reviewing life

It’s been a wee while, but various questions people have asked of late have prompted a post, combined with a need to be reflective as my Episcopal review looms!

“Do you regret the move, after all the palava of the Women Bishop’s stuff and now the Gay Bishops headlines?”  has been asked in a variety of guises.  The answer is a resounding “NO!” – I have no regrets in moving south, despite much of the ridicule and bad press of the church, especially over the last 3 months.

Firstly – to put the record straight – Women Bishops have not been rejected by the Church of England Synod, but one form of legislation was voted down in one house of Synod, and therefore the motion to pass that piece of legislation fell – a form of legislation which gave concession to the “traditionalists” at both ends of the high/low church spectrum.  It hurt – greatly.  But as the issue of “how” lumbers on, I know we will get there, and probably with less concession than was offered.   As for the gay bishops stuff – a 15 month moratorium was lifted.  The status quo of the situation that existed when I moved here has returned.  I dont like it, I have no idea how it will be “policed or monitored”  –  I find the attitude which says we can dictate what two consenting, comitted and loving adults can do in their own bedroom to be extremely arrogant and distasteful, and damaging to those relationships and damaging to the church’s understanding of love.

No Church is without its controversy or its ridicule – and the bigger the church, the greater the controversy appears, and the ridicule is likewise magnified.    The church also has a reponsibility to speak against those things which damage the image of God’s love in creation, and often as a corporate body we dont get it right, or we challenge those things which seem inconsequential to the majority outside of the church.  It is not the role of the church to “please all people”, it is the role of the church to serve people by sharing God’s love.  Life is messy, and sometimes we get too caught up in the mess to see beyond it – this is as true of the Church as it is of individuals.  Unsurprising really, for the Church is the gathering and the structuring of those messy lives.

Its hard to believe I’ve been here 2 1/2 years already.  And I’ve found that being part of the CofE has opened up doors and vistas, opportunities for community and social engagement which were previously closed to me.  I’ve had fun, and flourished in the supportive (yes, really!) atmosphere of not only the team, but of this diocese.  Despite all its faults and frailties and frustrations, I have come to love and appreciate this dysfunctional and vast Church machine and all that it does and continues to do in the lives of so many people.

As part of the Curate supervision (yup, I’m supervising a Curate, and she is scarily good!), I’ve been reading “Ministry without Madness” by Gordon Oliver and I was struck by the descriptions or indicators of “madness” the minister may experience:

  • an increasing sense of disintegreation (feeling in pieces)
  • distorted perceptions of reality – often regarding other peoples motives
  • a sense of dislocation – being out of place
  • a fear of being misunderstood, unheard – feeling isolated  without hope of relief
  • feeling demotivated
  • feeling overlooked or undervalued – left in the loneliness of not knowing how you are regarded by those in oversight.

In my previous post, prior to being signed off – all of these were my reality.  It was messy, difficult and souldestroying.  I have no wish to hurt anyone reading this who may be associated with my previous job – there are those of you who were a joy to work with, and extremely supportive (both congregation members and colleagues in other charges – you know who you are and I love you for it!), but I found much of my previous job unsupported and unhealthy.  There was an extremly large dose of denial from all directions (including myself) about the situation I was in, and a distinct lack of help and support in dealing with it.  As I began to recover a sense of equilibrium and get back to a place where I could work and could begin looking for other opportunities, it became quite clear that I needed once more to be in a team, and do something quite different.

And it has been different. Varied, vibrant, supported and supportive.And now those descriptions by Gordon Oliver no longer resemble the reality I inhabit, and more importantly, they (or the fear of their return) are no longer shaping my hopes for the future.

Before you get to thinking that I’m stuck in some kind of fantasy where reality= all was bad, then I moved, now all is good; not everything has gone to plan, not every adventure of this ministerial life has had rosey tints and a wonderful outcome.  But thats ok – its been ok to fail, look back and learn without internalising it or being defeated by it.  That has been a huge lesson to learn.

No regrets. No fear.

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Finally done it!

It was recommended years ago by friends, and suggested by the Ministry Development Officer in Glasgow before I moved last summer, and i have finally done it!

Retreat with the Northumbria Community was fantastic, and left me wondering why i had delayed so long.  4 days at Acton Home Farm (the new “Nether Springs” mother house for the community) made the 600 mile round trip worthwhile, to say the least.

