Old and new

Melissa, Jem, and Natalie at the Greenbelt festival communion

Our commissioning service! L-R: Angela, Sam, Bishop Phillip, Scott, Jem, Melissa

The new year for the Way2Community is well underway, with all its rhythms to adjust to, names to learn, and community dynamics to discover. After a summer break, the new community members and I were commissioned as this year’s Way2 interns just a few days after moving back into the community house, at the start of September. Sam and Scott will introduce themselves on the blog soon, so watch this space!

For my new fellow community members, the start of this year has been predominantly a time of new experiences. They’ve been getting used to a new house, new housemates, the extensive rotas that keep us organised, new parish placements, new out-of-parish placements, scores of new people to meet, our community’s rule of life, new styles of worship and prayer… the list goes on. For me, however, returning to the community for my second year, it has been a time of both old and new experiences, a contrast which really began over summer.

I spent four weeks at home in York over August, and was busy seeing family and friends every day – both a familiar experience of catching up with people I’ve known a long time, and also a new experience: I’ve never been so densely sociable in my life! Being back at home, where I grew up, visiting my home church, day trips to places I know well – all familiar experiences. Undoubtedly the most weirdly familiar experience was going back to college, where I finished my A levels last year, to meet with my old progression tutor and go through my university application with her.

Summer also brought some familiar and brand new experiences with it in the form of Greenbelt, a faith, arts, and justice festival which I went to along with Melissa, the deputy warden of the Way2Community, and Natalie, whose time with the community came to an end in summer and is now just starting as an ordinand at Cranmer Hall. I had been to Greenbelt a couple of times before and so it was wonderfully familiar, but it was a first time for Natalie and Melissa, after I had persuaded them that they would love it. They did! I introduced them to some of the key events (in my opinion) like the LGBT+ Eucharist, the Iona community Big Sing, and the Old Plough folk club, where anyone of any level of ability can get up and perform a folk/acoustic song.

On a semi spur of the moment decision, I got up at the Old Plough folk club and sang a folk song, which, having never sung solo in front of an audience before, I forgot half the words to! I survived, and as they were low on people willing to get up and perform, when they picked on people to take a second turn, I got up again and sang another song which I knew the words to much better. Just as I sat back down, Melissa leaned over to me and asked if I’d be willing to get up with her for us to sing Skye Boat song together. We were much better together than I was on my own! Unfortunately, I had told Natalie not to bother coming to the Old Plough folk club, as there was another event at the same time that she wanted to go to and there was no way I was going to get up and sing. When we met up with her afterwards, she was torn between being proud of both of us for getting up, and being mad that she’d missed it. It took a whole bag of candy floss between us for us to calm down after singing, and it was definitely the most brand new experience of summer, but we are already suggesting songs that we could do next year!

The rest of the summer passed quickly and I was soon on the familiar 8 hour train journey back down to Cornwall. The start of the new community year has brought plenty of familiar experiences for me, as well as plenty of new ones. I’m used to the house, the rule of life, the structure of our days/week, the many rotas we have, the local area, and I’m continuing the placement with the university chaplaincy which I started before summer. However, the start of the new year always brings change, and so I’m getting used to having new housemates, and being in a new parish placement – I’ve moved from the parish of Mabe to Mawnan, the parish which Natalie was placed in last year. There’s also more new experiences on the horizon, with November bringing my cathedral placement, and January bringing my hospital chaplaincy placement, for which I have been preparing this week with my hospital induction and safeguarding training.

Alongside all that the new year of the community brings, I’ve been particularly valuing the rhythm of saying morning and evening prayer together as a community. After the strangeness of not having that rhythm of communal prayer over summer, the liturgy feels familiar and gentle, holding all the busyness and newness of community life. As I look back to this time last year, where I was only just getting used to morning and evening prayer, having not experienced it before, I can see both how it has shaped and supported me, and how it has guided my ongoing process discernment across the year that has passed and the year that is to come.

Saying goodbye

I’ve always sound saying goodbye an incredibly difficult thing, and this is proving to be a week of goodbyes. I’ve said goodbye to the parish of Mabe, who took me under their wing in my first year. I’ve said goodbye to my community as we gathered together for the last time yesterday to celebrate the Eucharist and anoint one another. On Sunday I say goodbye to the parish of Mawnan, who have graciously dealt with my coming and going throughout the year, trying out new things on them (including my BAP presentation!) and learning together as I did new things. And now it’s time to say goodbye to you: the person who follows our community with interest, who supports and prays for us, who likes our silly photos on Facebook or Twitter, and who reads our blog posts from afar. Thank you for journeying with me these past two years. If you’d like to continue to journey with me as my path takes me to the north of England, you can find me at the following places:

Blog: https://onesmallbirdsingsquietlyinthecedars.com/

Twitter: @NatalieAJ95

Little By Little

It’s been a busy month for the Way2Community. On top of the usual busyness of parish life, placements, and the rhythm of community life, we’ve been enjoying spending time as a community while supporting events going on in the local area – from Falmouth’s Sea Shanty Festival, to Stithians barn dance (with resulting sore legs), to the pride on tour event Come Out For Cornwall Pride (with resulting sunburn). It’s also been a month of making steps forward in discernment as we look ahead to our futures.

