Welcome all – and that means all

The days of ‘no blacks, no irish’ signs are long gone, happily, but discrimination can spring up in surprising places.  For that reason, it is good to remember that, as the old song goes, God has ‘the whole world in his hands’, including a lot of people who are different to us.

The Windrush generation encountered racism in many forms, most famously in housing and employment.  Sadly, there were even churches where well-meaning vicars redirected new arrivals to ‘black churches’ down the road. Much has changed in the years since, not least in Newham’s churches, where people from a fantastic range of backgrounds and ethnicities worship together.  It would be a brave person, nonetheless, who said that discrimination has disappeared.

There was another group in the early 1960s who were treated badly because they were different. They were the teenagers who rode motorbikes and scooters and hung around in coffee bars. Many a pub had ‘no leathers’ signs on the door, and the tabloid press played up ‘Mods and Rockers’ as the latest threat to civilisation. Ordinary people saw them as dangerous, which is why a London vicar, Rev Bill Shergold, became somewhat famous for welcoming them to his church, to what became known as ‘The 59 Club’.

The club thrived in Hackney, where visitors included celebrities like Cliff Richard. It did so because it offered a welcome to young people who were used to being shunned. They were made welcome because ‘Father Bill’ believed that God loved them as much as he loved anyone, and that God welcomed them even when others didn’t.

The 59 Club continues to meet in Plaistow and in West London, although its members are no longer the rebels and outcasts that they were once seen to be. It’s worth asking, though, who are the outcasts of today?  Who are the people who we find it hardest to welcome and who encounter barriers and hostility? Because, just like Bill Shergold did in the 1960s, we need to remember that God loves them and values them as much as he loves us. And we need to act accordingly.


From the choir stalls of St Paul’s to ‘Diamonds are Forever’

Percy Sillitoe’s memorial in the Crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral

What’s the link between a boy chorister at St Paul’s and James Bond? The answer lies in a quiet corner of the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, where a memorial can be found to Sir Percy Sillitoe, Director-General of MI5 in the early years of the Cold War.

As a boy, Sillitoe was a chorister in St Paul’s Cathedral Choir and boarded at the choir school in nearby Carter Lane. From the age of ten, he would have sung in something like nine services every week, developing the skills of concentration and precision that so many former cathedral choristers have shown in their chosen fields, from music to business and sport. Sillitoe was one of the senior choristers who sang in the memorial service for Queen Victoria in 1902, but by the end of that decade he was serving as a trooper in the British South Africa Police, transferring in 1911 to the Northern Rhodesia Police. In 1916 he became a political officer in Tanganyika before returning to the UK in 1920.

A distinguished career in policing in the country followed. n 1923 he was appointed Chief Constable of Chesterfield. He spent a year as Chief Constable of the East Riding of Yorkshire in 1925, moving in 1926 to become Chief Constable of Sheffield, where he became known for authorising his officers to use “reasonable force” to break the hold that criminal gangs had had on the city.

Moving to be the Chief Constable of Glasgow in 1931 he employed innovative methods to break the power of Glasgow’s notorious razor gangs, including the introduction of radios in police cars allowing communication between headquarters and vehicles, which previously relied completely upon the use of police phone boxes. He gave his name to the Sillitoe tartan, the black and white diced pattern on police cap bands in Scotland, originally based on that used by several Scottish regiments on the Glengarry.

Sillitoe was one of the first Chief Constables to recognise the potential of women to be effective police officers. When, in 1944, he moved to be Chief Constable of Kent there were just two policewomen in the county; within a year there were 150.

At some point, he joined the Security Service and was said to be responsible for MI5’s highly-successful ‘double cross’ operation during WW2 in which all Hitler’s spies in Britain were turned and used to send false information back to Germany about the Allies’ plans, including D-day. After the war, he became Director-General of MI5 and was in that post at the time of Burgess and Maclean’s defection to the USSR. The subsequent investigation was not kind to MI5 or to him, and he left the service in 1953.