Being immersed in  celtic prayer & “new” monasticism was a wonderful experience: being surrounded by God in the daily pattern of worship, work, solitude, community & study; the day punctuated by bell peals marking the beginning of prayer and for communal meals; periods of splendid isolation on Alnmouth beach, and the presence and wisdom of a retreat leader who looked into me and affirmed what he found, pushed me in interesting directions and guided my reading and meditation. (Thanks P!)

I went with my own agenda, with lots of questions to answer – the ones i’ve been struggling with regarding the transition from Scotland to England and the meaning of being “priest” in this context.  God had other ideas however, and my own agenda fell into insignificance as we talked and prayed around the journey of the last couple of years – into the wilderness and back again.  We explored those crossroads moments and the directions taken, seeing God’s hand in them, using the bad and affirming the good.  And we looked to the future – to where God may be leading.  Twas good stuff.  and I am thankful.

Father, bless the work that is done,
and the work that is to be.

Father, bless the servant that I am,
and the servant that I will be.

(from the Felgild Compline, Celtic Daily Prayer)

busy…

over the last couple of weeks, more and more opportunities for community ministry have come my way – chance encounters with local authority figures and local agencies, more formalised “community networking events” opening up huge possibilities for the church, and also affirming what the church is already doing in this place.

Some of this has been fantastic- opportunities to be innovative and think beyond individual remits, to look at how we can collaborate in care & service with those who live in this community. Some of it unfortunately has been the more bland “this is what we do and nothing is going to change that”. unfortunately for the conservative thinkers and the organisational dinosaurs – their budgets will change it, whether they like it or not.

The truth is, stuff needs to change. local government agencies need to work across boundaries and remits in order to develop a more realistic, financially viable and whole-person centred service. And the church needs to be involved in that, to value what is, and to help form what can be, rather than providing “Christian” versions of stuff that works. to surround the good with thankfull and hopeful prayer, and to aid in the changes to the stuff that doesn’t.

I despise the “Big Society” agenda pushers and hobby-horsers, finding much of the political language of it distatestful and occasionally downright dishonest. But language of co-operation, collaboration, of seeking to work with and talk with people (rather than “at” or “for”) seems a good thing, regardless of financial climate and budget cuts. One of the biggest hurdles will be getting past the institutional barriers of information sharing, whilst still maintaining privacy and dignity of the individual – but that is starting and it is good!

rest well, brave man of God

Bishop Derek Rawcliffe passed away early in February.  He’s a retired bishop of my old Diocese (Glasgow) who had been most recently living in Yorkshire.

He was a bit of a controversial bod by all accounts while he was Bishop  (I wasnt in the diocese during his episcopacy) – he made for challenging and uncomfortable times.  After his retirement and settling in England, he came out on national TV.  Brave man.

I havent been able to find anything on the SEC or Glasgow and Galloway website which would acknowledge the news.  but i was today directed (Via Lesley’s blog) to an article in the Times – well worth a read!

Rest peacefully +Derek

A busy few weeks

Its been a mad few weeks in the new job – the first month has flown by, with new people to get to know and much to process.  Getting used to being in a team again is proving tricky, i’m simply out of the habit of having colleagues to talk to, to lean on or rely on on a regular basis.  After seven years of solo artistry its a bit wierd, but hugely liberating and supportive.

I’ve been struck by the size of the church machine here, and have commented several times in those groups where the comment is made “but we’re only a small diocese….” Seeing ourselves as small whether as a diocese  or a congregation can be disempowering and limiting.  It makes the discussions automatically about what we cannot do, not what we can do.  What we can acheive may vary from situation to situation, from area to area, but the size thing is relative, and completely unhelpful.  Just to give a little perspective – the Diocese I am now in is comparable to the size of the Scottish Province, in terms of clergy numbers and resourcing, and Ipswich Deanery not much smaller than Glasgow Diocese.

For the team and for St Francis, there has been a fair bit of sadness in the last couple of weeks – a significant death within the congregation.  P was a member for over 30 years, and lay reader since the earliest days of the Team.  I had the opportunity to meet him a couple of times, and I can honestly say he was the nicest possible bloke.  Love of God simply oozed from his being, and his thoughtfulness for others displayed a humble heart and caused that same humility in others.   I visited in the hospital, and we chatted, laughed and prayed, after which he spent 5 minutes praying for the beardy one and I, that we would settle in and be happy and blessed here.  He fair brought tears to my eyes, and will be missed greatly by colleagues and congregation alike.

