Cllr Pete West proves… how one can be spiritual and yet still be an atheist

Cllr Pete West, Mayor of Brighton and Hove from 2016 to 2017 and the best yet

Last year something quite strange happened. I was invited by the incoming mayor of Brighton Councillor Pete West, to be his Chaplain, an honour that was totally unexpected and thrilling. And so I set out on a path, not yet ventured before in our City, to be an Interfaith Minister doing all the things a Mayor’s Chaplain does – read the prayers at full Council meetings, follow the Mayor’s progress in terms of his charities, offering support where required and conducting services for Remembrance Day and similar Civil events. It was inevitable that I encountered a wee bit of opposition — being elbowed out of Pride, after being asked to make myself available for it, and also being pushed out of a Remembrance Day service that I had written and prepared, by a minister of the Church of England; but these two incidents were only worth noting in that they illustrate the discomfort of certain parties in accepting women priests from different faiths. Both were predictable given the personalities involved. Overall the acceptance of a different style of minister was greeted with genuine appreciation and in some cases, real joy. It was unbelievably rewarding to carry out such a role, and the Mayor and Mayoress were generous and gracious beyond belief… and I knew something wonderful had happened when a leading Tory told me that he preferred the alternative prayers at Council to the usual Church of England stuff.

The Mayoress and Mayor at the Pavilion banquet, raising funds for great causes.

A record cheque of vast proportions for £94,000

And so, Pete West, our Mayor for 2016/17, proved to be a man of massive inspiration and strong convictions, capable of delivering ideas and events and fun and support for wonderful causes on a level that had never been seen in our City before. Unlike his predecessors, who opted to support four or five charities, Pete decided to support 27 and raised a record £94,000 for his beloved causes, at a time when people expected less rather than more, an achievement that should have been hailed from here to Lands’ End for its pioneering vision. There is so much to be said for those 27 Charities and their champion, and his wonderful Mayoress, Geraldine Keenan. It would take volumes to describe all the action – the events, the hilarity, the talks, the walks, the bike rides, the bravery… it is beyond me to even comprehend the scale of Pete and Geraldine’s amazing achievement.

But apart from the record £94,000 raised, Pete also made spiritual progress, the kind of progress that only an inspired atheist can achieve. He wanted a different style of Chaplaincy… He wanted all the faiths represented at Council prayers, and he got just that – representatives from the Buddhist, Unitarian, Islamic, Pagan and Jewish Communities, and in most cases the best of the best. The last two speakers – Asmat Roe and Rabbi Elli Sarah, representing the Islamic and Jewish communities, nearly brought tears to my eyes, and I think affected others in the council chamber similarly.

Leadership in a secular society doesn’t need to be exclusive – quite the opposite, it should be inclusive.  Pete’s term as Mayor was wonderfully inclusive, and even though my own group – The Interfaith Contact Group of Brighton and Hove (IFCG) was not on his list of preferred charities, our executive and members – garnered from all the faith groups in the City – have unequivocally hailed Cllr Pete West as their champion, and he will remain there, as a much-appreciated supporter for many years to come.

Thank you Pete and Geraldine.

Here are the words of my last reading as Chaplain to the Mayor to the Council of Brighton and Hove on May 18th. Hope you enjoy it:

It is in the adoration of people
That we become sacred…
It is in our hearts and minds
That spaces and places become holy
And so we open up our hearts this day
In the loving spirit of celebration
For all that is special in our City.

Let us join together to give thanks for
Those cherished edifices
And esteemed places of worship
Found in our beloved City
The churches, the mosques, the synagogues
And other places of worship and spiritual inspiration –
Meditation rooms and modest temples
That offer spiritual sustenance to so many
And let us give thanks to the Divine
That has blessed us with a home
Full of love and unexpected delights
A City coloured in diversity
And graced by some of the nation’s
Most glorious architecture
For these are all sacred gifts

Let us embrace the cosy cafes
And the outlandish oddities of Brighton and Hove
Inhale the fragrance of St Anne’s Well Gardens
Breathe in the bracing blasts of the choppy Channel
Drink in the sweet stickiness
Of a Sunday beside the sea
For these are all sacred gifts

There are so many corners
That conjure up memories of delight
Hope and joy in the minds of those alive… and departed
Loving reminiscences of optimism and romance
From the gilded glory of the Royal Pavilion
To the graciousness of the traditional tea-lounges
And however regal or cosy these might seem
They are all sacred gifts

It is the warmth and welcome
That is so much part of our place
A City of friendship that holds us all…
From the tiny tots tottering in the sun
To the students, lovers, old and young
Aunts and uncles
Refugees, actors and academics
Good people of every kind
And all of them… each and every one… sacred