After leaving MI5, Sillitoe was recruited by DeBeers to set up a clandestine operation employing former British intelligence agents as ‘the International Diamond Security Organisation’ – IDSO – to disrupt diamond traders in West Africa who were undermining DeBeers’ monopoly. It was a messy business in which significant numbers of poor Africans were ambushed and killed as they tried to convey diamonds out of Sierra Leone to middlemen in Liberia.

Ian Fleming later wrote a book about Sillitoe’s operation, ‘The diamond smugglers’, and it is not hard to see how the information he gained from researching that book would later be used in the James Bond fantasy, ‘Diamonds are forever’.

I’m no angel

I’ve been watching Mae West’s 1933 film ‘I’m no angel’. It’s surprising how good it is. Writing the dialogue only a few years after ‘talkies’ started, she grasped the potential of the spoken word at a time when the art of film-makers like Charlie Chaplin was essentially visual. ‘I’m no angel’ contains many memorable lines, including the oft-quoted ‘come up and see me’ and ‘it’s not the men in your life that matters, it’s the life in your men’.

Mae’s dialogue undoubtedly profited from her many years of legitimate stage experience. Films before this had nearly always depended on visual gags to carry the humour line, as had to be the case with silent movies. Mae was in ‘talking’ pictures and she understood the one-line gag in a way that has never been equalled. Audiences too, from their own acquaintance with vaudeville, the live stage, and, to an extent, early radio, knew how to listen for a double meaning or a catch-phrase. Most of all, Mae knew audiences and how to say her lines for optimal value.

The real surprises, though, are the feminist theme and the positive portrayal of African-American women, in contrast to other films of the era. The hilarious climax of ’I’m no angel’ comes in a court scene in which Mae sends up the hypocrisy of the men who have tried unsuccessfully to sleep with her but then accuse her of being easy and unfaithful. Her two African-American maids are her co-conspirators and characters in their own right.

It’s a hilarious, beautifully-scripted romp that shows why Mae West was such a popular star in the 1930s and deserves to be known better today.

Three lions: England has cause for celebration

I’m in pain. Getting up in the middle of the night, in the dark, I walked into a ladder that I forgot I’d left on the landing, and I stubbed my toe, hard. It hurts. A lot. So I’m feeling even more sorry for myself than I was when England lost to Italy and the nation’s celebrations were cut short.

What’s worse is that my whole body is suffering. Ok, so it’s only my toe that really hurts, but it means that I don’t want to do anything too energetic with my foot. In fact, I don’t want to do anything at all, apart from taking painkillers and waiting for my toe to feel better.

It’s funny how, when one part of our body is suffering, the whole body suffers with it. The toe is so small and insignificant compared to other parts of the body, but if it’s in pain the whole body shares its pain.

Jesus told a story: Imagine you have a flock of a hundred sheep, but one goes missing. What do you do? You leave the ninety-nine and go looking for the one. Does that mean that the lives of the ninety-nine don’t matter? Of course not. But it’s the missing one that matters at that moment.

One of the many things that impressed me about Gareth Southgate this summer was the way in which he showed his concern for the players who didn’t play a part in England’s games, whether they were on the bench or not in the squad. Showing them that they mattered didn’t mean that he didn’t care about the successful players. It just meant that he cared about them all. The team was better-off as a result.

That’s what I understood by the England team’s insistence on ‘taking the knee’ before games. I don’t believe for one second that any of them are revolutionary Marxists or want to ‘defund the police’.  What they did want to say is that racist abuse aimed at one player – or at one group of people in our nation – causes us all harm, and that we should all support those who suffer such abuse.  Thanks to Southgate, Rashford, Rice and all the others, there’s no room for racism in the new England. And that, dear friends, is a real cause for celebration. 

