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Talk: Praying the Psalms - The Bishop of Guildford

Education is a central aspect of the Cathedral’s mission.  We offer opportunities for learning, dialogue and engagement with issues of public debate.

At the Cathedral, people of all ages can learn about faith and discipleship. We run a Sunday School and are developing work with young people; there are occasional study groups and Lent Lectures.

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Andrew Watson
Thursday 23rd March 2017

‘From one degree of glory to another’

Transformation and the Call to Discipleship


Thank you very much for the invitation to speak this evening in your Lent series entitled ‘Creation to Creation’: it’s really good to be here. And my particular focus tonight is on St Paul’s famous phrase ‘a new creation’. ‘If anyone is in Christ’, as he puts it in 2 Corinthians 5, ‘there is a new creation: the old has passed away, behold the new has come’.

It’s a very dramatic phrase, of course, powerfully reflecting the drama of Paul’s own conversion following his encounter with the Risen Christ on the Road to Damascus. It reminds us perhaps of Jesus’ equally dramatic metaphor of being born again, or of Paul’s understanding of baptism as dying and rising again, or of Peter speaking of a call that leads us out of darkness into God’s marvellous light.

But while Christian conversion has a starting point – dramatic for some, more tentative for others – it is also a lifelong process, as Jesus, Paul and Peter would all agree. Creation and evolution belong together in this understanding – for we need time, in a sense, to inhabit the person whom God has created us to be.    So how do we live that reality? What does it mean to be new creations, resurrection people, those who (to quote Paul again) are being ‘transformed from one degree of glory to another?’ That’s what we’re going to be considering tonight under the threefold headings of Rootedness, Journeying on and Growing up.

But first let’s pray…

My last parish job before becoming a Bishop was as Vicar of the parish of St Stephen’s East Twickenham – just about three miles from where Canon Julie was then ministering. It was a beautiful and stimulating place in which to lead a church and to raise our family; and every morning I would take a praying walk along four sides of a square - past the church, through Marble Hill Park, along a particularly nice stretch of the River Thames, then back again to the Vicarage.

It was in the early spring of 2006 that I embarked on my walk as usual, at a time when I was wrestling with the question of how Christians grow in their faith. I was dissatisfied, I think, with my own level of Christian discipleship, and dissatisfied too with the number of Christians in my congregation who seemed to have got stuck somewhere along the way. A serious time of prayer was clearly in order.

And two things happened during that walk, which have stayed with me in the eleven years since. First, I found myself contemplating a huge black walnut tree in Marble Hill Park, nearly 300 years old (the placard told me), and measuring 28 metres high and 6 metres round, with its roots stretching ten metres or more into the soil beneath. And then I turned left and onto the river path, and caught a sudden splash of iridescent blue out of the corner of my eye, as a kingfisher shot its way across the river and into the undergrowth beyond. The walnut tree and the kingfisher; the steady and the sudden; security and adventure; the call to Christian discipline and the openness to flashes of God’s glory: both tree and bird seemed peculiarly apposite to the discipleship questions with which I was wrestling at the time.

And it’s the tree that provides my first image for this evening: that of Rootedness: for there is something about deepening our roots which is fundamental to Christian growth and transformation, to inhabiting that ‘new creation’ which God is calling into being.

It’s a strong Biblical image, of course, often linked with Israel as the Vine, putting her roots into the rich soil of God’s choice and God’s call. It’s powerfully explored right at the beginning of the Book of Psalms, where those who delight in the law of the Lord are likened to ‘trees planted by streams of water’, and those who fail to do so are likened to ‘chaff that the wind blows away’. In the Gospels, Jesus picks up the theme in the Parable of the Sower, where it’s the seed with no roots that springs up quickly but is then scorched by troubles and persecution and withers and dies; while St Paul prays for the Ephesian Christians that they might be ‘rooted and grounded in love’ and for the Colossian Christians that they might be ‘rooted and built up in Christ’. The idea of foundations (as in the wise man who built his house on a rock) has similar connotations, through changing the image from garden to building site.

Rootedness is a powerful contemporary theme as well, lying at the heart of our booming interest in genealogies, in family trees and in popular programmes like ‘Who do you think you are?’ Over just the past month Beverly has picked up some photo albums from her mother, and we have created this album of our own of her childhood and her forebears: and how moving to see pictures of Beverly’s Cornish grandfather as a young man down a tin mine, and her Irish grandparents in the early days of their marriage, before recession struck and they were forced to leave a fairly comfortable life in Dublin for a much more challenging one in the Black Country.

The idea of rootedness, then, reminds us of our heritage, at best giving us the security we need to develop a strong sense of identity. But there are dangers here too. For one thing, there are unhappy and dysfunctional families alongside happy and functional ones, and some individuals need to break free from their roots if they are to reach anything like their full potential. For another, even happy and functional families can sometimes develop the unhealthy traits of arrogance, complacency and selfishness, becoming just too settled, too secure, too deafened to the cries of a broken world.

