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.

Living Alive

It’s been a busy couple of months in the Way2Community, from out-of-parish placements and opportunities to new experiences within my parish, and from a variety of areas of study and reflection to a weird and wonderful mixture of time spent as a community and as rest time. It seems like a long time since I last sat down to write a blog post, and yet it seems like these past few weeks and months have been rushing by and will continue to do so – I’m expecting to wake up one day and find it’s July already! But thankfully there is still about 5 months of this year for the Way2Community left, even if it feels like I must have been down here in Cornwall for more than 6 months by now.

So what have I been up to since my last blog post? All kinds of opportunities have arisen on top of the regular week by week activities I am involved with. The end of January brought snow to Cornwall – and chaos right along with it. The day we saw the most snow (though still not that much by my northern standards) was the day of Truro College’s careers fair, which I attended as a Way2Community member. A group of us from different denominations and roles within the church formed a stall bringing awareness to church ‘careers’ in all their variety, difficulties, and joys. We answered questions about different types of ministry, what each of us have experienced through our roles in the church, and why we are involved in ministry and church to begin with. I had some brilliant conversations with the students and was able to use my own experience to (hopefully!) encourage some of them in their own relationships with the church and faith. And upon arriving back home after the hour and a half it took to drive back from Truro in the snow, I concluded that I must be less introverted than I used to be since I wasn’t at all tired after spending two hours talking to a multitude of students, which I know just a few years ago would have exhausted me!

On the other end of the age range, we had the opportunity towards the end of February to lead a service for the residents of one of the local care homes, as part of the ministry of the local Churches Together. It was the first time for me that I had been in a care home, but the relaxed atmosphere made it feel more than comfortable for us to lead the service between us, supported by a few others from the Churches Together team. It was a short service with a small ‘congregation’, alternating hymns between a bible reading, a short talk which I wrote and gave, and prayers, and we will be doing similar services a couple more times across the coming months.

My more regular out-of-parish placement at St Petroc’s homeless society which I did once a week for four months came to an end in mid February. Most of my time there was spent helping out with the daily drop in they run for clients, but in my last week there, I had the opportunity to visit one of the houses they own, in which they are able to offer clients stable accommodation and offer support to gradually help clients become ready to move into independent accommodation. The house I visited was their largest, and is for clients with the least support needs, and so it was a fascinating morning spent observing how that is run and meeting a couple of the residents there. Over my time at St Petroc’s, and as I got to know the clients who I saw regularly at the drop in, I noticed that I became more confident and comfortable and that I found it easier to chat casually to the clients, rather than just the necessary conversation for practical matters, like signing people in as they arrived for the drop in. While I hope that I was never prejudiced against people experiencing homelessness, actually being able to get to know those people and their everyday experiences grounds them as people who experience disappointment, anger, joy, unfairness, rather than just as objects of pity or even support and understanding. Its been lovely bumping into a couple of the clients out and about since finishing my placement, and I hope I will continue to do so.

In my parish placement, I’ve been getting involved in a few new things as well as experiencing the seasonal or occasional services that have been taking place. On the last Sunday in February, I deaconed at the Eucharist service at Mabe for the first time, which involves leading roughly the first half of the service. This in itself is something I have done before, though in a very different context and style, so the actual experience of deaconing at Mabe brought a few new things with it. As deacon, I processed at the start of the service along with the priest and the choir, something I had never done before, and I wore a cassock and surplice, also for the first time. Wearing a cassock and surplice has felt very strange for me – even after adjusting one of the community’s spare ones to fit me, I still felt like a kid dressing up! I managed not to trip up or catch my sleeves on fire though, which I feel is reasonably successful for a first time wearing a cassock, and I’m sure that I’ll get used to seeing myself in one once I’ve worn it more than once. Another first time doing something for me was preaching last Sunday at both churches I am placed at in my parish placement. It was the first Sunday of Lent, so the reading was Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. My main point, or what hopefully came across as my main point, was that it is by the love manifest in our relationship with God that we are enabled to resist temptation – or that we are picked up and dusted off when we don’t. Although I have never stood up at the front and spoken for so long in one block before, it was the process of writing the sermon that I found more new and challenging, rather than delivering it. I’m preaching again in a few weeks, so I’ll get some more practise at the process of writing a sermon and hopefully it will become easier and more familiar as I learn.

