Anna, filled with love and wonder of the Christ-child, but we become the grumpy old person (or young person) that we never wanted to be. It is easy to end up filled with fear and negativity, and it is hard work to live in love and patience and kindness.

So, as it is nearly St Valentine’s Day I leave you with an alternative pondering on love by Jean Varnier, love is not just a feeling, but “to love someone is to show them their beauty, their worth and their importance.”

Laura Rhodes – Chaplain

LGBT History Month: Sara Miles

For LGBT History Month we are writing a weekly blog on an LGBT+ Christian.  We begin with the conversion experience of Sara Miles, the spiritual writer as her book: City of God has inspired our own practice here in chaplaincy.  In City of God she describes her experience of ‘ashing’  the people of the Mission in San Francisco, where she lives on Ash Wednesday.  Inspired by her story, we too set up a ‘mobile ashing’ on Ash Wednesday at the university.See the source image

One of the most interesting aspects of Sara Miles is her sudden conversion experience.  Sara Miles was a war journalist, and writer, working in Central America and the US. She was an atheist, raised by parents who deliberately did not expose their children to institutional religion. They felt their own parents, who had been missionaries, had given them too much religion, and they vowed not to do this to their children. As Sara grew up, she was commitment to social and humanitarian action and this became her religion.

In her book, Take this bread, she writes about the cloudy Sunday morning, aged forty-six, when she drifted into St. Gregory of Nyssa’s church in San Francisco, went up to the altar and took communion. Until that moment, she had been an atheist.  At best she was indifferent to religion. She was horrified by the acts of war she had seen in the name of God and by the treatment of LGBT people by the church.

Unbaptised, unprepared, she took her first communion and everything changed.

 ‘Eating Jesus, as I did that day to my great astonishment, led me against all my expectations, to a faith I’d scorned, and work I’d never imagined. The mysterious sacrament turned out to be not a symbolic wafer after all, but actual food – indeed the bread of life. In that shocking moment of communion, filled with a deep desire to reach for and become part of a body, I realized, what I’d been doing with my life all along, was what I was meant to do: feed people. And so I did. I took communion, I passed the bread to others, and then I kept going, compelled to find new ways to share what I’d experienced.’

She found her conversion to be unexpected and terribly unlikely.  She described herself as a ‘blue-state, secular intellectual; a lesbian, a left-wing journalist with a habit of scepticism.’ Yet is finding God, she found an inclusive religion, rooted in the most ordinary, yet subversive practice: a dinner table where everyone is welcome, where the poor, the despised and the outcasts are honoured. And so she became a Christian, to the horror of her friends.

Her theology focuses on communion, she sees this as the act that locates us within a group, and from communion, comes community.   Sara was propelled into extending the communion she received in the extended communion of setting up a food pantry for those in need in 2000.

Starting the food pantry, she gave away literally tons of food around the same altar where she’d first received the body of Christ. This was her understanding of companionship – she took bread, shared it with Jesus and then shared it with all who needed it. Her book, Take this Bread, inspired many churches to set up foodbanks.

See the source image

She encountered many struggles: her family, her doubting friends, the prejudices and traditions of her newfound church. She met all sorts of people in her work, which had now extended all over the city of San Fransisco and beyond: thieves, homeless, millionaires, politicians, bishops.

At first, Sara saw a church community that was open, diverse, welcoming. It did not divide or judge people based on income gender, age, politics, or sexual identity.   However, in church culture, she encountered an obsession with rules and procedure. And when she tried to extend the food pantry from weekdays to Sunday, she hit a new wall of opposition. She tried to argue that the Sunday pantry would bring in new people and some of them might join the church and change it in exciting ways. But she found that the food pantry feeding people on more than a weekday – on a Sunday, really pushed the comfort zone of many in the church.

‘Why do we need to grow?’ a longtime member challenged her. ‘We’re just fine as we are.’ ‘Sunday is too much’, an older woman shouted at her. ‘I’ve been coming here for more than fifteen years, and Sunday is my day of rest.’Now it seemed as if the dream of open communion and community – an invitation of Jesus – who welcomed sinners and ate with them, as was inscribed on the altar, was being put aside because of inconvenience, messiness and prejudice.