For two weeks at the start of June, I went and stayed at Mucknell Abbey, an Anglican, Benedictine monastery in Worcestershire. The intention of my stay was to experience Benedictine life, meet members of the community, and get answers to many of my questions as I began to test out my vocation to the monastic life. After a slightly chaotic journey at the end of which I realised I’d managed to get to Worcester using a ticket booked for the wrong day, I arrived at Mucknell Abbey in time for Vespers, the 5:30pm prayer which is one of the 6 daily offices (plus Eucharist) that Mucknell observes.

I spent the first few days mostly adjusting to the monastic rhythm – sung offices, silent meals, and early nights! The first office in the morning is Readings, at 6am. I have to admit, I only made it to Readings three times across the two weeks I was there! But I still got a good experience of the pattern of the daily offices, ranging from the second morning service, Lauds, at 7am, through to Compline at 8:30pm. In between the offices, I spent my time out walking, doing my cross stitch, journaling, and doing lots of thinking, praying, and reflecting! I also was able to meet with a number of the community one on one, to hear about each of their journeys of vocation, how they came to be at Mucknell, and how they experience monastic life in all of its joys and challenges. I went armed with a pretty thorough list of questions to ask while I was there – I did try not to load all my questions on one person at one time!

I also was able to spend time with the community as a whole, seeing a bit of the community dynamics (and hearing a few of the running jokes!). On two mornings a week, they invite guests to help with some of the garden work, so I went out and worked in the kitchen garden – once I had been shown what was a weed and what was a plant – and had the chance to chat with some of the community then. I also was privileged to be let into a number of the community’s activities, which guests are not usually invited to. ‘Lectio and tea’ – I am told that the corporate Lectio Divina cannot happen without being followed by tea; Sunday evening talking supper followed by community recreation; and joining a couple of the community members in their daily work.

My time at Mucknell was full of new things, new experiences, new thoughts, but as I commented during a meeting with Abbot Thomas just a few days into my stay, ‘It feels very ordinary here.’ Once I got used to singing the offices, I really enjoyed the simplicity and rhythm that they hold – and I think it is because they are so central to the life of the community, that the whole of the days likewise feel gentle, meaningful, and ordinary. Spending time informally with the community showed me the sincerity of the more formal times that the community comes together, and having a taster of monastic life at Mucknell made me sure that I want to carry on exploring and testing my sense of calling to monasticism.

I say that I want to carry on exploring this calling, and not that I am 100% sure of this calling, because my time at Mucknell highlighted the ongoing nature of discernment in the monastic life – growth and discernment happen gently, little by little. For a start, the multiple stages someone seeking to enter monastic life goes through before taking solemn vows for life show that this process is not to be rushed through or undervalued. Each stage, from alongsider, to novice, to simple vows (3 years), to solemn vows (life), is important in testing a monastic vocation and so it is a gradual process of discernment, rather than a one time decision. Furthermore, as I am only 19, I was advised that taking a few years doing something else, before committing to joining the community full time, would be wise, as so after some thought and weighing up my options, I have decided I am going to apply to university.

I am planning to apply to study theology starting in September 2020, so I’m currently in the process of comparing courses and universities and deciding where I want to apply. An important aspect for me in looking ahead to three years at uni is that I don’t want to spend three years feeling like I’m delaying following this calling to monasticism. I want to carry on intentionally exploring this call while studying, living the Benedictine life ‘out in the world’ almost like an oblate. I am aware this is going to be challenging, so I am hoping to hear how other people have followed a personal rule of life or lived an intentionally monastic lifestyle by themselves, and so gather advice, guidance, and suggestions that will help when I come to attempt it for myself. Before then though, I’ve got to go through the process of comparing courses, filling out my application, writing my personal statement, working out where I’ll live… lots to think about!

In the meantime, the months are rushing on and my first year down here in Falmouth will be over before I know it. We still have over a month left before we each leave for summer, after which will mean the new year for the Way2Community and new members starting. I’m looking forward to being back in York for a few weeks in summer and catching up with people – but I don’t want this last month to go by too quickly either! While I look to the future with thoughts and ideas buzzing around my mind, I also look to the present, with all its times of busyness and calm being held in the rhythm of our community life now.

Chaplaincy: the listening ear ministry

From Thursday to Saturday of last week, I found myself wandering around fields and avenues passing everything from cows to boutique shops to classic cars to wedding dresses to farm machinery. I was at the Royal Cornwall Show (RCS) – an annual agricultural show which draws thousands of visitors, traders, farmers and others from across the country – to experience life as a Show Chaplain.