We share and cherish the spirit of fun
The ticket, the part and parcel
Drink in the pleasure… the air and the sea
For this is your City, Mr Mayor
May it bless you and serve you
And may it bless and serve your successor
So that she too may carry the flag of love,
Generosity, inspiration and enthusiasm
And so gift the people of this City
With all that is good
And all that is compassionate…
In this way
We may be sure
That the sacred blessings go on and on
Throughout time and for eons to come
For we and our City are sacred


An Onomatopoeic Poem About the Sea

Sometimes I wake up thinking about something quite silly – a Nutella pancake or a walk on the downs. Today I woke up and wanted to read a poem about the sea, an onomatopoeic poem where the words were almost indistinguishable from the sounds of the sea. But search as I might I couldn’t find what I wanted.  I remembered things like John Masefield’s Cargos  which has that magical and musical opening “Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir…” so melodious, but not about the music of the sea.  So I wrote a poem based on the sea’s music, a kind of swirling music that has no end… and here it is:


The sound…
The sound of the sea
Reminds me
Of that soft, soft journey
That takes you there
And back again…
There… and back again


And that song in memory
The song of the sea
Reminds me
Of the music…
Hissing and whispering
That music of slumber
Rumbling, slumbering
That weaves its way
Into the soul
Tickling and trickling
There… and back again

Those sea sounds flow
Through my veins
They cascade through my blood
Ebbing and flowing
Swirling and whirling
Through time and tide
Wind and water
Carried on shifting sands
Across languorous lagoons
Within and without



Standing by that swishing
Rushing and gushing –
Sucked back
By the grumbling gravel
Hissing and gurgling
Departing, returning
I’m happy and sad
It’s beckoning and reckoning
I’m alive and dead
I’m dancing and swirling
Within and without
Washed up on the watery waves of eternity
A song without end



Courage, Faith, Fear and Bravado

The other day I found myself as a replacement minister doing a service at the Unitarian Church. Immediately the thought came into my mind… the one thing we all need now is courage; this is part of the address…

When I think about courage, I realised how much I sympathise with my friends at the moment who shrink from reading newspapers, and hearing or seeing the news, and I realised courage comes in all forms, from the dreadfully inappropriate to the merry and bright, and dare I say it, even frivolous.

I reckoned that my first 20th Century label for inappropriate courage had to go to all those men who volunteered for action in the First World War, and started out with courage, and ended with dreadful injury or a sad death. And then I thought about the conscientious objectors, 16,000 in the First World War, who did everything from trying to be useful, to going to jail and being reviled generally, and it seemed to me that in a way they were a lot more courageous than their counterparts who went to war, but then… after some thought… it also occurred to me that some of those 16,000, apart from the moral issue, were afraid of being blown apart, so maybe not all of them were courageous after all.

And this line of thought carried me (inevitably perhaps) to that sort of bravado-type-courage that people have when things are down, and they start to make jokes about the awfulness of their predicament… and I was reminded of my sister, who within days of death, commenting on some trivial administrative issue related to her impending demise, said, “Oh dear this situation is so inconvenient, perhaps I should have died last week.” images-1In a tight corner there is something to be said for adopting an air of swashbuckling silliness, and maybe the bravado brand of courage has to be a particularly good thing, because it defuses problems for the person who voices the joke, and also makes everyone around them feel a lot less scared. It does seem that courage comes in a lot of shapes and forms, and possibly the bravest amongst us are those that are most fearful, but confront their fear and still act on their beliefs. That category of courage covers everything from fearful yet brave ambulance drivers that face gruesome road accidents every day to actors who are fearful every time they go on stage. On my father’s side, I come from a family of worriers — people who used to get frightened at the tiniest things, so terrified that they couldn’t move, and were rooted to the spot when anything alarmed them… My mother who like many young women of her time, had witnessed much that was fearful and gruesome amidst the bomb-sites of WW2 London was not a worrier, but was sent to live in leafy Cambridge with her in-laws, for the safety of herself and her baby, and she found her in-laws odd and amusing, tucked away in their cosy leafy world. The best worriers were her mother in law (my Grandmother) and her sister Great Aunt Ray. One sunny day, out for a walk, my mother was particularly amazed and amused when Aunt Ray flatly refused to walk past a sleeping tramp on the side of the road. My mother, who had been brought up in the real world and knew very well that sleeping tramps did not as a rule leap on passers-by for no reason… had real problems coming to terms with the terror that rooted these fearful old ladies to the spot, whether the offending threat was a spider or somebody having a snooze in the sun.