Schools, hospital, hospice, home visits, induction days,  a funeral or 2, wedding planning, social nights in the vicarage, deciphering Church of England liturgy, language and links with the state law  – feet havent touched the ground much, apart from a day or so suffering an irritating (and hugely painful) kidneystone. Stubborn me wouldnt slow down too much, to the consternation of the rest of the team, but I am learning.  Family crises this weekend have caused me to simply stop for a while,   “clear your diary, take a couple of days, have fun, explore, wind down” came the order from the Rural Dean (who happens to be Team Rector here , AKA the boss), followed by a list of places to visit, pubs for a decent lunch and directions to the chippy in Aldeburgh.   We couldnt explore today as we were waiting for a delivery,  so instead chilled in front of the box watching a rather dire movie with Alan (I fell asleep, it was that bad), Tomorrow I’m off in search of the beach!

Changing identities

A few months ago when visiting and showing the Beardy One around Ipswich, i was asked (over the obligatory glass of vino blanco) how long i thought it would take for my identity to change.  At the time i thought it an odd question – it’s just me – who i am, how i react, what i think/say/feel. These things, these aspects of my consiousness are all intertwined, intermingled like a finely woven blanket. Each affects the other in the warp and the weft to create the picture that is Ali.  Maybe I didn’t quite grasp the subtlety of the question – for even at this stage there are slight changes to that weft – a different hue here and there.

Of course there are the obvious things – the stopping mid-sentence to correct a comment based on simple geography and tense: “we do it…” to “when in Scotland we did it….”  (that has happened a lot!), the smiles and “hello vicar” over the road at the shops from multitudious strangers, “Guess where the vicar’s from!” games with the P3’s at one local school (sorry – Year 3’s – there i go again!)  All part of the culture shift and re-becoming English after 18 years in Scotland. Not a rebranding or re-invention, but discovery and integration of the new.

It’s the not-so-obvious things which will take time to get my head around – shifts in understanding of my role within this community, in this team.  Some aspects are tied in with the “state church” stuff and the establishment (and still pretty alien), some with the sense of being a part of something much bigger institutionally.  The size still throws me a wee bit – at the clergy conference 2 weeks ago it was slightly overwhelming.  Now its just big, and I am a part of it.  Discovering where i fit in to this wider machine is part of the journey, and at the moment much is still shrouded in the mists of the unknown.  Whether or not it becomes any clearer remains to be seen, but there is fun and excitement in the discovery.

Sermon

Thanks to Bishop Clive for his permission to reproduce the sermon from my licensing:

The Licensing and Installation of the Revd. Ali Chesworth, as Vicar in the SWITM @St Francis.

Monday 28th June 2010 ( Eve of SS Peter and Paul)
Reading  I John 4.11-21

It’s been such a lovely day and it may be the heat, but I had the notion this morning of wanting to see St Francis from the air – Sheila and I discussed this.  And short of one of us ascending in a hot air balloon with a camera, the safer solution was to generate a close up from a Multimap.  And it’s just amazing – look , even from space you can see the church car park, inspect the roof, and spot the team rector, who from above looks quite different.  No I’m only joking about the last bit.

What it does show to any aliens looking at this part of Ipswich (with a view to a vacation) is a planned community for human habitation: roads, housing units, of course, but also facilities like schools, nursery and play group buildings, local police office (right next door – what are they expecting us to get up to?) doctors and pharmacy (next door on the other side – are you feeling alright?) for our physical health, a pub for entertainment, (the night life of Ipswich  you’ll discover rivals that of Glasgow – there’s a good bash in the Church Hall afterwards).  From up here you can see a shop, well for shopping, and wait for it, no less than three churches: The Catholic Church next door but one, the Methodist Church just over there, and St Francis church and its hall.  These human beings certainly know how to live, and are well organised for community.

In John’s letter, part of which is our reading tonight, chosen by Ali, we are introduced to the community of which we are part – the community of the love of God – created because of what Jesus has made us, one in him.  ‘We abide in him, and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.’

The themes of believing in Jesus Christ, obeying his commandments (the ground rules for living God’s life in the world) and in that wonderful phrase ‘abiding in him’, are what make the church the church, whether it’s Anglican, Methodist, Roman Catholic or Episcopalian! Believing, obeying, abiding are what binds us together.  And John in his letter (a gem of a letter it is) John in his letter sweeps us up in a great hymn of praise to the God who loves us: listen: ‘Beloved, since God loved us so much we ought also to love one another.’  Job description, mission statement, and purpose in life all in one.