As part of my time undertaking the Diocese of Truro’s Ministry Experience Scheme I’ve spent some time with chaplains at a local university and hospital, but when the opportunity arose earlier this year for me to come along and experience a very different type of chaplaincy I leapt at the opportunity. My calling to ordained ministry has long been tied up with my passion for rural communities, and it is the rural church which is at the heart of my previous, current and, hopefully, future experiences of ministry, as well as being the theme around which my undergraduate dissertation was centred. I was therefore thrilled to have the opportunity to experience ministering to people as a chaplain at an agricultural show, which are often the highlights of the year for many rural and farming communities.

The days were long and tiring. I woke up at 5:50am each day in order to leave the house by 6:30am, arriving at the show ground (bumping along the final muddy track which had been severely affected by the torrential rain on the second day of the show) in time to make my way to the Churches Together tent (which was, of course, on the opposite side of the show ground to the car park I had to park in) for prayers at 8am. I would then have a cup of fresh coffee – which was made throughout the duration of the show by a group of enthusiastic volunteers from local churches – before setting off for my first shift. We each had 4 one-hour shifts spread out across the day, between 9am and 6pm, one of which was spent in the tent and the other three out patrolling the show. Whilst in the tent we chatted with visitors, exhibitors and anyone else who might happen to have popped in for a cuppa or to let their children burn off some energy in the play area, and closed our hour with a short prayer which was projected through the speakers into the marquee. When ‘out’ I would wander around the show ground as I was led by the Spirit, which often meant walking in circles or apparently aimlessly! There were a few occasions when I was stopped by someone (usually to ask for directions!) but 90% of my conversations came from me saying “hello” or “good morning” to people as I walked by, and conversations growing from there. Most of my conversations were with stall holders/exhibitors, and I found myself particularly ‘ministering’ to the folks who ran stalls and rides in the fairground. Conversations were mostly about people’s experiences of the show, grumbles about the weather, and just chatting with people who might otherwise have had no one to talk to all day. But there were also some notable times when the conversations naturally went deeper – from conversations about the relevance of the Bible to contemporary life, to someone’s mother experiencing serious health issues as a result of an incident at a previous event similar to the RCS, to conversations about how many Christians would welcome celebrations of same-gender relationships in the church. I said very little in these conversations, and this reinforced what I’ve come to realise about chaplaincy over the course of my various placements: that it is a ministry that is about proving people with a safe space and a listening ear. Of course there were times when I didn’t know what to say or probably said the wrong thing, but there were many more when I found myself saying something that I hadn’t thought through and knew that it was God’s word in my mouth, or found myself thinking “I need to hold this silence for just a moment longer”.

Yes the days were long, I was exhausted at the end of each day (and I still am now!), I was cold and wet, and sometimes I wondered what I was doing there. But it was a privilege to be there, to bring something of God’s love to the people I met, to witness to God’s presence through my presence, to surprise people and to hear the words “you’re not like most chaplains!” There is power in being present and providing a listening ear; and that, to me, is what chaplaincy is all about.

A watched phone does (eventually) ring

It’s 2:59pm on Thursday 23rd May 2019. I’m in the passenger seat of a car on my way back to Falmouth after a meeting in St Austell to discuss my upcoming placement at a church there. Throughout the meeting my mind was at most 75% focussed on the conversations as they happened. The other 25%+ was thinking “not long now, not long now…” Now, as we travel back in the car, chatting to fill the silences that are heavy with expectation, my eyes frequently flick to the digital clock that sits in the centre of the dashboard.

As the numbers edge ever closer to 3pm, my stomach knots in fear, my mouth feels dry and I have to take frequent sips of water. The reason for the heavy expectation, fear, and dry mouth? Today, at 3pm, a report will be sent from the Ministry Division of the Church of England to the Bishop of Truro, a report which will either recommend me (conditionally or unconditionally) or not recommend me to train for ordained ministry in the Church of England. Once he has received the report, the Bishop will then prayerfully consider the report, before deciding whether or not to accept the recommendation of the panel who wrote it.

Soon, I will know whether I am going to train to be priest in the church that I love, or whether I will need to prayerfully discern another path for my future. Today, having lived in a state of uncertainty for so many years, I will finally know in which direction my life will go.

My eyes flick to the clock again. 15:00. I take a breath, glance at the phone that I have held tightly in my hand, and say a quick prayer. Any minute now, it could ring…

3:37pm. We arrived back in Falmouth a few minutes ago, and I promptly shut myself away in my bedroom, the room where I get the most phone signal (and where I could have some privacy to wait without the eyes of my community members on me). A message pops up on the laptop screen in front of me from Jem: “Your coffee is ready down here.” I grab my phone, which has been propped up on a stand beside my laptop, and dash downstairs to grab my coffee, before retreating to my room once again. I return the phone to its cradle and glance at it frequently. They say a watched pot never boils, and it’s beginning to feel like a watched phone never rings. But still I watch it and wait.

4:16pm. I hear feet climbing the stairs and as I instinctively turn to follow the sound, the sound I’ve been waiting for fills my ears: my ringtone. As I hear the voice of Angela (our community warden) call out “Bye Natalie!” I answer my phone with a “Hello?”