It’s in that latter sense that Moses warned the people of Israel that although the Exodus journey had been spiritually testing, the settling in the Promised Land would be more testing still: ‘When you have eaten your fill’, as he put it in Deuteronomy chapter 8, ‘and have built fine houses… and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God… Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth’. It’s in that sense too that the prophets subsequently spoke of the exile to Babylon as a time of uprooting, and John the Baptist spoke of the axe being laid at the root of the tree.

And here I’m going to take a theological leap, and to claim that the decision to follow Christ marks a decisive uprooting of our lives from one environment to another. Life without Christ, in this image, becomes all too easily pot-bound, with the roots of our lives pushing up against the confines of the pot and getting more and more tangled and inward-looking as a result. Life with Christ is being transplanted, roots and all, into an infinitely larger field – life in all its fullness, being ‘free indeed’ – a process which imbues a proper pride in those from dysfunctional backgrounds (the Samaritan woman, for example, in last Sunday’s lectionary reading), who now find themselves children of the living God; and which simultaneously imbues a proper humility in those from functional but arrogant backgrounds (the Pharisee Nicodemus, for example, in the lectionary gospel from the Sunday before), who now find themselves on an equal footing with those they previously despised.

It’s not, of course, that we lose our roots in the uprooting process – I am still the child of my parents. But this spiritual uprooting and re-rooting – or grafting, to use a stronger Biblical image - marks a decisive change in those relationships too and in the whole context in which we live our lives. James and John, properly rooted in their family business by the Sea of Galilee, are invited by Jesus to ‘follow me’; and ‘at once’, writes Matthew, ‘they left their boat and their father and followed him’. For here there are fresh opportunities, new horizons, opening up, as the disciples leave their business and their father and are grafted instead into Jesus the true Vine and his call to make them fishers of people.

So back to the black walnut tree, and what does this image teach us about the life of discipleship? It teaches us the security and the steadiness of daily feeding on the Word of God – delighting, as the Psalmist puts it, in the law of the Lord. It teaches us the discipline of being rooted in love, rather than allowing the root of bitterness or the love of money (the so-called ‘root of all evil’) to poison our souls. It’s about cultivating good habits: regular worship, daily prayer, tithing, opening ourselves to Word and Sacrament. It’s about my daily praying walks, which I’ve resumed this Lent, after some years in which I’ve mistakenly neglected the practice.

There’s nothing flash about the Christian disciplines, of course – they lie under the surface of our lives and nourish us from beneath. But the roots, and the soil in which they are planted, are the first place to look when discerning why some trees are healthy and fruitful and others are not. And the well-rooted Christian is indeed a new Creation, daily renewed from the roots upwards.

Quiet (or discussion with neighbour): How does the image of rootedness speak to you?

And so to my second theme this evening: Journeying On. For while our first image of discipleship is fixed and secure, our second is mobile and adventurous: from the black walnut tree to the kingfisher.

Life as a journey, of course, has its own Biblical pedigree. It’s not simply that many of the great Old Testament characters were called to embark on significant, life-changing journeys – Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Ezekiel, Jonah. It’s also that the story of the Exodus becomes a defining image first for the life of Jesus himself and then for the life of the Church.

Jesus spent much of his life on the road, where he often had his most significant encounters: Zacchaeus, Bartimaeus, the woman at the well. He sent his disciples out two by two, encouraging them to emulate a ministry that took them way beyond the walls of Temple or of synagogue. He spoke of his death and resurrection as a journey, in Greek an ‘exodus’. And two of his most celebrated resurrection appearances were to those travelling on the Road to Emmaus and on the Road to Damascus.

Pilgrimage is a key Biblical theme, generally centred around Jerusalem and the three big pilgrimage festivals – the Hebrew word for a pilgrimage festival is ‘Hag’, from which the Muslims get their word ‘the Haj’. John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ helped to popularise the idea of all of life as a pilgrimage towards the Celestial City. And related to this theme too is the image of the Race, picked up in some of the most powerful passages from the Epistles: ‘Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus’, as we read in Hebrews; ‘I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith’ as we read in Paul’s 2nd letter to Timothy.     

There’s contemporary resonance here as well, of course. Interview any finalist on a show like Masterchef or Strictly Come Dancing, and it won’t be long before they come out with the phrase ‘It’s been an amazing journey’. And in contemporary Christian culture too, the idea of Pilgrimage has had something of a resurgence in recent years, not least with the excellent take-up too of the so-called Pilgrim course.