The God of second chances – and more

John Moncur [photo: Steve Bacon]

Anyone who followed West Ham United in the late 1990s will remember one particular player who was much loved for his fearsome tackling and combative nature.

I’m talking, of course, about John Moncur, who was the sort of player that every manager would want in their squad. Fiercely committed, he would keep fighting for a result when others were flagging. But he also had a bit of a temper, which got him into trouble from time to time.

In an interview with a football magazine (Four Four Two) this month, John was described as having become a Christian to help deal with his “terrible temper”, which he did not deny.

What interested me was that he quoted the example of King David, whose life story appears in the Christian, Jewish and Islamic scriptures alike. Because, apart from being a shepherd and a king and killing Goliath, David was a sinner. He had sex with another man’s wife and arranged for her husband to die, so he was really a murderer. And yet, when he later admitted what he’d done, humbled himself and sought God’s forgiveness, he was given a second chance to live the life that God had called him to.

Some of the best passages in the Bible are about the “Amazing Grace” of God in forgiving us when we have gone wrong. No wonder John Moncur said in his interview: “It inspires me and gives me hope”.

Lent – the time of year between Ash Wednesday and the days before Easter – is a time for reflection, for humbling ourselves, seeking forgiveness for those things that have hurt others, and for seeing more clearly what are the things that really matter, that should be the guiding lights of our lives.

Jimmy Carter, perhaps the greatest of former presidents of the United States as well as a humble Christian man, wrote these words recently: “What are the things that you can’t see that are important? I would say justice, truth, humility, service, compassion, love. You can’t see any of those, but they’re the guiding lights of a life.” Amen to that, President.

The writing on the wall…

The Book of Daniel, in the Old Testament, written thousands of years ago, is often startlingly relevant. Here’s the bit where an all-powerful king, surrounded by sycophants and money, sees the writing on the wall:

King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them. While Belshazzar was drinking his wine, he gave orders to bring in the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines might drink from them. So they brought in the gold goblets that had been taken from the temple of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines drank from them. As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.

Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace. The king watched the hand as it wrote. His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his legs became weak and his knees were knocking.

The king summoned the enchanters, astrologers and diviners. Then he said to these wise men of Babylon, “Whoever reads this writing and tells me what it means will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around his neck, and he will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.”

Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant. So King Belshazzar became even more terrified and his face grew more pale. His nobles were baffled.

10 The queen, hearing the voices of the king and his nobles, came into the banquet hall. “May the king live forever!” she said. “Don’t be alarmed! Don’t look so pale! 11 There is a man in your kingdom who has the spirit of the holy gods in him. In the time of your father he was found to have insight and intelligence and wisdom like that of the gods. Your father, King Nebuchadnezzar, appointed him chief of the magicians, enchanters, astrologers and diviners. 12 He did this because Daniel, whom the king called Belteshazzar, was found to have a keen mind and knowledge and understanding, and also the ability to interpret dreams, explain riddles and solve difficult problems. Call for Daniel, and he will tell you what the writing means.”

13 So Daniel was brought before the king, and the king said to him, “Are you Daniel, one of the exiles my father the king brought from Judah? 14 I have heard that the spirit of the gods is in you and that you have insight, intelligence and outstanding wisdom. 15 The wise men and enchanters were brought before me to read this writing and tell me what it means, but they could not explain it. 16 Now I have heard that you are able to give interpretations and to solve difficult problems. If you can read this writing and tell me what it means, you will be clothed in purple and have a gold chain placed around your neck, and you will be made the third highest ruler in the kingdom.”

17 Then Daniel answered the king, “You may keep your gifts for yourself and give your rewards to someone else. Nevertheless, I will read the writing for the king and tell him what it means.