Dan Zadra, the best selling author (that I have never read) has made a very valuable observation, which is that worry is a misuse of imagination, and I agree with this one. As the great niece of my Aunt Ray, I can imagine what she must have feared when she saw the snoozing tramp – he could have been a mass murderer, and vicious thief, a baby snatcher, so many things, but to my mum, with her wise and balanced view of the world, he was none of those things, and she was of course right. That is not to say that my mother’s imagination was any less great than that of Aunt Ray’s, it was just put to better purpose.

This apart, it must be said that at certain times in history the signs and signals of what is happening around us in the world may not seem to bode well. When we see things happen and make gloomy predictions and they do happen, these predictions can only reinforce our fears. In the order of things, we face choices, but speaking from experience I would say that the Aunt Ray school of terror, which roots one to the spot in moments of uncertainty is neither useful nor helpful. imagesThere is a lot to be said about a life gifted with faith, mingled with a bit of mindless frivolity… although I think faith is usually more useful than frivolity. With luck and a fair wind, faith can help us walk on burning coals, skip through the valley of death, walk around the neighbour’s fence, or better still the great Mexican Wall … I think a bit of cheerful tripping around things has to be sensible, and best of all it can be very effective. To people of faith and courage, problems and obstacles just present interesting opportunities, no more and no less. Scenarios of fear and seeming danger present different perceptions to different people, and those of faith who don’t fear death are very powerful indeed. images-2This apart, I don’t think I will ever denigrate somebody who is fearful at this moment in time, because I find the current news so utterly bizarre, so unpleasant and so threatening to so many good and innocent people. Unknown-2







Having faith, inbuilt faith is something that has to be cherished, and I particularly cherish those parables that remind us how useful faith can be. There is one I was told many years ago that has always stayed with me. It’s very much something of the 70s, and belongs to the days when we were all reading stuff like Zen And the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, but this parable stayed with me whereas the book of Motorcycle Maintenance didn’t, thank goodness.

The story goes… that you are a traveller on the road of life, walking through rough terrain and you come to a river, a river that just isn’t friendly enough to be swum across, but there, on the same side as you, much to your surprise is a very useful little raft tethered to the bank. So, you get onto the raft, and paddle to the other side of the river, and get off ready to continue your journey of life.

But it is at this point you face a dilemma, do your strap the raft onto you back and carry it, despite the discomfort, but knowing that you would have a useful raft should you come to another river? Or do you just keep walking, knowing that whatever you encounter, you will always be OK, you will always be looked after? This is all about faith and trust, and apparently, there are two kinds of people in the world, the fearful folk, that do not expect to be looked after, who prefer to be burdened by the raft, and so must carry it, or those that step into the unknown, ditch the raft, and trust. And so here is the question – are you a person of faith and courage, or not?

I think that we have entered a phase in time, when negative forces are splendidly visible in all their seeming nastiness. It seems to me that voices with strongly destructive tendencies and ugly aims have been given the opportunity to be heard, and by being given this power to broadcast far and wide, the broadcasters of doom and gloom have now set about marginalising good people, containing them, pushing them to the edge, saying that some of us are lesser beings because we are a particular age, race, colour, sex, or religion, and because of this we should have less or maybe no rights. But of course, this is nothing new. The priests of despair have always preached fear. It’s all about fear created in the minds of those that preach and those that listen. This is the message that lies at the heart of their words. For thousands and thousands of years the priests of doom have chosen to summon up the darkest ideas about difference, difference of all kinds, be it women in cahoots with the devil, or aliens from another country who have come here to take over our homes, our jobs and the very air we breathe. But the message of fear shouldn’t be met with fear. We need to counter this fear with courage… the courage to reject the preaching of fear for its ugliness, we need the courage to marginalise the very arguments themselves, the courage to laugh at the inanity of these priests of misery, and celebrate the beauty, power and glory of diversity, in our City our people and life, in all its beauty. As Franklin D Roosevelt said (almost exactly 84 years ago) at his inauguration as president ‘let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.’

It seems to me… that we simply need to travel the journey of life unburdened by fearful arguments, so that when we do arrive at another river, we can expect to see a first-rate raft, big enough and safe enough to take as many co-travellers as we choose on our life journey, and invite them to enjoy the ride on the raft and enjoy the view as well, and sail happily across together. Courage is the companion of faith, and faith does so well when it’s garnished with optimism and the mysterious magic of bravado, however frivolous, cheerful and silly.



Stuff Happens, and Keeps Happening

Busy-ness…That is this malaise of the moment. We all have to be busy. How sad. Apparently when people are dying the most commonly expressed regret is “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.” What is the virtue of being so busy? Please tell me. No don’t. You’re probably too busy to tell me; I understand.