4:20pm. 4 minutes. That was all it took for Bishop Philip to tell me that he was delighted to accept the recommendation of the Bishops’ Advisory Panel that I train for ordained ministry. I don’t remember much of that conversation, other than I said “hello” at least 3 times and “thank you” even more. I also remember him reading to me the opening paragraph of the report, which I remember thinking was lovely at the time, but forgot what was said as soon as the call was over! It was also lovely to learn that I am the first person he’s sponsored to train for ministry, still being a relatively new bishop.

I walked down the stairs and silence fell in the living room, where Jem, Angela and Melissa were waiting. I only made it half way down the stairs before I called out – “you can breathe now, it’s good news!” and walked into the living room, grinning.

7:56pm. After hours of my phone pinging non-stop as messages flooded in to congratulate me on my good news, things had finally started calming down. And then, in the midst of the lull, came an email from the DDO containing a copy of the report. I opened it and finally breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the word in bold type on the first page of the report: “recommended“. I was nervous to read the report, having heard many horror stories about reports being filled to the brim with criticisms and unfounded claims, even for recommended candidates. But I was pleasantly surprised to read a report which I felt captured a true reflection of me – something that, over the week, I had said I felt the advisors had grasped – with plenty of areas for growth and learning development, as well as really encouraging comments from the Advisors, such as the following: “we would encourage her to believe in her significant potential in this area.”

I was also finally able to read that opening paragraph for myself, the one which Bishop Philip had read to me on the phone, which I will share below.

“We very much enjoyed meeting Natalie at the Panel. She brought a quiet enthusiasm to the Panel. In Natalie we met a well-grounded and extremely perceptive young woman who we consider to have the great potential for ministry in the Church of England.”

The first 24 hours or so after that call were spent trying to process the news. But things began to feel very real when on Saturday morning an email appeared in my inbox which had initially arrived on Wednesday morning, but which I had decided to schedule to disappear and reappear once I’d heard from the Bishop and had time to process whatever the decision was! It was an email from the Admissions Secretary at Cranmer Hall, the college where I will be training, asking for my accommodation preferences. Having to think seriously about where I want to live now that I know that I am moving to Durham in 4 months’ time really brought home the reality of it all.

Now that the initial shock has worn off I’m filled with joy that my sense of calling has been affirmed, am eager to begin training in September, and am incredibly excited that my training will unfold at the wonderful Cranmer Hall. But as I write this my thoughts are with Jem, who is currently on their way to Mucknell Abbey, where they will spend some time with the community there as they discern their own calling. As you celebrate with and pray for me as I prepare for the next step of my journey, please pray for Jem as they discern theirs.

Community and Calling

For me, community and calling are very much tied up with each other. Over the last month or so, as my journey of discernment has taken a step forwards, community seems to be both the means and the end to which I discern my calling. In the years since I first felt a calling – though I was unsure what this was to – there was always an interest in intentional community running alongside my journey of discernment. From exploring new monastic expressions of community with a small group and my developing interest in traditional monasticism, right through to my involvement with the LGBT+ community of which I am part, community is something which I have kept returning to, something which I have felt drawn to.

It was for this reason that I joined the Way2Community, a ministry experience scheme where I have been exploring my vocation in more depth and from more experience, but also, importantly, a community of people on a similar journey to my own, committed to each other and supporting each other as we live, work, and pray together. The support and care of community is visibly lived out as we discern side by side, each our own path for the future, but for now, our paths converge. I am reminded of a verse from the song Alone Together, by Paul Brain, on Northumbria Community’s CD of the same name:

Though I cannot live out what God’s planned for you

As our lives converge let us take the same path

Encouragement be in our hearts, on our lips

As we seek to serve the King

I have been particularly aware of this communality over the last month as my vocation has begun to unfold more. This was particularly as a result of the essay I wrote as part of the discernment process, which I decided to title, ‘What would monasticism be for me?’. This was following on from my previous essay, ‘What is a priest?’, as I felt that since I have been discerning between priesthood and monasticism, doing a roughly equivalent essay on monasticism would be valuable – and it was! I decided to make it a more personal reflection than my priesthood essay had been, focusing on Benedictine monasticism and exploring the aspects of it which particularly draw me, the things which I have questions about, and the reasons that I came to believe that monasticism may be what I am called to.

As I was writing the essay, I noticed that I was much more excited about the possibility of monasticism than priesthood, and as I learnt more about a monastic community which I will be doing a two week placement with soon, I realised that many of the things I had questions about were being answered – pretty much leaving me just with all the things that attract me to Benedictine monasticism, and very little that doesn’t. I also reflected that monasticism fits more comfortably and authentically into my experiences of calling across the years than priesthood. And so as I made the terrifying yet exhilarating admission that, ‘I think I am called to be a monk, and I think I want to be a monk’, I was surrounded by the community, encouraging me, helping me articulate my discernment, and trying to assure me that wanting to be a monk isn’t *that* ridiculous. I still have lots of discernment to do, lots of things to experience and test out, but I feel (a little bit) confident in saying that my vocation is to monasticism.

