A piece of artwork based on Psalm 8:3-4, and completed on my pre-ordination retreat. The idea came out of a talk by Abbot Stuart Burns OSB on the unimaginable greatness of God…somewhere in there are the mere mortals!
So much has happened over the last three weeks that I have been meaning to share, and kept promising myself that I would do so as soon as the dust settled. However, one thing I have learned about ministry so far is that dust never really settles or if it does then something is seriously wrong!
When I starting writing this blog it was to record my journey through my training as an ordinand, my thoughts and experiences and hopefully offering an insight into all that entailed. That training culminated in my being ordained a Deacon on the 5th July in Winchester Cathedral, along with six fellow ordinands, some of whom had been alongside me over the last two years.
The preparations for the ‘big’ day had actually started during the week before when we had been secluded on a pre-ordination retreat at Park Place, Wickham, led by Abbot Stuart Burns OSB.
The Abbot gave us a lot to think about over those days, with stimulating talks and plenty of space and time to reflect on what our ministry would might look and feel like.
Some of us enjoyed the solitude and chance to indulge in our creative sides, whilst others needed the stimulation of social opportunities when we came together – others simply caught up on some sleep in order to be re-energised. However we chose to spend our time there was a real sense of God’s presence and an affirmation that we really were meant to be here despite any last minute doubts or concerns.
Sunday morning felt very strange as we donned our collars for the first time; suddenly it was all becoming very real. Even so, Morning Prayer and a good breakfast set us up as we made our way to the Cathedral and the opportunity to see our families as they arrived – hugs and kisses and so many happy faces in the congregation. Quickly, we changed into our robes before taking our places within the body of the church before the choir struck up with a spine-tingling introit from the West Door.
When I had told my friends and guests that the service may last up to two hours some of them had tried not to look too horrified; but it is true that time really does fly when you’re enjoying yourself! There are moments within any service that can transport you away from the ordinary and for me this proved to be true – such as knowing that your friends and family were standing up to show their support during the laying on of hands; the foot-washing when an Abbot not only washes your feet but kisses them as well and the glorious Sanctus during the Eucharist Prayer which resonated around the cathedral walls and pierced deep into my soul. Then it was out into the Close for greetings and photographs. Somehow, I couldn’t stop grinning!
The day’s celebrations, however, had not quite finished and it was back to our house where friends and family gathered for lunch and popping a few bottles of prosecco.
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord,
plans for your welfare and not for harm,
to give you a future with hope.
So the end of one part of my training has drawn to a close, but what a great beginning to my new form of ministry. Hopefully over the coming weeks, months and years I will be able to share with you some of that as the new Assistant Curate of St James, West End takes up her post.
Prior to my ordination, after which life will change and inevitably get a lot busier, I decided to spend a day on a personal retreat at Alton Abbey. This community of Benedictine monks offers generous hospitality, prayerful worship and a space to simply be, all the while surrounded by a natural and inviting arbors from which you can gaze at the world in contemplation.
I went there principally to gain a sense of stillness; a few hours to calm the mind and refresh the soul, but as the day wore on I realised that there is never complete stillness in solitude. For God’s presence is fully alive in creation and she demonstrates her vivacity in a vibrant showy display of life in sight, sound and smell.
On other occasions It might have been a day for expressing myself in poetry or art, but I discovered that this day was purely a time for sitting and waiting, observing and listening. Let me share some of these moments with you now.
Firstly, I have to acknowledge that I visited on a glorious, sunny day – something that the Brothers told me was unusual, as the Abbey often has its own micro-climate of fog and rain, and summertime has its own pleasures when the freshness of spring has given way to abundant blooms and lushness of grass and burgeoning leaves on trees. So after a period of settling into the room I have been allocated for the day I ventured out into the gardens and grounds
A walk along the first path I saw from the doorway took me past the overflowing honeysuckle (see title picture) with its sweet scent and colourful trumpets, before I came to a pause, suddenly aware of the movement and sounds that were coming to me. A row of trees whispered loudly that they were very much alive as their leaves danced in rhythm with the breath of the Spirit; their rippling tones a background pulse to the melody of the birds whose notes rose and fell as if urgently repeating a song of sheer joy.
Choices… whether to take the woodland path or enter the formal garden with its gated entrance and a notice that stated, ‘You are welcome, the rabbits are not! Please shut the gate behind you’. I plumped for the shady woods.
It was cooler and quieter here, and yet underneath my feet crunched the husks of autumnal beech nuts, reminding me of harvest abundance. Whilst the cascade of lace-capped hydrangea and towering rhododendrons gave promises of future profusion and growth. Even the flowers that had fallen to the floor, still radiated beauty; and in the dappled shifting shade, glints of light flashed like beacons signalling a presence.