Yesterday I went to the offices of BBC Sussex and did a mini gig with Emily Jeffery on the early Sunday morning God Slot, which is always great fun. I used to think that it was only listened to by two old gentlemen in Newhaven and their pet cat. In fact I was completely wrong. Loads of people listen to it as I have since discovered. One of the things one has to do on the God Slot is a 60 second sermon, which is not easy, but a good discipline. This one was about gratitude and it went like this:

One of the strange things about feeling a bit down is that if one sets out to thank somebody there is something about being gracious that often makes one feel better. Expressions of warmth work both ways. Saying ‘thank you’ is lovely for both the giver and the receiver… Eight years ago, I was struggling to write a prayer of gratitude for my prayer book, and I was feeling quite exasperated, and some words came to me that I turned into an odd little prayer. With the passing of time I completely forgot that prayer until six months ago when I was at a festival and was asked to read something sacred, short and light-hearted. I hastily searched my little book and found that prayer and read it out. Shortly afterwards a total stranger came up to me and completely stunned me by saying: “thank you so much, that prayer really does it for me, I have it stuck on my fridge door…”  The prayer’s called ‘Thanks’ and it goes like this:

Today I give thanks
Whether I feel like it
Or not…
It’s in the giving of thanks
I feel better…
It’s in the movement of a smile
I feel like smiling…
It’s in the singing of a song
I cheer up…
It’s in the laughing of a laugh
My troubles melt…
Today I give thanks
And realise the world is amazing… after all.

And thank you so much, for reading this blog… and for being you.




Matter into Spirit, Spirit into Matter – A Homage to Mary Sumner

sumner_doggardenThis year, on New Year’s day my partner and I went for a walk along the front in Brighton. Our meandering wanderings took us into a delightful shop strategically located on the front – part art gallery, part arty-farty shop called Castor and Pollux. As we rootled through the beautiful pictures I came across a print of a painting that spoke to me, and captured my heart, it was called ‘The Dog in the Garden’. It was the most loving, clever painting I had looked at for many, many years. It was entrancing – the hedge was so hedgy, the birds so birdy-like and the dog so sweetly doggish. The creator of this painting had learned to capture the spirit of nature — the cultivated nature of this land. I wanted to buy the print, but it was a bit beyond my price capability so soon after Christmas, but I was captivated.

Afterwards we wandered into the Grand Hotel for tea, and no sooner had we sat down, I googled the artist’s name – Mary Sumner – and was completely blown away by the images that came up. Here was an artist who understood the allure of English gardens, allotments, landscapes, countryside and also animals and birds; she was massively competent technically, and utterly inspired creatively. sumner_watersideplantsAbout a month after this happened, we were booked into a hotel in Cornwall for a few days, and bearing in mind that Mary Sumner lived in Tiverton in Mid Devon, I decided to contact her in the hope that perhaps we could meet and talk about commissioning a painting. But Mary was elusive. She didn’t respond to her emails, and I couldn’t find her phone number. Urged on by the family, I rang an art gallery close to where she lived, and somebody answered the phone in a sort of friendly way. I asked if this was the Gallery, and he said ‘no’, and I said ‘what a shame, I’m looking for the work of a particular painter’, and the friendly voice at the end of the phone asked which artist, and I replied ‘Mary Sumner’, and the voice said ‘well you’ve come to the right place’. windy-day-at-stives-150In a strange twist of fate, I had rung Mary’s home number, and her husband, John, had answered. And so we went to visit their magical house in Tiverton, on the way back from Cornwall.

And meeting these two lovely people was one of those strange things, because it was as if we had all known each other for ages. And as we looked at Mary’s prints and talked about the exhibition she was currently working on in Southwold, she merrily explained that just about all her work was sold before it had even been shipped… but we still commissioned one of her great paintings. I said in passing ‘you know how I can afford to buy your amazing work… I’m an interfaith minister and I make my money doing funerals,’ and equally casually Mary replied, ‘that’s useful, I’ve been looking for somebody to do mine.’sumner_allotment

Despite her cheerful reply, Mary was dying, but it was difficult to believe, she had such a powerful personality, such a massive hold on life, such a passionate commitment to her implausibly beautiful work. Afterwards we stayed in touch, but we never saw Mary again. We communicated very regularly – my partner supported her in a number of ways, and I sent her recorded meditations to help her relax and also deal with the chemotherapy. She responded by sending us some utterly exquisite prints.

images-1The circumstances of our meeting were so curious, and so mysterious. It is this kind of magic serendipity that obliges me to point out where and what I think Mary may well be up to now; by my reckoning she is appreciating that being in another dimension is even more astonishing and beautiful than being in this one.