Throughout all this, community life continues, in all its times of busyness and its times of quietness. Easter came and went complete with new experiences as well as familiar ones. We went to the Chrism Mass at Truro Cathedral (a first for me), and joined in with Falmouth and Penryn Churches Together’s walk of witness on Good Friday before going to services in our respective parishes. On Easter Sunday, we went to Truro Cathedral’s Easter Vigil (also a first for me and rather higher, and earlier, than I am used to, though I did sincerely enjoy it!), again before going to services in our respective parishes.

More recently, we had a busy few days with various opportunities. Last Saturday, the Way2Community was invited to lead opening worship for diocesan synod, though we couldn’t stick around for long after the opening worship as we had various other commitments. The next day, I was preaching again, this being the third time I have preached. It was Vocations Sunday, so I enjoyed the challenge of relating my experience of vocation and discernment to the very different context of the congregation’s experiences of vocation and discernment. Then on the Monday, we were leading a service in one of the local care homes with a couple of others from Falmouth and Penryn Churches Together. Only one resident came along, since it was such lovely weather and most of the regulars had gone out for the day, but the service felt very peaceful and worthwhile. After that, in the afternoon, I headed up to the university campus where I have just begun my placement with the chaplaincy team.

And so we as a community continue to walk our paths as they converge and as we discern and experience and pray. There’s a painting which I found some weeks ago, called Forest Path by Val Spayne, which I used to pray with one night, which particularly reflects to me this journeying. It shows the two paths converging into one, which as it gets further and further away, becomes less clear as to where it goes, which way it will turn, but the path for now is marked out clearly.

Forest Path, Val Spayne

BAP: public or private?

Before joining the Way2 Community, when I thought about the possibility of going to a Bishops’ Advisory Panel (BAP) I imagined it as an event about which I would be very private. I would only tell the date of the panel to a small number of people who I would trust to pray for me throughout, and keep the discernment process as private as possible. But since joining the community, I have found myself immersed in many different communities and different aspects of church (particularly Anglican church) life.

Being part of a scheme which is headed up by the Diocese of Truro, there are people all across Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly and the two parishes in Devon – which together form the Diocese of Truro – who are aware that I am discerning a calling to serve God as a priest in the Church of England, and are keen to know how I am progressing on this journey. Having visited a handful of theological colleges, to consider where God may be calling me to study if I am recommended for training, I have shared my journey with others who have trodden this path before me, and been assured of their prayers for me. I have moved to Cornwall from Somerset, where I was involved in local churches for many years, and so have friends there, including my ‘home’ church, who love to hear what I’m up to and pray for me. And I’m a part of a community here with whom I share my life, who have been upholding me, hugging me, and promising me cake as a reward after BAP, who know probably as much as I do about my journey!

With so many people who have shown me love and support on this journey, it has naturally become the case that I have been more open about the process than I was expecting. Through conversations, blog posts and social media, I have shared the ups and downs of my journey – from the excitement of visiting a college which felt like the place to which God was calling me, to my handful of pre-BAP wobbles which my community have experienced firsthand. Sharing the process has been incredibly helpful to me as I work through and reflect on my experiences and emotions, and I have been overwhelmed by the prayers that have, are, and will be offered for me. Whilst the journey of discernment is at its heart a private one between myself and God, making this journey more open, more public, has lead me to being surrounding in love, prayer and support more than I could ever have imagined.

Thank you to all those who are praying for me. As the date of my BAP dawns closer, and with it the huge decision about my future that is about to be made, I have reached a place of peace where I am confident that whatever the outcome, I will be held in God’s love and surrounded by people who will support me through whatever the future holds.

Stepping out of my comfort zone

I’ve just returned from the Good Friday service in my parish. Myself and a Local Worship Leader (LWL) lead the service between us, which was centred around the images of the 14 Stations of the Cross in the following pattern:

  • Bible reading
  • Meditation
  • Taize chant
  • A candle was extinguished following the words “the light grows dim. The darkness deepens.”

I was very much looking forward to leading this service. The readings were moving, the meditations hard hitting, and the extinguishing of candles powerful. And then my incumbent suggested that, as we would be sat in the choir stalls to lead this, I should help to lead the singing of the Taize chant. Those who know me will know that I am NOT a singer. Yes, I’ll belt out a Scouting for Girls song when I’m driving alone, but even singing along to folk songs with my community is too much for me as I become uncomfortably aware of my out of tune voice clashing uncomfortably with other – much better – voices. So to be asked to sing loud enough for others to hear me was terrifying.

Thankfully my fellow community member Jem is an excellent singer, and had the graciousness and patience to sit down and teach a very stubborn and unwilling student yesterday afternoon. I was extremely uncomfortable with the whole process, embarrassed at my inability to sing anything in tune or work out how on earth I was supposed to make my voice do what I wanted it to! But with a lot of patience on Jem’s part (and a lot of giggles on mine when they got me singing the words “nee naw” a few times!) we eventually got to a stage where I was comfortable with what I was able to do.