Before getting stuck into my next sermon however, I aim to be making a start on my next essay in the discernment process. I finished the ‘What is a priest’ essay a couple of weeks ago, and decided with the DDO that instead of going straight onto the next essay, ‘Why are you an Anglican?’, it would be helpful for me to do a second essay, similar to ‘What is a priest’, but with a focus on monasticism. I’m going to write it as a more personal reflection on what it would mean for me to be a monk, since I have researched and written about monasticism itself more in the past than I had about priesthood. I am also in the process of arranging a placement in a monastic community in early June, where I will spend two weeks living alongside the community and participating in their rhythm of life. I hope this will give me a chance to experience the day to day reality of monastic life, meet some of the community and ask them plenty of questions, and have time to reflect on my own process of discernment.

Alongside all this busyness in the last couple of months, we’ve had plenty of fun as a community. We’ve had plenty of walks along the beaches nearby and along bits of the coastal path; we’ve played a handful of board games (in case my fellow community members hadn’t picked up on my competitiveness already, they certainly have now, after a particularly loud game of Carcassonne!); and between us we’ve nearly finished knitting a hat for the pillar at the end of our drive – on our walk to the care home back in February we walked along a street where every other house had been yarn bombed, and after discovering it was a project organised by a local artist who lived on that street, we decided we wanted to join in and yarn bomb our own house. Over the past week, my parents have been down from York to visit, and so we’ve had a couple of trips out all together. One evening, we went up to St Agnes Head in an attempt to stargaze, but as the weather wasn’t in our favour for that, we instead just enjoyed walking along the cliff top in the dark and wind. The next day, we got the train to St Ives and spent the day there, enjoying the views and remarkably blue sea, as well as the strong winds which nearly blew some of us away.

I think a fitting song to summarise these past couple of months is Live Alive, by (no surprises) Rend Collective:

I wanna live alive

Don’t wanna live a lie

I wanna live alive

And you make me alive

Don’t want to just survive

Be safe but half alive

This little light of mine

This little spark divine

I’m gonna let it shine

I am letting go of every fear

I am letting go of every lie

I am taking hold of every dream

You place inside

January: the month of edible glitter, theological colleges, and anointing a bishop

This month has a strange one. It started off with me returning home from my Christmas break on New Year’s Eve, where I spent the evening making a puzzle and drinking cider with Melissa (our deputy warden) before we watched the fireworks display at Pendennis Castle from the warmth and comfort of my bedroom window… pyjamas and homemade hot chocolate (with a splash of Bailey’s, freshly whipped cream, marshmallows and edible glitter) were necessary parts of our new year celebration! On New Year’s Day I ticked a place off my ‘Cornish Bucket List’ as we spent the day wandering around the Lost Gardens of Heligan.

As January got into full swing there came a very exciting event: the Diocese of Truro welcomed our new Bishop – Philip Mounstephen – in a special service. In December I was amazed and honoured to find an email in my inbox inviting me to be involved in the anointing of +Philip, and so I went along to the rehearsal the night before the service to run through the service with the vast number of people involved. Then came the event itself, which was an occassion of great celebration, and a wonderful blend of tradition, modern influences, and a celebration of Cornish history. It was an honour to represent the Way2 Community in such a lovely service, but also an incredibly moving moment for me personally, and I would like to express my thanks to all those involved in allowing me the opportunity to do so (and my apologies to my Auntie Laura for missing her hen party!)