It is work like Mary’s that reminds me of the power of spirit over matter. For me, the most compelling aspect of Mary’s work was her ability to capture the ‘spirit’ of animals, birds and scenery. Shortly after she died in June, we took a journey in the car into the country, and I found myself marvelling at her ability to capture the very essence of wood pigeons and finches, poppies and thistles, and many other life forms.

imagesI have a real passion for Vaughan Williams’s melodic depictions of English countryside, and I realise he used music, because thoughts and emotions can be better and more meaningfully conveyed as sound, wonderful sound. Mary Sumner did something very similar – she understood and expressed the soul of nature through her work, painting the very spirit of English countryside in a way that would never be achieved in words. If I could toast you now Mary I would; this blog is the nearest I can get to raising a glass to your prodigious talent. Here’s to you, Mary. We love you, we love your work.



Mary Sumner 1957 to 2016



A Priest in Brighton

Every now and again things happen that make me think “Yes, I am a real priest now… Yippee!” …But the things that trigger such thoughts can be slightly nonsensical. Once I was asked to represent all the Interfaith Ministers of Sussex, by doing a reading at a large public service. In that moment I felt that I was a real minister, and had finally arrived, even though it just involved saying a few words into a microphone and then standing beside the local archbishop, who behaved as if I was invisible, while the expression on his face looked as if I had let off a bad smell.IMG_1666 The trouble is, it’s ego stuff that trip those moments of super-self-belief. Let’s face it, ego stuff is proof of nothing other than the need to be patted on the head, to be told that one’s “a good little girl”… because I haven’t progressed greatly (in some departments) much beyond the age of five.

Kings, Cambridge

Kings, Cambridge

I won’t deny the pleasure that such ego trips can provide, particularly if I know that what I did gave pleasure or inspired others. The other day I received a phone call from a young woman who was the Human Anatomy Technical Coordinator of Cambridge University. She asked if she could use my reading – And Rest – for their forthcoming service at Great St Mary’s for the friends and families of donors to the University. This really moved me, because it’s a short, good reading that says a lot about the nature of death, and how it affects us. If I was ever brave enough to take some of the readings from Funerals Today to a publisher, this might be a favourite.

Recently something quite different happened that reminded me of my role as a priest. A funeral director asked me to do a funeral for a lovely woman who had died in her 50s. Her daughter and mother were grief stricken – it was very sad. She had been a nurse, and was clearly a very lovely woman. He elderly mother was a devout Catholic but she and her daughter were not religious in the traditional sense – but believed in life after death. The daughter and I spent a long time finding the right readings, and two of the readings from The Bible were agreed— but then to her surprise her grandmother showed no interest in The Bible readings, so she wanted them removed from the service. I really didn’t want to take out Corinthians 13, 1-3, because the deceased clearly understood what love was about. Then the daughter’s best friend, who happened to be there, supported me saying “that was the reading I had at my wedding, it is so beautiful, you must have it,” so we left it in. A day or two ago I got a text from the daughter. Going through her mother’s things she had found a beautiful copy of the Corinthians reading, in colour, beautifully presented; she wrote back to me with gracious thanks… “it was so right.”

Corinthians 13, Verses 1 to 3.

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but haven’t love… then I have become just a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal… an annoying distraction. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all the mysteries, and have all knowledge; and if I have all the faith needed to move mountains, but don’t have love, I’m nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but don’t have love, it does me no good at all. Love endures with patience and serenity, love is kind and thoughtful, and it’s not jealous or envious; love doesn’t brag and is not proud or arrogant. Love isn’t rude; it’s not self-seeking, it’s not provoked, nor is it over sensitive and easily angered; it doesn’t take into account a wrong endured. It doesn’t rejoice at injustice, but it does rejoice with the truth.

Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things.

Love never fails.. it never fades nor ends. But as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for the gift of special knowledge, it will pass away; for we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is complete and perfect arrives, that which is incomplete and partial will pass away.

When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I did away with childish things. For now we see life like a blurred reflection in a mirror, as if everything is a riddle, or a mystery, but then when the time of perfection comes – we will see reality face to face.

What I know now is in fragments, but what I will come to know will be complete, just as I have been fully known all my life, by God. And now there remains: faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of all of these is love.


Now Let Us Sing! The Interfaith Choir Sings Out…

Hallo there. It’s time you joined the choir. It’s blooming brilliant. Trouble is, not all of you lovely people reside here in Brighton and Hove… but even if you don’t live here, please carry us in your hearts, and wish us a great future, for the Interfaith Choir is a thing of beauty that defies the odds and goes on and on, sounding better and better, even when we find ourselves in situations where we amount to little more than a handful of very enthusiastic singers.

The Choir at the Annual Service. Photo by Sarah West.

The Choir at the Annual Service. Photo by Sarah West.