Then came the service itself. I was confident about the readings and knowing what I was doing and when. However, I was extremely nervous about singing the chant, and when our LWL and I practiced singing together before the service began I struggled to follow him. I am not a musician, so managing to sing in vaguely the right way was an accomplishment in itself, and trying to follow his lead was a real struggle. It was then suggested that I should lead the singing, and he would join in with whatever I managed to do. This was a terrifying suggestion! Not only was I going to be singing loudly enough for everyone else to hear, but they would all depend on me starting off correctly so that they could follow! After practicing for a bit longer I was reasonably confident that I could sing roughly what I was supposed to, so I agreed that I would start the chant each time around… All 14 of them!

A running joke in our community is to say “well, nobody died!” as a marker of success if we get through something we thought might go wrong or were anxious about. And you know what, nobody died as a result of my singing so I’d call that a success! Singing at all is a big step outside of my comfort zone. Leading a Taize chant in a church service? That put my comfort zone on a different planet in relation to me! But I’m glad that I did it. And who knows? With more singing lessons from Jem I may be able to sing not one but two Taize chants before long!

April Sermons

One of the experiences we are able to have as ministry experience scheme participants is preaching in our placement churches. On the 7th April (5th Sunday of Lent), both Natalie and I were down to preach at our respective services. It’s something that’s still quite new to both of us, but especially for me – this was only the second time I have preached, following on from about a month ago. So for anyone who’s interested to see what we preach about when they let us loose on the congregations, here you go!

Natalie’s sermon was for the BCP Eucharist at her placement church, and her reading was John 8:46-end.

Our gospel reading today comes at the end of a chapter in John’s gospel throughout which Jesus has been teaching in the temple, and has been repeatedly questioned and tested. He continually responds in ways the accusers don’t expect: by questioning their sins when they bring to him a woman caught in adultery; using their own laws of testimony to witness to his identity and message; and causing them to think about their parentage, and whether Abraham is more important a father figure to them than God. Throughout it all, Jesus is trying to figure out how deep their faith runs.The part we’ve just heard reads almost like a comedy sketch, where two parties are arguing, but the only ‘counterargument’ is one person aimlessly contradicting everything the other says; everything Jesus says, there is a “yes, but…” waiting in response.

Jesus says: “I’m telling you the truth, why don’t you believe me?!”
The others respond: “Yes, but you have a demon.”
“Believe what I say and you won’t die, but you’ll be with God forever.”
“Yes, but Abraham died, so you must be lying.”
“My Father told Abraham that I would come, and Abraham rejoiced! Before Abraham was, I am.”
“Yes, but how can you know what Abraham thought? You’re committing blasphemy.”

Back and forth this goes throughout the whole chapter. Jesus is questioned and accused, but his concern is not with what the Pharisees say about him, but with what they say about his Father. Here, his concern is not that they think that he has a demon, but that they think he is dishonouring God.

It’s sad to say, but I’m sure that many of us have experienced times in our lives when we’ve been bullied, whether as children or as adults. It can be difficult to ignore hurtful comments about our appearance, or something we’ve done or said, but most of us are able to hold our tongues and ignore or brush I off what is being said. But when those comments are directed at a loved one, I imagine that most of us would find it much more difficult not to speak out against it. Jesus doesn’t respond to the comments about his having a demon with further insults, instead he seeks to defend the honour of his Father. “I honour my Father, and you dishonour me” he tells them.

So often in the gospels, conversations with Jesus centre on those asking the questions never quite being able to comprehend the answers, and our reading today is no different. The group who are questioning him take everything that Jesus says at face-value, often missing the deeper meaning of his words. What Jesus is trying to tell them is that through him they already have the key to eternal life: believing his teachings and following him is all they need to do. Yet they remain fixated on their ancestry and connection to Abraham. And when Jesus tells them that Abraham rejoiced when he saw what Jesus – his descendant – would do, the Jews become fixated on the physical limits of this statement. “You can’t have seen Abraham, you’re not even 50!” they tell him.

I think the responses of this group can speak to us today about the ways in which we can allow ourselves to be distracted from the personal and spiritual sides of our faith. We may now be 5 weeks into Lent, but we still have time yet before we reach Easter weekend with all its sorrow and celebration. Lent is a time of prayer and penitence, as we seek to draw closer to God. Often, we give or take up things for Lent – in the past I’ve given up chocolate, crisps, or biscuits, or taken up doing a good deed every day. But reading this passage in John’s gospel made me wonder whether we too can get fixated on the material and overlook the spiritual?

Jesus’ age is a real moment of distraction for the Pharisees. They can’t comprehend what he is telling them because they are too concerned with how a thirty year old man knew what Abraham said 2000 years before. When Jesus tells them “before Abraham was, I am”, he is identifying himself with God. “I am” is what God says to identify himself to his people – for example, when God appears to Moses in the burning bush, Moses asks “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you’, and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”, God replies “I am who I am.” By using it himself, Jesus is signifying his divinity – that he is both fully God and fully human; but they are too distracted by Jesus’ physicality to grasp his divinity. I wonder in what ways we – today – can be distracted from what God is trying to tell us?