Most if them made a point of praising the food pantry, but their message was clear: Feeding the hungry belonged in its place, and ‘real church’ belonged on Sundays. Sara was shocked. She believed the food pantry represented the best of St. Gregory’s practices and values: its openness, its inclusion, its invitation to take part in creating something together. A former Jesuit, who sang in the choir, took Sara aside, pointing out that she was not the first person to get excited about doing Jesus’ work and then get disappointed in his church. ‘Get over yourself’, he said, not unkindly. ‘Welcome to Christianity’.

Later, Sara had what can be called a second epiphany and conversion. She says, ‘You can’t be a Christian by yourself. You can’t be special or more holy.’ ‘I was going to have to work with people I liked at St. Gregory’s, and the ones who really irritated me.’ Quoting Rowan Williams, she said, ‘Community is a Gospel imperative that we find hard.’

Eventually, the grace of God enabled her to come to terms with her fellow but doubting members, just as they came to terms with her fervour. The strain of living the Gospel, commitment to prayer, the Eucharist, community, and care for those in need seemed to transcend the very human disagreements and frustrations she experienced.

When asked in an interview, What’s the most important thing about Christianity to you? She replied:

The gritty reality of incarnation: that God lives in bodies. And the truth that Jesus doesn’t pick and choose his dinner companions. He eats with everyone: not just with ‘good’ people, or the right kind of Christians, or the people I happen to like. Eating the body and blood of Christ, for me, implies a radical inclusivity that demands action. If you take it seriously, communion challenges everything —including most religion.                                             (Article in the San Francisco Gate, 26 February, 2007)

Connecting through sport

How do you feel about the relationship between sport and faith? Personally, I’ve always been sports mad whether it’s playing it or watching it. For others, they hold the opinion that sport is full of overpaid prima donnas who are paid for by hooligans. Throughout history, the relationship between faith and sport has been an interesting one, to say the least. In the nineteenth century a movement known as muscular Christianity played a fundamental role in making sport popular initially by creating recreational time in public schools to improve the discipline of the students. Later sport was used by churches working in poor industrial areas to get young people doing something productive rather drinking or causing problems; in essence to have activities that were more acceptable. The movement believed that the positive influence of sport could be transferred to other areas of life. Interestingly it was the liberal wing of the church that grasped this rather than the Conservatives. However, by 1930 Christian attitudes changed as sport became more commercialised. Gambling and professionalism meant that ‘stars’ emerged and the innocence of sport was changed.

james blog sport wc

So should Christians involve themselves in something that is so focused on results and where the winner takes it all? Christ’s example was to go to all people, including those involved in sport especially those at the grassroots as well as the elite.

Community called sport

james blog rugby wc

According to Sports Chaplaincy UK, the community called sport is around 25 million people –  just below half of the population. In Higher Education, Sport England (2016/17) reports that 55% of University students participate in sport at least once a week, which would indicate a million students participate in at least 30 minutes of sporting activity each week of the 2.32 million students studying in 2016/17. At the beginning of this new year, what an opportunity for all Christians involved in universities to have some involvement to support, to care for and connect with this community and my own story below shows how it can be done.

My Chaplaincy Story

james blog football wc

When I started working in University Chaplaincy I was given a brief to connect with students to help build community. After two years of trying to connect by doing different events in the Chaplaincy with limited engagement with students, I started having conversations with key people, namely the Students Union. I realised that the majority of students engaged with sport regularly. After much thought, I decided to start providing oranges and water to the sports teams on Wednesday afternoons. The relationship took time to develop and has meant that Chaplaincy is building community and being pastorally and spiritually with those who probably would not have had any connection with Christianity otherwise. The feedback that we’ve received from those sports students is that they were pleasantly surprised that the chaplaincy would serve in this way, this has made chaplaincy more accessible, and shown it is not just for religious people. As we are called to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world, sport is a great way to connect with the University community and you don’t have to be good at sport, you just have the heart to serve people.

James Wallace

james blog wolfie wc