The Interfaith Choir of Brighton and Hove first popped up a couple of years back when Interfaith Contact Group executive Charlotte Gravestock decided to ask the interfaith minister and musician Razia Aziz if she would  help start up a choir for the annual interfaith service in November. And so Razia did, and in doing so she called on the power and glory of the famed choir-master Judith Silver… and so it came to be that the twin choir-masters of the Interfaith Choir are members of the the Islamic and Jewish communities respectively, and I cannot think of anything more beautiful or inspirational than that; the two are so massively gifted, it’s hardly surprising the choir is so very special.

The problem was the choir masters needed to be paid, and this began to present problems as funding money dwindled away. Judith doesn’t even live in Brighton and is a choirmaster by profession, and Razia is a professional musician, so when the grant ran out, it seemed that the choir might fail. But, no, this was not to be. Taking reduced fees, and sometimes even working for nothing our leaders have continued to support us with heartfelt enthusiasm. Meanwhile the choir has done something pretty wondrous in its own right. It has taken responsibility for its own rehearsals and practice, with different members of the choir leading, and in some cases, we have reaped the benefit of a gifted musician from within our own ranks, like Laura Hopper, who is already an acclaimed solo performer, with her partner Jason. On Saturday the Choir sang at the opening ceremony of the Horsham Circle of Life Festival. The weekend was a public holiday weekend – the Saturday before May bank holiday.

The Choir in Horsham, led by Rev Razia Aziz

The Choir in Horsham, led by Rev Razia Aziz

More than two thirds of the choir had long standing family commitments which left us with just six singers for the occasion. As we sang in Horsham, I realised that we are now far more accomplished than we started out with around 18 to 20 singers over two years ago, gathered together for the interfaith service. Some wonderful new members have joined, and they are destined to make us even stronger, and also people have dropped out, thinking that we would never be up to the mark, while others just found the commitment too much. But today, with a core of very special and enthusiastic singers representing people from the Quaker, Methodist, Catholic, Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, Pagan, Interfaith and Atheist communities of our City, we have the joy of sharing a sentiment that is beautiful and inspiring both for ourselves and those we sing to. The choir rules OK, and not only does it rule for us, those listening realise the significance of what it represents; it’s about the authentic spirit of love and harmony.

Laura leads us, and Razia looks on sweetly as we all chime in mellifluously

Laura leads us, and Razia looks on sweetly as we all chime in mellifluously


Welcome to the Wonderful Weird Wired World of the Unexpected

Unknown-3I have made a discovery. Life is not easy if one clings on to expectations. It is so much easier to wander around in a cloud of bemused jollity, expecting almost nothing other than to have a jolly time, or a serious time, or a thoughtful time… but a good time.

I learned about the pleasantness of having no expectations when I started to do funerals in quantity. As I got better at it, and focused on the crucial bits that make people feel better and more connected, things happened. Families would send me lovely ‘thank you’ cards, and sometimes even flowers and plants. It came as a massive surprise that families and friends of people that had died were able to find the time to be gracious and say ‘thank you’. It continues to be a surprise, no matter how often it happens.

Other surprises just shouldn’t be surprises. The physical changes that happen as one gets older. I find myself looking in the mirror thinking “Blimey, that person in the mirror looks exactly like my dad… or my granny… hang on a sec… Oh No! It’s me!”

A lack of expectation is so freeing. A week ago I went to my 90-year-old cousin’s birthday party with absolutely no expectation whatsoever. She is a grand old lady, who has got an impressive gong (Member of the British Empire, methinks) for services to bibliographic conservation. She is remarkable – but I had no expectation of how her party would be; in fact, it was wonderful, and it was one of three, because her social circle is so vast that she had to have three celebrations to accommodate us all. It was a brilliant occasion, one of the best parties I have been to in years – so unexpected. And yet when I think of my mother’s 90th, it seemed as if all her contemporaries had just drifted away, and only a tiny handful of friends were left. Clearly one cannot make comparisons, and one cannot have expectations, either.

The Crest of Brighton & Hove's Mayor

The Crest of Brighton & Hove’s Mayor

The most unexpected thing to happen to me of late is that I have been appointed Chaplain to the Mayor of Brighton and Hove. I am still surprised and overwhelmed by what it involves, and what it means, but as soon as I was told, it seemed that the job began. It’s an honorary title, but this is immaterial – with 27 different charities covering everything from food recycling to cycling, from housing to environmental conservation, from bereavement to hearing loss, this task, serving the spiritual needs of the mayor and those he supports is an honour, and also an education of the highest order. And now for something completely different… I am looking at the page that this blogetty blog appears on, and I notice that it is out of date. The Brighton wheel has gone. It was a thing of beauty. We are stuck with a giant and pointless pointed stick instead. Everybody I know does not feel affection towards it… not in the way we loved the wheel. Can the pointed stick (called the I360) win us over? I have few or no expectations.