For Lent this year, I wondered about giving up the things that I’ve given up in the past, but then realised that I had a selfish motivation behind this – I wasn’t thinking about giving them up to improve my Lenten discipline, but so that I could eat healthier and maybe lose some weight! There are other areas too where I worry that I am like the people in our reading – being distracted by concerns about whether certain biblical events really happened, spending time on social media when I’ve woken up early to pray, or worrying too much about what I’m saying when leading intercessions instead of actually praying them myself. These things have the potential to distract me from my relationship with God. I need to become more aware of the times when I do things in the name of my faith – like giving things up for Lent – which are actually for my own self-interest, rather than for building up my relationship with God. I believe that there is a risk that when we focus on the material things, on the things that can distract us from our relationship with God, we can overlook the deeper, more spiritual, things.

And so, my challenge to myself – and to all of us – is to not let the outward actions of our faith distract from our relationship with God. Let’s use the remainder of Lent to seek to draw closer to God in prayer, using this time to deepen that relationship, remind ourselves of God’s love for us, and build up the foundations on which the outward workings of our faith are built.

I did my sermon at both churches in my placement parish – Morning Worship at one followed by Holy Communion at the other. My reading was John 12:1-11.

So today’s gospel reading – the anointing of Jesus. I’ve always had the sense with this passage, that there’s something beautiful going on here, but I’ve never quite understood what. Whenever I’ve tried to picture it, tried to understand what it is about it that’s beautiful, I just get caught on the fact that to me, pouring perfumed oil on someone’s feet and wiping them with your hair is a bit weird. It’s not something that happens in our culture. Maybe you’re the same – after all, none of us are familiar with the culture of Jesus’ time. So what is going on here?Well, we’re told that Jesus is at a dinner party – that’s a familiar enough setting for us! It’s held at the house of someone called Simon the Leper – who, given his description as a leper, is probably a bit of an outcast, this isn’t high society we’re talking about. Jesus is surrounded by his friends and disciples, most of whom were people who society looked down on and shunned. Probably none of them were very rich themselves, certainly some of them were quite poor. And Mary comes along, with this jar of expensive perfume, worth about a year’s wages. And she opens it and she pours the perfume on Jesus’ feet, then wipes them with her own hair. If we put aside what might be our first reaction of thinking that this sounds odd or awkward, I think we can recognise it as wonderfully outrageous – Mary is breaking so many social rules and conventions, and in a society where women were expected to be meek and mild, unassuming, and generally keep out of the way, Mary bursts in to centre stage with reckless abandon and extravagance. Why?

To understand Mary’s action, I want to challenge us all to put ourselves into her place. You’ve known this man, Jesus, for some time. You know there’s something significant about him. You’ve spent hours listening to him teach. When your brother died you couldn’t bear to see him and when he asked to see you, you spoke out of your pain, and you said to him ‘if you were here, my brother would not have died’. He didn’t argue, he didn’t reason with you, he didn’t even defend himself. He wept with you. He shared your grief. And then, a miracle! He visited your brother’s tomb, told him to come out, and there was your brother, alive again after four days. Utter joy at seeing your brother turned to utter awe at this man who raised him from the dead – do you dare believe that this man is the promised messiah? Whoever he is, there’s something about God in him, and you can barely believe he cares about you. Why would he? You’re just you, unremarkable, ordinary – he’s the Lord! How else can you respond to his extravagant, unbelievable love for you, than by giving all you have, placing yourself at his feet and blessing him in any way you possibly can? What do the judgemental stares and pious outrage around you matter when you’re worshipping, yes worshipping this man who you believe might just be God?

But then Judas breaks the moment of Mary’s worship, he’s angry about this apparent waste. He points out that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor – a whole year’s wages could have done a lot of good. John’s gospel accuses him of saying this because he was a thief, but the point remains. Jesus doesn’t require us to spend lots of money worshipping him – so why did he defend Mary’s extravagance over giving money to the poor?

Jesus’ line of reason might sound harsh – there’ll always be poor people, help them some other time. I’m not here for long, so worship me while you still have the chance. But I think if we look at it a bit more carefully, it makes sense. Jesus isn’t denying the good of helping the poor. In fact, the word worship comes from the word worth – to worship is to affirm worth in another, praising or glorifying them because you recognise their overwhelming worthiness. If we take this understanding of worship as affirming worth, then I think that selling the perfume and giving the money to the poor would equally be a valid way of worshipping Jesus – affirming his worth by showing his teachings as worthwhile enough to follow. What I think Jesus is affirming is the uniqueness of Mary’s action. He’s not saying that Mary anointing him is the only way she could ever worship him, or intrinsically better than another way. I think what he’s saying is that Mary is in a unique position, historically, socially, relationally, where she is drawn to worship him in this way, and this unique way she is able to worship could be understood as her personal vocation of worship – she is called to worship in this way because of who she is. Sure, someone else could equally anoint Jesus’ feet – in fact in Luke’s gospel there is an account of a similar event where a different woman anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume. But it is only Mary who can worship him in this way, at this moment in time, for this purpose – anointing him with perfume less than a week before the Passover, in order to prepare him for burial. This was the unique way Mary was called to worship Jesus.