Two days later I was driving up the A30 once again for some time at home with my family either side of a visit to Ripon College Cuddesdon. Now that I have a date for my BAP I’ve started thinking about where I would train and study if the Bishop were to recommend me for ordination training. Having already attended an Open Day at Cuddesdon in October, this visit was an opportunity for me to experience the college on a ‘normal’ day and have a couple of interviews. I had a wonderful time and really enjoyed my time there, especially catching up with Way2 alumni Christine and Sophie who started training there at the beginning of this academic year. I was also treated to a sprinkling of snow, showing off the already beautiful college! Having stayed overnight I was able to join with the college community for Morning Prayer in their amazing chapel, and when we opened the chapel doors to leave we were greeted with a small but glistening layer of snow.

Sadly, the evening before I left for my trip home/to Cuddesdon Alice shared the news that she would be leaving the Way2 Community that coming Friday (the day I would be travelling back to Falmouth). I missed her departure, but we all met up for a fun evening of bowling and yummy food to say goodbye. We all wish her the best for her future, and look forward to seeing her in and around Truro!

The morning after our evening outing I was at Penmere station at 6:25am waiting for a train which would begin my jaunt to Plymouth where I was attending the Open Day at St Mellitus South West. This was another interesting day where I was able to experience a regular teaching day at the college (being context-based, the students only gather once a week for lectures and spend the rest of their time in personal study or in their parish contexts) and learnt a lot about how my training might look if I were to study there. After my visits to both Cuddesdon and St Mellitus, I’ve been left with a lot of information to take in and a lot of thinking to do…

The rest of this month should be fairly normal, by my standards! I have spiritual direction, a meeting with the DDO, and my placement at RCH Treliske amongst many other things to look foward to… and there’s still another 8 days of January left! It’s certainly been an interesting month, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I joined the Way2 Community to learn, grow and experience new things – I’d say I’ve managed all three this month alone!

Into the wide open spaces

“You break us out of our cages

Into the wide open spaces

We are free

Free as a bird on the wind

Take us beyond our horizons

Leading us into your wildness

We are free

Free as a bird on the wind”

– Free as a Bird, Rend Collective

I have always loved big expanses of land and sky, the ground stretching out before me towards the hazy, distant horizon and the sun touching every inch. From the hill of the churchyard in my home church in York overlooking the houses and trees for miles around, to the gently swaying grasses and perpetual rising hills of Northumberland; from the streams weaving through the open valleys of the Yorkshire Dales to the sweeping views of the North York Moors where cloud-shadows dance across the heather.

Those wide open spaces give me a thrill, as if something wonderful is about to happen. The wildness and freedom brings God close, he becomes every breath of the wind rushing through the trees, the grasses, the valleys, and the clouds. And like a bird gliding on the invisible force of the wind, I have sensed God calling me here to Falmouth, where the wide open spaces of the north are joined by the endless waves of the sea, rising and falling and reaching out further than I can see.

For just over two years now, I have been considering a calling to serve in the church, though in what way, I am still unsure: ministry or monastery, or somewhere in between? And so, at 18, having finished A levels just a couple of months ago, I have moved 8 hours away from home in York to live with two others on similar journeys in Falmouth. To take time to discern where the wind of God’s spirit is calling me, to experience different forms of ministry in the church, and to practise the art of community, of vulnerability in sharing, of discipline in prayer, and of learning to fly in the direction of God’s voice.

So who am I? My name is Jem, and I’m one of this year’s new interns with the Way2Community. I enjoy reading, writing, playing violin, sewing and other crafts, wrapping myself up in lots of jumpers and blankets, and listening to music. My favourite book series is Anne of Green Gables, although I do also love Harry Potter (and in case the excessive jumpers and blankets didn’t give it away, I am a proud Hufflepuff), as well as so many other books. My favourite band is Rend Collective, which may be unsurprising given the quote at the beginning of this post. My favourite colour is teal, and I’m running out of favourites to list. I am non-binary transgender, meaning that I am not a man or a woman, but somewhere in between – and because of this, I use they/them pronouns (they tied their shoelaces). I just finished my A levels in York, having studied psychology, textiles, and English language. I also completed an EPQ, an independent dissertation worth half of an A Level, which I wrote on ‘Could the different traditions of Anglican Monasticism be unified?’