18 “Your Majesty, the Most High God gave your father Nebuchadnezzar sovereignty and greatness and glory and splendor. 19 Because of the high position he gave him, all the nations and peoples of every language dreaded and feared him. Those the king wanted to put to death, he put to death; those he wanted to spare, he spared; those he wanted to promote, he promoted; and those he wanted to humble, he humbled. 20 But when his heart became arrogant and hardened with pride, he was deposed from his royal throne and stripped of his glory. 21 He was driven away from people and given the mind of an animal; he lived with the wild donkeys and ate grass like the ox; and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven, until he acknowledged that the Most High God is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and sets over them anyone he wishes.

22 “But you, Belshazzar, his son, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this. 23 Instead, you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven. You had the goblets from his temple brought to you, and you and your nobles, your wives and your concubines drank wine from them. You praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or understand. But you did not honour the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways. 24 Therefore he sent the hand that wrote the inscription.

25 “This is the inscription that was written:

mene, mene, tekel, parsin

26 “Here is what these words mean:

Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.

27 Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.

28 Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”

29 Then at Belshazzar’s command, Daniel was clothed in purple, a gold chain was placed around his neck, and he was proclaimed the third highest ruler in the kingdom.

30 That very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain, 31 and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom, at the age of sixty-two.

Great news about ‘Motorbikes for Marsabit’

Philip and David, who serve nomadic communities in the Chalbi desert in Kenya, receiving their new bikes from Bishop Qampicha

Two years ago, thanks to the giving of a lot of people, were were able to present a motorbike for our friends in Marsabit. That bike has covered over 10,000 kms since then, mostly on un-made roads, so it has been well-used.

Early last year, we were able to fund a second bike, and later a third and a fourth, thanks to the amazing efforts of lots of friends.

Now, I can announce that, thanks to your generosity and to one family in particular who made a very generous gift indeed, we were able to send funds to Marsabit that will allow them to more than DOUBLE the number of ‘Motorbikes for Marsabit’. This is FANTASTIC news, and I want to say a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who has made this possible.

The first two bikes of this next batch were handed over recently to two young men who serve amongst the nomadic Gabra people who live in the Chalbi desert, moving from place to place with their livestock. Finding them often requires walking as much as three or fours hours across difficult terrain – journeys that these bikes will do in a quarter of the time. Both riders are thrilled with their new bikes and send their love and thanks to everyone who has made this possible.

Now, most recently, Kenya has been hit hard by the Corona virus that is sweeping the world. All churches and schools are closed. Bishop Qampicha says that “most Kenyans fear that before they die of Corona virus they might die of starvation if nothing is done.”

For that reason, I have said to him that if he needs to divert some of the ‘Motorbikes for Marsabit’ funding in order to assist other work or to support people who are suffering hardship because of the virus, that’s ok by us. He assures me that equipping his workers with motorbikes is still a great thing to do, and that he is still planning to get more as and when he can.


You lovely people did it again – and again!

Well, folks, you’ve surpassed all expectations. I’m gobsmacked.

Back in 2017, we were given the challenge of raising enough money to buy a motorbike to enable our Kenyan colleagues to serve remote communities in the vast, arid region of Marsabit, in the north of that country. You responded brilliantly, and in February 2018 I had the privilege of presenting that bike – a Yamaha 125 – to its new owner outside Marsabit Cathedral while the congregation clapped and cheered. It is now in daily use around Sololo, near the border with Ethiopia.

Your generosity didn’t stop there. By March of this year, we were able to send a second bike to Marsabit, again enabling its user to reach far-flung villages quickly and easily.

Since then, people have continued to give, and more than once I have been surprised with cheques at the end of services. A collection at the service in May at which churchwardens were admitted to office raised over £700. At Forest School, the out-going chaplain, Paul Trathen, arranged for the collection from his last Commemoration Day service to go to this appeal, raising more than £500. And nearby, in Wanstead, bikers from the famous 59 Club brought their machines to St Mary’s open day in July, which added another £500+ to the appeal.