Fallen blooms, yet like sparrows ‘not one of them will fall to the ground
unperceived by your Father’ Matthew 10:29
On days like this, time ticks imperceptibly onward and I found it was necessary to hurry back into the Abbey Church to join the Brothers in Midday Prayer, then lunch, which even though it was taken in silence, was much appreciated and gave one time to digest one’s thoughts.
The sun by now was high above in a cloudless sky and although I am not normally a sun-worshiper of any kind, I was drawn to the tranquility of the courtyard where I settled on a stone bench and closed my eyes, Warmth has its own life, as it seeps into your bones and lingers on the surface of your skin. My sense of drowsiness was dispelled by the sound of water erupting in shimmering jets of cascading jewels that fell to tumble over a moss-covered fountain, splashing the lily pads, under which fish found shade, their diaphanous tails swirling in lazy circles. All the while the tall purple and yellow irises quivered in anticipation as gentle bees brushed their petals and a kaleidoscope of pansies turned their faces to the sun, exuding a honeyed fragrance so familiar from childhood.
There is nowhere that creation is out of place and as I left the courtyard, my feet grazed the small stubborn weeds that had pushed their way up through the cracks in the paving and brushed against delicate ferns that sprouted in vertiginous splendour high up on the walls. These humbler plants, despite attempts to eradicate their existence, are no less beautiful, and as I walked around the side of the church to seek a shadier nook I encountered tiny white daisies nestling with bright blue speedwell and baby pink cranesbill, which had escaped the mower’s blades.
As always when you visit somewhere for the first time, you’re never one hundred percent sure whether you might stray into areas that are private; secret places full of hidden treasures. Yet the well-worn wall seat was placed invitingly at the end of the two pools of water and seemed a perfect place to linger before Evening Prayer and Supper. Here I was rewarded with a deep feeling of peace, as if God had saved the best till last. Here was life in abundance from the immeasurable variety of insects, including carmine and turquoise bodied dragonflies hovering on lacy wings, and the unseen life within the silty mud, that sent bubbles up to break the tension of the water’s surface, to the chattering house martins that swooped overhead.
As the day drew to a close, and I packed my bag and said farewell to the Brothers, I reflected how lucky I was to have been granted that time and that space to simply be another small part of God’s incredible creation. Those images and thoughts that filled my time there will no doubt sustain me for quite a while to come; a point in time both sacred and divine, a moment of sheer grace.
For more information about Alton Abbey, its people and the work it does, click here
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, holding an ember which he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with it. ‘See,’ he said, ‘now that this has touched your lips, your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying,
‘Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?’ ‘Here I am,’ I said; ‘send me!’
The days are passing quickly now, flurries of letters and documents are being exchanged to ensure that everything will be in place for my ordination. College work is being completed and deadlines met. It is now less than nine weeks before I stand before the bishop and make my vows that will admit me to holy orders and I when I will become a deacon.
Ordination traditionally takes place during Petertide or Michaelmas. In Winchester this happened at the former time on the Saturday and Sunday nearest to St Peter’s Day (29th June) and this year it will be over the weekend of the 5th-6th July. As the time approaches I become more aware that whilst this has been very much a personal journey I have been uplifted and supported by a whole host of others, not least through their prayers.
During the church year, there are special periods set aside for prayer and fasting, some of these are known as Ember Days or Weeks, when prayers are sought and offered for all those preparing for ordination and for the parishes and people that they are being sent to serve alongside. Often, these requests are in the form of Ember cards, that are made and given to friends, family and congregations – a handy aide-memoire.
It also seems appropriate to use the image of an ember for this part of the journey as well. After all an ember is a glowing, hot coal made of greatly heated wood, coal, or other carbon-based material [in the hothouse of a theological training college!] that remains after, or sometimes precede, a fire. Embers can glow very hot, sometimes as hot as the fire which created them [God and those who have led them to faith]. Although outdoor types are often careful to throw water over them or cover them with earth [the world that still doubts or does not know] because they radiate a substantial amount of heat long after the fire has been extinguished, and can rekindle a fire that is thought to be completely extinguished or which has new fuel added to it [our ministry to hearth and home, wayfarer and wanderer?]