I have been here in Falmouth for two months now, and so am well settled in to the community’s rhythm: morning and evening prayer together everyday, shared household responsibilities, and Thursday mornings with communion and varying prayer activities – as well as my own weekly schedule. I’m getting to know the congregations of the two local churches I am placed at, and am starting to explore what I can get involved with in the parish during the week.  I have attended enough of my Introduction to Christian Doctrine lectures to be starting to feel familiar with theology – these lectures are my first taste of theological study, but I am beginning to feel able to work with the theories and arguments rather than only just managing to understand them. I’m over halfway through the Local Worship Leaders’ course which I am taking part in to build on my previous experience of leading church services at my home church, and have really been enjoying thinking more carefully about leading worship and what factors I should consider when planning worship in different contexts. I have started my placement at St Petroc’s homeless society in Truro, and though this has been a fairly new experience for me, the fact that St Petroc’s functions in a really straightforward way to meet the needs of the clients, has really helped.

I am also getting to know the area better and have been cycling around a bit – despite the wind and rain, the other day I cycled down to Swanpool beach to watch the massive waves crashing and the seagulls soaring in the gale (according to the rest of the community, my lack of hatred for seagulls proves I’m not Cornish!).

Everything has gone really well so far, giving me confidence that this is where God has called me. After all, God does more than we could imagine, more than we could dream or ask. As Mr Beaver puts it in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, “Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Gulp! Writing and delivering my first sermon (and why it was a great experience)

On Sunday, I climbed into the pulpit to deliver a sermon for the first time. Having been involved in public speaking in the past (I was the head of the Student Forum (student council) at secondary school, which involved a good amount of public speaking) my confidence was knocked when I started university, to the extent that I felt unable to raise my hand to answer a question in lectures. So having had very little opportunity for public speaking since, the prospect of finding myself stood in a pulpit about to share my thoughts and musings on the Bible passages of the day was a daunting prospect. But it was also an exciting and humbling prospect: the opportunity to share how God was speaking to me through these passages with two congregations who have welcomed me warmly since I arrived just 9 months ago was a huge privilege. Thankfully the event wasn’t captured on any sort of recording, but I thought that I’d share the ‘script’ that I used to encourage others to consider having a go at giving a talk, homily or testimony in their own churches, home groups, or other setting – if I can do it, anyone can

Readings: Ezekiel 17:22-24; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34

Opening prayer: May the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord our rock and our redeemer.

Now unfortunately for you all, [incumbent] has decided to let me loose in the pulpit today, so I hope you’ll bear with me as I share some of my thoughts about our readings today.

I’m sure you’ve all noticed that there was a lot of talk about seeds in our gospel reading today.  You may have heard the parable of the mustard seed plenty of times before, but perhaps haven’t heard the first parable as often.  Unlike the parable of the mustard seed it doesn’t have an official title; instead, it’s referred to by many different names, my favourite of which is “the parable of the seed growing secretly” – I think it’s the element of mystery in this title that I’m drawn to!  I’m sure that you all remember planting cress seeds as children: sitting a little pot on the windowsill with your seeds in it, and – if you were anything like me – overwatering it in your enthusiasm! – then watching with amazement as over the next few days it sprouted, and green shoots emerged from the tiny little seeds. No matter how many times I planted these seeds, the result never failed to amaze me.  There’s something about the life and growth of seeds into their various forms that sparks a childlike curiosity within me, a curiosity which is always amazed to see that the seeds have grown while I wasn’t looking, and which is always fascinated by the mysterious workings of seeds as they grow secretly.  So just for fun, as I had seeds on the mind this week, I decided to replicate the cress seed experiments of my childhood with mustard seeds, and grew this little pot over the past week.  It serves no purpose other than to confirm that I am still fascinated by the mystery of seed growing!