We noted dangers in the idea of rootedness, and there are dangers in the notion of journeying on as well. For one thing it suggests that we’re always leaving our old selves behind us, while in reality the 40-year-old Andrew Watson and 25-year-old Andrew Watson and 5-year-old Andrew Watson are still, I sense, a part of me, like the inner rings in the trunk of a tree. For another thing, it suggests a restlessness, a lack of identity and security, a sense that everything is fluid, that I can regularly reinvent myself without causing severe damage to my psyche or my relationships with my nearest and dearest: one of the most damaging and pervasive of all contemporary myths. And yet hold together the security of the walnut tree with the adventure of the kingfisher, and there’s something here to strengthen and inspire us.

Jesus himself recognised that when the disciples came back from their first missionary journey, full of excitement about the adventures of the past few days, about the presence and power of God’s Holy Spirit, about the metaphorical flashes of iridescent blue. But while Jesus shared that excitement, he also counselled them ‘Do not rejoice in this’ – in the adventure of Christian discipleship – ‘but rejoice that your names are written in Heaven’ – in the security of Christian discipleship.

There are parallels here, of course, between the Roman and the Celtic approaches to Christian discipleship: one focussing on buildings and parishes and structures, and putting your roots down into local communities; the other focussing on journeying and crossing borders and missioning and not letting the grass grow under your feet – though the Celts used the image of the wild goose more than the kingfisher. And while the Church of England has largely bought into a Roman approach, which means that we’re often good at settling but rather less good at missioning – and while the so-called new churches are often more Celtic in their missionary endeavours - I suspect there isn’t a simple either-or here, that we need to be aiming at what has sometimes been called the ‘mixed’ or ‘blended economy’ between Rome and the Celts; for we were created for security and for adventure. Indeed the very security of a building and a parish and a priest and a stipend should enable the Church to be more adventurous, like a tightrope walker encouraged to take greater risks because of the security net that lies beneath.

The classic Christian disciplines lie at the heart of the image of rootedness. But what lies at the heart of the image of journeying on? It is a commitment to Christian mission – to living the good news of Christ and proclaiming the good news of Christ through all the joys and struggles of our daily walk with him.

Sometimes, in my experience, Christians are the best news when life is at its toughest: there’s something about their tenacious commitment to hold onto Christ in the midst of extraordinary hardships which speaks a message of courage and integrity that is remarkable in its impact. In Paul’s terms, God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. In the terms of the 2nd century Epistle to Diognetus,

‘Have you not seen Christians flung to the wild beasts to make them deny their Lord, and yet remain undefeated? Do you not see how the more of them suffer such punishments, the larger grows the number of the rest. These things do not look like the work of man; they are the power of God, and the evident tokens of his presence’.  

And at the heart of the spiritual power that emerges from our weaknesses and not from our strengths lies this simple distinction between the Christian journey of an embattled believer and the secular journey of a Masterchef finalist: that the Christian journey has a clear destination – it is a ‘Hag’, a pilgrimage to the new Jerusalem, to the Celestial City, so that even the end of the world isn’t the end of the world.

Rootedness and Journeying on. Security and Adventure. Worship and Mission. Both are vital if we are to grow as new creations, transformed from one degree of glory to another. They’re powerfully summarised in God’s double promise to Abraham, ‘I will bless you. I will make you a blessing’. They’re well illustrated in our Eucharistic liturgy, as we’re welcomed into the presence of God the Holy Trinity, nourished through Word and Sacrament, then sent out to ‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord’. For a pool that has no water flowing into it quickly runs dry; while a pool that has no water flowing out of it quickly becomes stagnant. Which is why Jesus speaks of streams of living water flowing into the believer, and streams of living water flowing out again.

Quiet (or discussion with neighbour): How does the image of journeying on speak to you?


As a child we had a battered old wardrobe, on which the heights of my siblings and me were recorded with a red marker pen.  Every time a birthday came round, we would solemnly stand in front of the wardrobe, my mother would place a book on our head to get the level right, and would then put a small mark on the wardrobe, beside which she would write ‘A aged 4’ or ‘F aged 11’.

Most years those marks were reasonably close together, as we’d grown by maybe one inch, a couple at most. But there was the odd bumper year, where we’d had a real growth spurt. And that wardrobe came to have a certain mythic quality about it, even though its back remained annoyingly solid whenever my sister and I sought access into Narnia.


And so to my third and final image of discipleship: that of Growing Up: and perhaps this is in essence the product, the fruit of the other two, of rootedness and journeying on. We grow up in our physical capacity through nourishment on the one hand – eating and drinking - and exercise on the other. We grow up in our emotional capacity by security on the one hand and adventure on the other. And when it comes to godly character – to being new creations, transformed from one degree of glory to another – these twin themes also come into play.