And that is not to say that her act of worship was better than someone else’s act of worship. We, living in Cornwall in the 21st century, cannot anoint Jesus’ feet with perfume to prepare him for burial. That is not the way we are uniquely called to worship him. There are many ways we might worship God – perhaps by worshipping here together on a Sunday morning, or maybe by showing God’s commands to be worthwhile by striving to follow them – loving our neighbour, acting to defend the oppressed in society, fulfilling the needs of the world around us. We might worship God by caring for the world God created and thereby deeming it worthy. We might worship by demonstrating God’s love to a friend, by listening and by caring. We might worship by praying with God. All these things and more are things which affirm and uphold God’s worth, and so they are worship, and so they are good.

And I believe there is a way that each one of us can uniquely worship, as Mary did by anointing Jesus’ feet. Not necessarily some way of worshipping that no-one else has ever done before – it is not the action which is unique, but the fact that it is us who do it. Each of us, with our individual personalities, experiences, minds, hearts, using all those things which God loves, each of us, can worship in a particular way which is made unique by our doing it. So how do we find this unique way we are called to worship? Mary didn’t spend years listing all the ways she might worship Jesus and try to decide which best fitted her personality, her abilities, or her context. Worship was the only thing she could do in that moment. Perhaps it is by copying Mary, by worshipping simply as we can, worshipping in the way we have to as we experience God’s reckless love for us, that we discern the way that we are uniquely called to worship. Maybe it is by worshipping and watching for God’s love being visible that we find where we can affirm God’s worth, find where we can experience God’s worth. Maybe it is by worshipping as only we can, using everything about ourselves that God has created and that God loves, that we can most authentically give worth to God. And I believe it is in those moments that we can most truly know the worth that God so lovingly affirms in us.

6 weeks to go…

With a little over 6 weeks to go before I attend my Bishops’ Advisory Panel (BAP) I thought that I would take some time to reflect on recent events, as well as look ahead to the weeks to come.

Just over a week ago, I travelled a great distance from the far reaches of south Cornwall to a city far, far away… Durham! Having visited the colleges of St Mellitus South West and Ripon College Cuddesdon earlier this year, it was suggested that I should consider a third option as a possible training centre, should I be recommended for ministerial training. I had briefly looked into Cranmer Hall when I was initially scoping out the Church of England’s ordination training colleges and was really impressed with what I read, but did not consider it a serious option as it is such a distance from my family and friends. However, when discussing the need to consider a third option I mentioned my interest in – as well as my fears about – Cranmer to the DDO, who encouraged me to at least go and take a look at it. I came home from that meeting and starting looking into Cranmer Hall again, this time pushing aside the niggling thought of “it’s so far away!” and was really excited about what I read. Less than 24 hours after that meeting I’d contacted the college, arranged a visit, and began looking into my travel options! I had been looking forward to the visit with great excitement, and my short time in Durham did not disappoint. I was made very welcome and well looked after by students and staff, got a taste of a day-in-the-life-of Cranmer Hall, and had the opportunity to learn a lot about life at the college, as well as explore a little of Durham itself (and tick ‘visit Durham’ off my bucket list). It was a long and uncomfortable journey back on the sleeper train – having arrived back home in Falmouth 13 hours to the minute since I left Durham – but well worth it for the experience of visiting Cranmer Hall and asking whether that, or one of the other colleges that I have visited, is the place to which God might be calling me.

I finished my placement with the Chaplaincy team at Treliske Hospital at the end of February, which was a very challenging but stimulating time of growth for me. After a few weeks of settling in, shadowing the experienced chaplains, and learning the ropes, I spent much of my time on two particular wards with which I became very familiar. The conversations were frequently uplifting, at times challenging, but always a wonderful priviledge. I have realised that, frighteningly, I only have a little over 4 months left in Cornwall – where has the time gone?! Thankfully there are still many things in my diary that I can look forward to in that time, but I am sad at the prospect of leaving this county which I have come to call home.

Since finishing my placement I have used Mondays (my usual placement day) as an opportunity to prepare myself for my BAP. This has meant submitting a large amount of paperwork, preparing my presentation, and doing some reading in preparation for my interviews and other assessments. I hope to leave Falmouth as prepared as I can be on the Friday before my BAP so that I can enter my retreat that day ready to be still and meet with God in the quiet of that weekend. As the number of days on my countdown app get ever smaller, I am beginning to feel the nerves kick in. It feels as if this is the moment towards which I have been heading for a long time, and I am both excited and apprehensive about what the future may bring, post-BAP. Whether or not I am recommended for training, I can be confident that I have been obedient to God’s call on my life in exploring this possibility and seeing where this path leads.