But as well as seeds, there’s other talk of life and creation in our readings today.  In our epistle we hear St Paul trying to explain what Christ’s death means to him, and encouraging the Christians in Corinth to change their perspective on life, love, and creation.  We read,

“For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.  And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.  From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.  So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

For me, this passage speaks about two things: the first is the “new creation” that comes through Christ, his actions bestowing love on all creation and making everything new.  Nothing is regarded “from a human point of view” any longer – there is a unity between all of creation, a unity which we are a part of.  Thomas Merton, a monk and great spiritual writer, describes this unity in one of his writings as follows:

“There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being, welcoming me tenderly, saluting me with indescribable humility. This is at once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of my Creator’s Thought and Art within me, speaking as Hagia Sophia, speaking as my sister, Wisdom. I am awakened, I am born again at the voice of this my Sister, sent to me from the depths of the divine fecundity.” (“Hagia Sophia,” Emblems of a Season of Fury, p61.)

This unity with creation is what leads me to reflect on the second aspect of this reading: which is that this unity serves as a reminder that Christ died, rose, and ascended because God loves us and all his creation.  It is this love that urges St Paul on and to which we are called to respond, living as if we have been born into a new life, urged on ourselves by Christ’s love.  So how do we respond to such a powerful act of love?

For some, like Merton, this “urging on” comes in the form of desiring to know God in a deeper, more intimate way – he writes of the “yearning for the simple presence of God, for a personal understanding of his word, for knowledge of his will and for capacity to hear and obey him.”  For others, responding to God’s love means doing new things, giving up old things, or adopting a radically different lifestyle.  But I’d like to suggest that our response to God’s love may begin simply with our accepting life as a gift bestowed on us by our loving God, and allowing ourselves to be guided by love, seeing God’s creation the way that he does.  When love becomes our driving force, urging us on, we allow it to govern our thoughts and actions.  Love works in us, and through us, in ways that we don’t often understand or see happening – just like the seed growing secretly in Mark’s gospel.  We may make a conscious decision to do a good deed or to say a kind word, but just as the seed grows in the soil as the sower gets on with his life, love works in us in the same way, unseen, constantly growing and developing, always at work even when we can’t see it happening, as we too get on with our lives.

But what role do we play in the life of the seed?  If our response to God’s love is to share that love with others, allowing ourselves to be guided by the spirit of love, then we may become like the sower in the first parable, scattering seed on the ground whilst getting on with our lives.  We may find ourselves prompted to do and say small things in love, whether it be donating to a food bank, speaking kind words to a troubled friend, giving a homeless person the change in our purse, choosing to buy eco-friendly products, or any number of things.  In doing so, small acts of kindness become seeds, which in their very sowing share the good news of God’s love for all, and we become the sower, scattering the seed and getting on with our lives whilst “the earth produces of itself”.  We are told nothing of the sower, or of the progress of the seed – all that we know is that the seed was scattered, and “when the grain was ripe” it was harvested.  Perhaps what this means for us is not to be concerned with the progress of the seeds we sow, but to continue to scatter them anyway, and be ready for the coming harvest.

We all know that harvest is a time of great celebration, particularly in the days when a good harvest meant security through the harsh winter months, and was traditionally celebrated by both peasants and gentry.  Cornwall is renowned for its harvest celebration, known, and probably pronounced incorrectly, as Guldize.  This was a celebration at the end of the harvest, which began with a tradition known as crying the neck, to celebrate the gathering of the last neck of corn.  After this, the celebrations would continue with a feast at the landowner’s home where he would sit down to celebrate with his workers.  This scene may sound familiar to Poldark fans, when Francis marks the end of the harvest season (in series 2) with this celebration.  All of this gives me the impression of a big celebration where the whole community comes together to celebrate the harvest.  So, when our first parable tells us that the sower returns to the grain “because the harvest has come”, I think that we should add to that “and it’s time to celebrate.”  We can be the sower who scatters the seed, sharing the news of God’s love with others through simple but meaningful actions and words, but we are also invited to the harvest celebration, to be the workers sitting down at God’s table to eat, drink and celebrate with him.  We may not know what happens to the seeds once we’ve scattered them, but I think that it’s important that, encouraged by the spirit of love, we continue to scatter those seeds of love on as much ground as possible.