Growing up is again a metaphor with Biblical precedents. The boy Samuel, we’re told, ‘continued to grow in favour both with God and with the people’; and Luke uses a similar phrase to describe the growth of the boy Jesus. The epistles encourage us to ‘grow up in every way into him who is the head’, to ‘grow in the knowledge of God’, to ‘long for pure spiritual milk so that by it you may grow into salvation’. The writer to the Hebrews protests about how some who should be teachers are still in the Reception class: ‘You need milk’, he complains, ‘not solid food’. And once again there’s some contemporary resonance here as well: for while the Masterchef finalist is most likely to speak of a journey that they’ve been on, the finalist of an endurance show like Bear Grylls’ ‘The Island’ is more likely to say, ‘I feel I’ve really grown as a person’.

Even growing up, of course, is not without its negative connotations. In physical terms, growth can be cancerous, and is not always healthy. In emotional terms, growing up can be associated with increasing selfishness and cynicism, with a loss not simply of a childish faith but of a faith altogether. In spiritual terms, Jesus warned of the self-reliance of adulthood, instead encouraging his followers to receive the Kingdom of God humbly, gladly, just as a small child receives a Christmas present without responding, ‘Oh you really shouldn’t have!’

There’s a passage I read recently from Rowan Williams’ moving book on Narnia entitled ‘The Lion’s World’. ‘The more we develop’, writes Williams, ‘the more there is to see and know of Aslan. Lewis is determined to turn on its head the common assumption that faith is one of those things that the intelligent human will simply grow out of. On the contrary, we shall be constantly growing into it, without end. “Every year you grow, you will find me bigger” [says Aslan]. But this involves finding Aslan also stranger or more demanding as time passes’.  

To which many of us would respond, ‘How true!’

So is ‘slow and steady’ the name of the game when it comes to growing in our Christian discipleship – moving perhaps from the Alpha course to the Beta course to the Gamma course as we gradually – almost imperceptibly - accumulate a little more knowledge, a little more commitment bit by bit? Or is there a place for accelerated learning, for a Christian growth spurt – and if so, where can we find it?

Just asking the question, of course warns us of its dangers: after all, it’s the seed that grows fastest in Jesus’ parable which proves to have the shallowest roots and the least by way of resilience when trouble and persecution comes its way. And yet in my experience, and that of many others Christians I’ve come to know, there are times of normal growth and times when it’s been quite abnormal: the years when I’ve grown a steady 1 inch and the years when I’ve grown a spectacular 6.

Growth spurts are sometimes associated with periods of greater rootedness, where Christians deliberately set aside time to seek God and put their roots deeper into him.  Christian retreats, pilgrimages, conferences often result in a renewed sense of God’s presence and God’s call, with the accelerated growth that accompanies that; while times of enforced rest can have a similar impact, whether in the context of illness or even imprisonment. One woman whom I baptised at Send Prison just a fortnight ago had precisely that perspective - that she’d been running away from God all her life, and that God was now saying: ‘It’s just you and me: spend your sentence getting to know me better’. And she was doing just that.  

I am not the first member of my family who goes on praying walks. My grandfather on my father’s side used to pray as he walked, and one particular time of prayer resulted in the most extraordinary of growth spurts. It took place as he walked along the sands at Tynemouth on November 10th 1918, and received a vision that was so direct and powerful that it catapulted him from work as a pharmacist in Newcastle-on-Tyne to 18 years as a doctor in south west China and 15 heading up the Mildmay Mission Hospital in East London. Now that was a real place of a tree being transplanted from a small pot into the huge field of God’s Kingdom purposes, in which Dr Alec and Dr Mary played their small but significant part.

And growth spurts too can sometimes be associated with periods of greater journeying out: joining the Street Pastors, perhaps, going on a mission trip abroad, embracing other challenges that take us way beyond our normal experience and capacity – even abseiling down the tower of Guildford Cathedral! In gospel terms this is well illustrated in Peter’s courageous response to Jesus walking on water: ‘Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come’. In my own experience of church leadership, it’s been powerfully lived out on mission trips to Donetsk and Delhi, where the most unlikely people have taken great strides forward in the Christian journey. 

So what’s the purpose of all this? Why bother to put our roots down, to journey out, to grow up as sons and daughters of the King of Kings? St Paul puts it beautifully. He acknowledges that our lives have their fair share of troubles, not least the process of ageing itself, which he describes as our ‘outer nature wasting away’. But he also speaks of a new creation, of our inner nature being renewed day by day, of the Christian believer being transformed from one degree of glory to another.

And perhaps we might leave the last word to Charles Wesley, who brilliantly picks up all these themes in the last verse of his famous hymn ‘Love Divine, all Loves excelling’:

Finish, then, thy new creation;

pure and spotless let us be;

let us see thy great salvation

perfectly restored in thee:

changed from glory into glory,

till in heaven we take our place,

till we cast our crowns before thee,

lost in wonder, love and praise.