As a result, amazingly, after some wonderful acts of generosity from lots of you, I can announce that you’ve raised enough to send not only a THIRD bike but a FOURTH bike, too. It all feels like those Blue Peter appeals back in the 1960s, when they wanted to buy a lifeboat or a tractor or something equally good and were overwhelmed with people’s generosity. To have been able to help Marsabit with one bike was great. To be able to send a third and a fourth is just beyond my wildest hopes.

Bishop Qampicha, who leads that huge, hard-pressed diocese, was thrilled to hear the news. “May God bless each and every one of you”, he wrote. I know, from having seen Marsabit for myself, what a blessing each one of those bikes will be to the people of that region.

If you contributed to this success, let me say a big ‘thank you’ to you for sharing in this life-changing work. And if you have yet to do so, it’s not too late. The appeal for a FIFTH bike starts now. Can we do it? Yes we can!

Lots of individuals have made all this possible, of course, and it would be difficult to name them all, but I’d like to thank the following, in particular, for their support and encouragement:

The 59 Club

Forest School

All Saints’, Highams Park

St Margaret’s, Ilford

St Margaret’s, Leytonstone

The Parish of Wanstead and everyone involved with St Mary’s open day

St Luke’s, Ilford

St Andrew’s, Ilford

St Edmund’s, in the East Ham team

Bishop Peter and Ellen Hill

and the clergy and churchwardens of the West Ham Archdeaconry.

Motorbikes for Marsabit

In December 2017, I set the churches of Newham, Redbridge and Waltham Forest a challenge. I had met the Bishop of Marsabit, in Kenya, at the Bradwell Festival that year, and he’d told me that often a motorbike is the only way his clergy and church workers can get around on the rough tracks and un-made roads of his huge diocese. Hence the challenge: Could we raise the funds to buy a motorbike for a church worker in Marsabit?

Well, as I reported here last year, it took just four months for the people of those three boroughs, along with friends from further afield, to raise the £2,300 needed. As a result, it was my great privilege to be able to present a brand-new Yamaha 125 to a very happy Kenyan vicar when I was there in March 2018. The bike was equipped with all the rugged fittings needed for African tracks, and looked fantastic. It was immediately pressed into service, taking Silas, the young Vicar of Sololo the 200 kms back to his parish, close to the border with Ethiopia.

Before he left, Silas told me what a difference the bike would make to him. He has five congregations, the furthest of which is 75 kms from his home, so on some Sundays he has to cover at least 150 kms, mostly on rough tracks. So, not only has the bike made it much easier for him to travel to his diocese’s headquarters, but it is enabling him to carry out his ministry on Sundays, teach in schools during the week, and do far more than he was able to do before.

All this was made possible by the generous giving of lots of people, including children’s groups, prayer groups, in both big and small churches, and some who are not even church members.

The story didn’t end there, though. People caught the vision and early this year we were able to send the funds for a SECOND bike because of the donations sent in over Christmas. This bike, another Yamaha adapted for use in harsh terrain, is in use in Badasa parish, which is on the edge of the Marsabit National Park, with all its wildlife.

I had the pleasure of telling the clergy and churchwardens of East London all about it at a gathering in May. The result – a collection of over £700 that evening towards a THIRD bike! And then, to cap it all, I was presented with a cheque for £518 at St Margaret’s Church, Ilford, early in June, and another £100 came from the lovely people at St Edmund’s, in East Ham.

That means that we are now over half-way to being able to send our third motorbike to Marsabit. Allowing for local price rises, we’re looking to raise another £1,200 to make this possible.

Now I’m a keen biker myself – my current Triumph Bonneville is the latest in a long line of machines I’ve enjoyed over the years. I’m a member of the 59 Club, the famous bikers’ club that was founded in a church hall and was led for many years by Revd Bill Shergold. We celebrated the 60th anniversary at St Paul’s Cathedral recently, and I know that bikers are a generous lot and recognise a good cause when they see one.