But why the mustard seed?  Jesus describes the mustard plant as “the greatest of all shrubs”, but the people listening would’ve considered sowing mustard seeds as likely as we would consider planting knotweed in our veggie patches!  It’s not a seed that most people would sow; it grows, spreads and is hard to eradicate; it’s a seed which is unlikely to produce a good harvest, is hardly as magnificent as Jesus makes it out to be, and gets blown in the wind and stuck to hikers’ shoelaces so that it grows where it wills.  To humans, it’s a nuisance, but to the birds it’s a place to nest in and make their home.  This then, is the metaphor for the seeds that we are sowing: seeds of love and good news which do as they please, spread far and wide, and produce an unlikely harvest.  The earth produces of itself the fruit of the seeds that we scatter in its own time, and I hope that as we continue to sow seeds of love, we are eagerly awaiting the harvest celebration.

And so, I end with some questions to think and reflect on: What does it mean for you that God welcomes you to his table to celebrate the harvest with him? How might you sow seeds of love and kindness with the people you meet? And what is the harvest that you’d like to see in your community?

Writing and Purpose

I hate writing. Always have.

I remember being genuinely and unstoppably excited about learning to read and do maths in primary school. I was like a sponge soaking up information. Books were a revelation. I remain genuinely grateful to people who write them, so that I can read. I am sorry that I will not ever return the favour.

The worst bit of primary school, maybe apart from painting pictures, was having to write stories. I really struggled to come up with ideas. I did not see the point in trying to make my stories vivid and exciting – they just weren’t, I knew that, so why pretend? I put great effort in trying to convince my poor Mum that homework tasks like turning a comic into a written story were really stupid and futile, since surely everyone could work out from the pictures what was happening and therefore writing any further words would be a great waste of time. She was unimpressed…

My growing interest in maths and natural sciences thankfully helped me to avoid writing as much as possible in my later school and university career until it got to the point of writing dissertations. That was no fun. I pushed myself through writing up my Master thesis, but the perceived futility of spending months of my life writing a PhD dissertation that I knew nobody apart from the two examiners would ever read eventually got the better of me. I gave up on that one.

And then somebody quite seriously suggested I should be a priest. I had no problems at all coming up with lots of reasons why that was a stupid idea. That fact that most priests have to write a sermon every single week, or – horror over horrors – even more than just one, was probably one of my better excuses. It didn’t work though: Here I am, six weeks after receiving a recommendation for training towards ordination from the Bishop’s Advisory Panel, preparing to go to theological college this summer.

Preaching has, of course, happened in the meantime. As part of our internship, we are given plenty of opportunities to be involved in leading worship in various ways, and so I have, helped along by advice and feedback from the ministers I was working with, written an all-age talk as well as a handful of sermons and short reflections – and there are a few more in the pipeline. Surprisingly, I really enjoyed the process. Maybe it is because, for the first time, I feel that I have something important and relevant to talk about. When I sit down to write a sermon, I know what I am doing this for. I picture the people I am writing for and ask myself how I can help them relate to the passage of Scripture I am speaking about. My words matter as soon as there is the slightest chance that they can build a bridge for someone towards a clearer understanding or a closer relationship with God. It seems worth putting in effort when I have the genuinely exciting story of God’s love to tell.

Here’s hoping that that will carry through for a while when the volume of writing work increases. Then I’ll only have to figure out how to extent that new-found enthusiasm to other areas of writing. Essays are relatively fine, actually, because I do appreciate how having to express myself in ways that other people can follow helps me to clarify my own thinking.