So here is my ember card featuring a design I created of a celtic cross:
and if you are the praying type then here is a prayer you might like to use:
You call us all into fellowship
both within and without your church:
hear our prayer that those who are called
to be your faithful people,
through their vocation and ministry,
and who are soon to be ordained,
may each be an instrument of your love;
and grant that they may receive
the necessary gifts of grace
in order to do your work;
we ask this through our Lord and Saviour,
Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
As part of your preparations for Ordination training, you are advised to lay some things aside – at least for the duration of your training – and it’s one of the things that I am finding it difficult to decide about. Having spent the last couple of years actively increasing my ministry – I now have to review everything and push to one side the feeling of guilt that some things will have to be relinquished. There is one thing however, that I hope very much to continue with.
As a firm believer that God is not just found in Sunday worship but is found wherever Christians reach out into their communities, my work with the Street Pastors has proved this time and time again. There are also sound theological reasons for doing it as well.
As part of my BAP (Bishops’ Advisory Panel) I was asked to prepare a short reflection and I share it with you now
Where is God on the Streets?
In 2012, Paul Rowlinson, a Street Pastor in Bangor, spoke about the work he and his colleagues were doing. He commented that “Street Pastor’s doesn’t have any particular theological or social standpoint. We are there to offer pastoral care and practical help and to listen to people. We are not out there to preach or anything like that.” As a Southampton Street Pastor, I would generally agree with this overview. However, I would argue that many facets of theological thinking are demonstrated in abundance within the work of Street Pastors.
At its heart, the work is both pastoral and practical. The people that a Street Pastor meets on patrol are usually at their most vulnerable. The homeless man sitting in a shop doorway, who for one reason or another didn’t get an overnight hostel place, needs a drink of hot chocolate (and maybe a biscuit for his dog) before making his way to the multi-storey car park to find a hidden corner in which he can feel safer than sleeping in the open. The nightclub reveller who, having been thrown out of the establishment which earlier sold her bargain 50p vodka shots, wending her unsteady way barefooted on the glass littered and vomit splattered pavements, needs a pair of flip-flops. The young man slumped down on the frozen floor, and who proceeds to empty the contents of his stomach, not quite over my shoes, needs a space blanket and his face wiped.
Practical theology in practice? Street Pastors see what is going on, know why this is, what ought to be happening and respond to it. As they become better known in the community they gain credibility. People know that the Church is there for them in a practical yet unconditional way. As MP David Burrowes put it “Street Pastors is about Christians rolling up their sleeves and getting involved in practically responding to the problems of crime and safety.” God becomes known in our actions; a modern day application of the Good Samaritan parable.
But a Samaritan while travelling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. (Luke 10:25-37)
Practical theology answers the how, but what about the why? We should remember that people who become Street Pastors are not there as government employed social workers. They are Christians willing to give their time as part of their mission, or Missio Dei – ‘sending of God’ and instituted by Jesus, first to his disciples (Matthew 10:1) then to a larger group (Luke 10:1-4, 9) This type of work puts into practice many strands of Mission theology including sociology, communication and ecumenics.
Coats, caps and rucksacks declaring in ‘Hi Vis’ letters the fact that we are ‘pastors’ – not police – not medics – prompts the inevitable questions. What is a pastor? Why would you do this? This is our chance to ‘evangelise’ in the gentlest of terms. “We’re from local churches and we’re here to help people; to keep you safe. We do it because we believe we’re called to do it”. Sometimes the discussions go deeper and give people opportunities to explore their own theological wonderings and experiences. It’s then that the Holy Spirit seems to appear, in these five minute ‘chats’.
Ecumenically, Street Pastors have to be willing to work with fellow Christians in collaborative ways, helping to develop trust, to acknowledge and value difference and to bring about the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church’
Perhaps the most poignant statement I’ve heard was from a slightly tipsy young woman, who declared, “You must hate us!” Her own self-appraisal of society’s apparent need to indulge in these sorts of behaviours and assumption that we would judge people because of that, simply confirmed the need for our pastoral role and for a wider engagement by the Church in clarifying and spreading its message in this way
Phoning back as each encounter arises, develops and concludes enables the Prayer Pastors to pray ‘into’ the situation, underlining the fact that we are not dependent on our own strengths and skills but need the intercession of Christ and the Grace of God.
What we do as Street Pastors is not dependent on whether it earns us ‘brownie points’ towards eternal rewards; the theology of Grace is that it cannot be earned but is given because God desires us to have it. We often, therefore, have to almost make an unconscious decision to put aside the reason why we are doing what we do so that we can honestly answer,
‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ (Matthew 25:37-39)
Where is God on the streets? He’s wherever he sends Street Pastors!
Charles Van Engen sums this up in his definition of Mission ‘Mission is the people of God intentionally crossing barriers from church to non-church, faith to non-faith, to proclaim by word and deed the coming of the kingdom of God in Jesus Christ’ (1996). Mission on the Way; Issues in Mission Theology