So, for the next fund-raising opportunity, I’m going to be showing off my Triumph at the Open Day at St Mary’s Church, in Overton Drive, Wanstead, on Saturday, July 20th, between 11am and 2pm. If you’re a biker and would like to bring your bike along too, you’d be very welcome. Even if you’re not a biker but would just like to be pictured sitting on a fine machine, that’s fine. And, of course, we’ll be raising funds that day to enable another church worker in Marsabit to have a bike that will enable them to serve their people better.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to donate via our JustGiving page, you will find it here: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/motorbikeformarsabit

What links Sunderland, West Ham and reading the Bible?


Well, I can honestly say that it was on a very long drive up to Sunderland to watch them play West Ham that I really discovered reading the Bible.

I was already a student, training for ordination, so I’d heard many Bible readings in church and I’d even led Bible studies looking at whole chapters of Scripture, but I’d never really read it in the way that you might, say, a Le Carré thriller or a Harry Potter story (or whatever else you enjoy), turning page after page and letting the story unfold.

One of my fellow students, Phil, was from the North-East, a Sunderland fan, and in a moment of madness we agreed that we would go and watch our teams play each other home and away. Hence, we found ourselves driving north when we should have been revising for a test the next day on the historical books of the Old Testament.

The solution was obvious. While one of us drove, the other would read aloud, swapping over from time to time, for five hours there and five hours back. It was meant to keep us awake, but it did much more than that. As we rattled our way through Genesis and Exodus, Numbers, Joshua and Judges and, I think, I fair bit more, we discovered that – far from being dry and heavy – these books were full of amazing stories we had either half-forgotten or had never heard in the first place about all kinds of people in all sorts of scrapes and situations – and all of them people who were part of God’s story.

I was hooked. To this day, I much prefer reading the Bible for an hour or two, really getting into it, than hearing the short passages we read in church. Those should really be the tasters that make us go back and read more. So, for example, when I was first a vicar I started a tradition of having Mark’s Gospel read aloud – all of it – in one sitting in Holy Week. I would recommend it; it really doesn’t take very long, and it’s an incredibly moving experience. We did the same with Ruth – again, a wonderful story, made all the more powerful by hearing it in one go.

There are three good reasons why this is a great thing to do.

Firstly, it helps us in our relationship with God, to love him and to know his love for us. Kriss Akabusi once likened the Bible to the letters that his wife used to send him when he was abroad on training camps, before the days of email. They were expressions of her love for him, even when they were just about what was going on at home. It was unthinkable that he’d have left them unopened in his case. The same was true, he said, of his Bible, through which God speaks to us of his love for us.

Secondly, it helps us to love people, to love our ‘neighbour’. If you think the Bible is full of plaster saints, you haven’t read much of it. All human life is there – people like you and me – rich and poor, successes and failures, men, women, black, white, old, young, people with disabilities, people who struggle – and all of them people through whom and in whom God works and who he loves and wants you to love. And so when you’re struggling to like someone, yet alone love them, you will find their equivalent in the Bible and will understand.

Finally, it helps us to encounter Christ, in whom we find our purpose, our life and our destiny. It is possible to be totally into the Bible and yet to miss out completely on knowing Jesus – like being an expert on the workings of a car but never experiencing the joy of being out on the open road, or reading cook books but never tasting real food. Imagine if Kriss Akabusi had read all his wife’s letters, knew all there was to know about her, but never actually spoke to her or spent time with her.  Apart from anything else (and it is many other things), the Bible is a lifetime of love-letters to you from God. It is an introduction to Jesus Christ, who longs for us not only to know about him, but to enjoy living in a relationship with him to spend time with him, to open up our lives to him and to place our hopes in him.

You don’t have to be a football fan to read the Bible. And you don’t have to be Kriss Akabusi to know what it is to love and to be loved.  But on this Bible Sunday, I pray that you might be inspired afresh as you read the great story of God and his creation and may find in those pages the knowledge and love of our Father in Heaven and of his Son, Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit at work within you.