But blogging, for example? Why do people blog (unless they are told to) and what for? I have no idea if anybody reads this, who reads it, why you are following our blog, and thus what would be helpful or interesting to you. Blogging feels like writing into a vacuum: Are my words disappearing into the endless depths of the internet or have just convinced a bunch of strangers that I am a complete weirdo? And yet, there might be other weirdos like me out there who can draw something useful out of this. So here you are, help yourselves.

My mini monastic experience

As many reading this will know, at the beginning of this month our interns, warden and deputy warden went away for a retreat-come-monastic experience. We spent a full week in the beautiful setting of St Mary’s Abbey, West Malling (Kent), living alongside the community of Benedictine nuns who calling Malling Abbey their home. In this post, I’m hoping to answer some of the FAQs as well as reflect on my time there.


Rear view of the cloister, as seen from the nun’s private garden.

Firstly, thank you very much to everyone who shared their questions on social media! I’ve tried to answer as many as possible, so I hope that you enjoy reading and learning about my experience. If you have any other questions, please do keep sharing them! I will try to answer them either in another blog or Facebook post, or respond directly (and quite possibly dreckly…)

Q: What was the best thing about your stay? And what did you find the most challenging? A: Two things were the best part of the experience for me: getting to know all of the sisters and discover the person behind the habit – how they came to be there, why they felt drawn to it, what they do to entertain themselves etc. – as well as using the time to reconnect with God without all of the worries of the outside world to distract me. The most challenging part was spending so much time with other people! As an introvert, I need plenty of time by myself to regain my energy. Luckily after a couple of days I knew my schedule well enough to know when I could get away for a few minutes by myself!

Q: Do the nuns have a television? A: The nuns themselves don’t own a TV, but there is a TV in one of the conference rooms on site (used by St Augustine’s College of Theology) which the sisters use to screen big events such as royal weddings or (as when Tess was there as a novice nun) the opening/closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics.

Q: Are they [the sisters] escaping from reality or changing our reality? A: Good question! I would say that whilst the sisters are separated from the wider world (they have all chosen to join an enclosed order which has little interaction with the wider world) they are not escaping from reality, but instead creating a distance between themselves and the distractions of the world to focus on their way of life which revolves around prayer, work, and study. I think that it is about removing themselves from distractions rather than escapism. As for changing our reality, they certainly changed mine!


The Sisters of Malling Abbey and the Way2 Community

Q: Was it a silent retreat? A: It wasn’t a full week of silence, but we tried to keep to the greater silence (complete silence) at the same times as the sisters as much as possible, which was from after Compline (7:30pm) until after the Eucharist the following morning (8am). Apart from that, we chatted as normal in our kitchen but kept talking to a minimum when in the cloister.

Q: How does the experience compare to the Way2 Community life? A: It is similar in the sense that the life of the community at Malling Abbey centres around the seven daily offices (prayer times) and Eucharist in the same way that our day revolves around our two daily offices (morning and evening prayer). There was also similarity in the sense of community, of coming together for meals, and having a sense of self whilst seeing your identity as a member of your community. I would say that the experience was similar to the Way2 Community life, but on a very different scale!

Q: Did you miss social media? A: No! Given that I check Facebook and Twitter multiple times a day, it seems odd that I had absolutely no desire to check out either whilst I was there (especially given the number of notifications that I had accumulated by the end of the week!) but I actually enjoyed having a week away from social media. (This also answers another question: “what surprised you most?” – that I was so utterly unconcerned about the things that usually distract me in my daily life!)

Q: Has this experience changed your view of ‘rule of life’ in Christian community, and if so, why? A: I would say that this experience has shown me the value of living by a rule of life for the harmony of a community, and how rules don’t necessarily restrict and restrain people but can set them free.


The family of moorhens whom we spent many an hour watching from our kitchen window

Q: Do you think that you could ever settle into a routine of early morning prayer/getting up so early? A: If I’m honest, no. I really enjoy and depend on beginning my day in prayer (both my personal prayer time and our corporate morning prayer which it precedes), but I enjoy lie-ins too… and my idea of a lie-in isn’t 4:30am!!