The I360 Pointed Stick of Brighton

The I360 Pointed Stick of Brighton



What has the Dalai Lama got to do with the address
I did in the Unitarian Church yesterday? 

Connection is in us and around us, from the moment we are born. From the moment the chord is cut at birth, to the moment when we fight to breathe in the air of the world we enter, we seek connection. And our search for connection and its opposing companion (detachment) continues throughout our lives, with our families, our friends, with ideas, plans, ourselves… we constantly seek connection. images Unknown-2






This morning we relived our birth, and our lives, in a metaphoric sense. We woke from sleep and set out, after a while, to go to a place of connection, this amazing church. It is no coincidence that the church is historically referred to as ‘Mother Church’ and has done so for hundreds of years. It’s because (very simply) it offers nourishment and protection in the spiritual sense. In reality everybody has their own reason as to why they come to church, some want to see their friends, other long to hear words of wisdom… and other recognise that this astonishing and beautiful place is a source of spiritual inspiration and sustenance, and it is worth repeating the pattern of visitation in order to benefit spiritually, and of course physically and mentally. So we come here to connect… with ourselves.

It must be said, that one feels very comfortable in this space. It is massively civilised. It’s one of the most beautiful churches is Brighton, and one of the most enlightened. You may be Christian, but equally you don’t need to believe in anything much to come here on a Sunday and get the benefits of this place… spiritually and mystically…. And apart from coming to church… the building itself is extremely special. It has classical proportions. One might say it has more in common with a flower than a church, because it embodies divine proportions, and it’s much more a temple than a church in many ways… and being an echo of something so ancient, by virtue of the light, and the sensation of familiarity, its defining shape goes back a lot longer than the actual age of anybody here, so it gives us a powerful sense of familiarity, and this sense of familiarity goes hand-in-hand with a feeling of connection, connection that goes back hundreds of years… to the temples 6th or 7th Century BC… This is the home of the soul, and the connection of the soul with things ancient is an entirely natural, and dare I say it, organic and poetic process.

And the feeling of connection doesn’t just apply to this wonderful church, this feeling of connection also exists in this City. I have spent time in a number of places in England France and Italy, and been here 25 years, but never have I come across a place where people have such a strong sense of belonging as Brighton. Version 2One may be standing anywhere, and a great personality dressed in the most outrageous outfit, a feather or two plaited through the hair, green and gold make-up, a weird earring or five, plus a purple sari and matching beard will happily drift past us, and rather than saying, ‘Dear me how shocking’, we of Brighton and Hove tend to say, ‘Ooh er, what fun… only here, only here… and  doesn’t he or she look great?’ and in some kind of affectionate way we feel comfortable and flattered that an outrageous purple clad person feels OK and safe here, and we feel OK and safe here too, because we all belong here. Belonging is very much about acceptance of ourselves… and others… and I will be putting on my feathers and revealing my beard after this service.

I think it is this sense of belonging that makes us actually want to thank the bus driver when we get off the bus. We feel grateful to be here… Whether we were born here or arrived in Miss Prism’s bag, or came by train or car… whatever… We feel connected… and rightly so.

But connection goes much further than a place of choice. How many of us have had friends, or maybe even lovers who came into our lives and we simply don’t know why, and these people, these forces of nature… were connected to us by virtue of their total difference with our own world view, their stultifying meanness, their mind-bogglingly anti-social behaviour, maybe their mystical superiority and beauty, or their sheer gruesomeness, whatever it was we all have friends or lovers who are distinctive by their difference… and yet there is connection. Connection is inexplicable and yet it is always there.

And then… how many times have we made connections, meeting (seemingly by chance) with people we know in circumstances that defy explanation, chance meetings in inexplicable places, love at first sight, encounters in far off lands, and not just finding a very particular person but meeting them at the apposite time, when we needed them or they needed us, or better still, when we were both thinking about each other.

But I do have to say, here is one anecdote, about this very address I am now giving… that happened last weekend, when I was walking back from the allotment with my sister in law; it was one one of the conversations when two people are sort of listening and not listening to each other simultaneously (it’s a family speciality I think), and I said aloud “I think I’ll write that address on Sunday about connection”, and Eileen (my sister in law) replied saying, “Do you know… we are just walking past the house of that woman who came to see me 18 months ago to talk about historical costumes and she never came back to me, I don’t know what I did to annoy her, perhaps it was political…” and when we got home, Eileen opened up her email, and behold there was a message from the self-same woman who had apparently avoided her. And this email started off with an apology for not getting in touch before, asking if could she do an article about Eileen’s company.” And I thought, “Oh hell! I’m going to have to write about connection now, whether I want to, or not.” This little incident is just another reminder of how powerful connections between people are, and the world likes to have a joke at our expense.