Q: Were there any young nuns there? A: The two youngest sisters are aged 60 and 64 respectively, so the answer depends on your definition of ‘young’!

Q: How did you feel that the life of a nun fitted with modern life? Did you find it difficult or refreshing to step away from modern life into the routine of an Abbey? A: I found it really refreshing – I could liken my experience at Malling Abbey to taking a breath of fresh air after being in a room that I hadn’t realised was stuffy and claustrophobic. But it did feel like I was entering a space where the rules of time didn’t apply in the same way as they do for most of us! I think that some elements and practices of the community’s way of life can be brought out into the wider world (this is what their oblates, extended non-resident members of the community, do as they seek to say the offices and live the life in the outside world) but the whole way of life within the enclosure walls felt very different to modern life.

Q: Are you going to be a nun? A: No! To quote myself in a journal entry that I wrote whilst on retreat: “This week has proved both fascinating and hugely thought-provoking, and whilst I believe that my calling lies in drawing others into deeper relationships with God, coming alongside people of all walks of life and journeying with them, and sharing the good news of God’s love with those who are yet to perceive it, the time that I have spent here at Malling Abbey has given me a greater appreciation for the monastic life and those called to it, has given me the space and time to draw near to God, and given me tools, resources and techniques to bring into my daily life.”


Myself, Melissa and Sophie enjoying some recreation time in the garden

My time at Malling Abbey was insightful, eye-opening and profound. I learnt much about the monastic life: its rules, quirks and habits (pun intended!), as well as its sense of deep-rootedness, its prayer life that seems as easy and rhythmic as breathing, and the people who are drawn to it. I entered the enclosure thinking that I understood the monastic life in theory but unsure as to why so many people are drawn to it… I left a week later realising that I could not truly know the monastic life unless I experienced it fully for myself, but wiser about why some people are drawn to it! I found my time at Malling Abbey very moving, but cannot yet put into words why or what exactly I felt whilst I was there – was it a sense of peace, of being drawn closer to God, of realising that my worries are insignificant in the grand scheme of things, of knowing that I am on the right path, of contentment, or all of the above?! I cannot yet say because for me the experience was an emotional one, and emotions are often so hard to put into words; all that I can express now is that somewhere in my being I felt that I was where God had intended for me to be at that time. I end with the final words of my journal entry written whilst I was sat in my favourite spot in the abbey grounds (which can be seen in the photo below) and which follow on from the quote in the final question above: “I hope and pray that it will not be long before I return here.”


My favourite spot in the abbey grounds was this bench beside the stream which runs from one side of the abbey grounds to another. I was drawn to this bench day after day

More than just a roast dinner

When people think about a Ministry Experience Scheme (as the Way2 Community is), I imagine that they picture we interns hard at work in our parishes and on our external placements, or perhaps – given the focus on community living that is so important to us – our communal work and prayer times. In short, the picture is formed of a person growing in their ministry, faith and relationship with one another. But another equally important part of the internship is growing into yourself, learning new life skills, and developing personal skills… such as cooking your first roast dinner!


A key part of living as a community is the sharing of household responsibilities. We divide between us the cleaning tasks on a rota basis, and share responsibility for cooking dinners (this is less predictable as once a week we sit down to decide who is cooking on which night, and what they will be cooking, based on who is available on any given evening). Having never roasted a potato or made proper homemade gravy before I moved here in September, I have learnt how to do these things gradually over the past few months and have built my way up to cooking full roast dinner two weeks in a row! As well as learning an important life skill (cooking, baking, and coffee making are top life skills in my book), I’ve also discovered a real joy in cooking food to share with others – something that previously only applied to baking, for me! When I started this internship, I expected to develop my spiritual life, learn more about myself, and further discern what God might be calling me to, but I didn’t expect to learn to love cooking roast dinners! I feel that I’m ready and raring to face the greatest challenge of all later this year… cooking Christmas dinner!