We have connections with so many things. Places, objects, good memories, bad memories, animals, pets, recipes, tastes, smells and people, soul brothers and sisters. The brain makes wonderful and clever connections, that sometimes are relevant, and sometimes completely inexplicable, but isn’t surprising… there are at least 100 trillion neural connections or synapses in the human brain, at least 1,000 times the number of stars in our galaxy. It’s a lot, and to this effect, our powers of connection should be cosmic… and I think they are.

Connections help us. They can come in the form of angels that save our lives, or the lives of our children, as well as helping us write books. Arthur Koestler invented The Library Angel, and here I quote Larry Dossey in his brilliant treatise entitled ‘One Mind’ about the ultimate connection, which I highly recommend.

Here’s what Larry Dossey says: “After reading scores of reports in which a book, magazine, article or quotation suddenly presents itself at a moment of need, Koestler said that ‘One is tempted to think of library angels in charge of providing cross-references…’” and then both Dossey and Koestler relate a number of anecdotes about research exercises of seeming impossibility where books have been selected in desperation and at random, and proved to be precisely the one needed, materialising quite inexplicably. In one case the story tells of a much needed volume that actually dropped off the shelf and fell open on the right page. I myself happened to be the owner of a particularly obscure and ancient volume on animal behaviour, which was thrown at me by a drunken friend one drunken night for no reason. I kept this tedious and ancient little paperback and it later turned out (25 years later) to be the missing link in my sister’s opus magnus on Virginia Woolf.

But perhaps the most baffling connections and senses of longing and belonging come from those that are no longer with us. The much loved dead and departed. The connections with those souls that lead us to find objects at very particular moments, as well as our own mysterious capacity to see and hear people that we haven’t encountered for decades sometimes before the very moment of death itself, and sometimes enabling us to avert death as well.  It looks very much as though our capacity to make connections can transcend time and life and space.

And last but by no means least, we must appreciate that this desire to belong, to connect is a fundamentally human drive that will carry entire nations to seek safety and sanctuary…and… almost all of us carry genes that bear witness to our antecedents’ journeys in search for places to belong and survive. It is so sad that this journey to a place we want to call home or sanctuary can be so precarious, and the welcome we may receive at the other end may seem so lacking in compassion. So many people in this country are just unable to understand that there is a story, somewhere far back in their own history, and in our own genetic makeup, be it Viking, Latin, Roman or Semetic that mirrors the very dispersion and struggles of people today, fleeing war, poverty and the hazards created by environmental degradation. We make connections, it is true, but sadly not always in connection with the judgements that enable us all to understand the sense of longing and belonging so passionately experienced and needed by our fellow souls.

And all this takes me back to where we began, the very much shorter journey we all made to this place of inspiration and love today… a journey to make a connection with our spiritual selves…and I will close with a few apt words from The 14th Dalai Lama:

‘Our Ancient Experience confirms at every point that everything is linked together, everything is inseparable.’220px-Dalailama1_20121014_4639





How Can an AGM be Beautiful? It Can…

UnknownOn Sunday 13th at 2.30 pm at the Friends Meeting House a very special and wonderful event will take place. It’s the Annual General Meeting of the Interfaith Contact Group of Brighton and Hove, a 20 year old organisation that proves that people of fundamentally different faiths, and none, can get together and talk, listen, have fun and harmonise, creating beautiful moments of spiritual brilliance and understanding, just by being together, respecting each other, and enjoying each others difference.

This Sunday we will be holding a discussion on the power of change through faith. We have invited four speakers from the Unitarian, Muslim, Buddhist and Pagan communities to tell us how arriving at their faith changed their lives, and the lives of those around them. Everybody will be invited to join in with the discussion. Before and between the business of the AGM, and the open discussion, we will be celebrating interfaith in harmony, with our wonderful Interfaith Choir. 22653811549_05bc1b5797_k23020133946_7e034478ed_kThe IFCG has the ability, with its small committee, to generate unusual events where people of different religions and none come together and celebrate in the most special way. After the AGM on Sunday, March 13th, the IFCG will continue to develop its interfaith choir. Other planned events include an interfaith concert in July, and a conference event in late September, called ‘Visions of Eternity’, when we will be inviting different faiths to explain and discuss their perception of life after death, or the discarnate state. In interfaith week we will hold our annual interfaith service at the newly built Progressive Synagogue in Hove.

If you are interested in The Interfaith Contact Group and its activities, please contact me… it’s time to bring about change through harmony.