That is what the church is becoming: the community of those who know they are loved by God, and who therefore love their neighbours as themselves.  The community of those who can’t help loving their neighbours as themselves.  A community of love like this, like yeast, salt and light in the world, (as Jesus put it,) is here to work with God in making community.  That means where people meet there is no room for fear, hatred, prejudice.  But a place where Christ dwells, which has a quality and depth of relationships.  You can see it in our worship, in our conversation, in the lives we lead, and in our service to the community.  ‘They will know we are Christians by our love.’  How we live literally shows what God is like, and has the potential to bring many others to faith in him.  A joinable welcoming community that is growing.  That’s how God sees us, ‘from above’ as it were.  This is what we are born for ‘in Christ’ born from above as Jesus said to Nicodemus.  The very life of God within us as a community: God who sees all, knows all, and loves all.

!958 this community was constructed – and this church opened – to serve the growing community of the Chantry Estate (a religious allusion there?)  Basil Hatcher, otherwise distinguished for his work restoring Chelmondiston Church after the bomb fell, was the architect.  And it is very much the style we call Festival of Britain – there are similar churches all over the UK – simple in construction, not without problems after a few years life (this building is ten years younger than I am, so I have some sympathy with an ageing  contemporary that does not have a thatched roof.)  It has become something of a treasure, well lit from the sides, people like coming into it, an open sanctuary, and don’t forget the  simple chapel of the Holy Cross, a tranquil place.  What is best of all, and many a church in Suffolk would thank you for, is the connection, under cover, with the good and capacious hall, much used, the venue for all sorts of community events.  (You know all this, but just appreciate it: because I tell you the Archdeacon and I go to some Suffolk village churches where the heart sinks when they tell you loos and refreshments are two miles away up a dark lane in the village hall, and there is limited parking.)

When you look ‘from  above’ it all seems so obvious now, what the architects and planners were doing: marking on the ground in their buildings that church and community belong together, the one dwells with the other, alongside and in, and part of the fabric.  It also showed, even in the fifties, each denomination had equal value and presence: room for all (and that’s quite something).  Building a new community was a bold venture; places for Christian worship in those days did not have to be fought for in quite the same way as now, by deals with developers, but were planned in.  (I believe St Peter’s land was gifted by the landowner for the church there – right?)  Churches were thought to be vital, as vital as schools, police station, shops and pubs.  O.k., in a way, we can see now where the idea came from: go to any flourishing village and you might find most of those, except the police office, but not so neatly positioned for community.

Ali, and Alan, you are in the midst of receiving a Suffolk welcome – it will go on weeks.  Church, community, diocese, deanery, and lots more, as you will find out towards the end of our service.  For the next few months, it will be a roller coaster ride of new names, and new experiences, and the funny ways of Ipswich, Suffolk, UK.  And you will wonder about Church of England ways and you will ask your colleagues, what on earth did they mean by that?  And you will struggle as we all do to find the right page, let alone the right book.  Scots people have loved Suffolk over the years, and been welcomed here: many farming families in Suffolk, their grandparents anyway, came here from Scotland in the last century (must be the better weather; better land, lakes, mountains, heather, distance from Glasgow) – and when you see farms in Suffolk countryside surrounded by Scots pines, you know the Scots have been this way, in peace, sowing seeds from back home – mainly as wind breaks to stop their soil blowing away.

John’s letter reminds us of this: that we will value the diversity and gifts of the people of the team churches, and of this community and its huge potential for good, if first we have each of us been drawn into the very life of God.  The love of God, is literally ‘for us’.  This makes all the difference to our relationships with each other.  Love here is not some abstract or sentimental attribute of God: the NT doesn’t anywhere say Love is God.  It does say God is love!  Love is the very life of God, how God is and will continue to be, and into whose life we are drawn, because of Jesus.  This is what makes the fellowship with the Father and with Jesus: the life death and resurrection of Jesus made present in our lives through the Spirit.  Love is what God is, and what God does, and will continue to do until the end of the world, and then more!

To abide in this love, to let our roots grow down into this love, means that we don’t have to struggle to love people – (struggle to like some of them, yes).  Love is what we do: because of what God has done in Jesus Christ.

This means when we look our neighbour in the eye, when we see the stranger, and welcome them into our community, we see Christ himself, we see them as God sees them, as someone loved, and beloved, to the end of the world.  This means that as we love, God is building the community of the love of God through us.  This  is what the church is, and is why, even in this day and age, the church, and the quality of its life and witness, is so important and part of God’s purpose.

Working with God building the community of love means there is no room among us for the enemies of love: fear, jealousy, or rivalry, or hatred, or gossip, or doing each other down.  ‘Perfect love casts out fear’, writes John.  When we abide in God who is love, then there is almost literally no room in us for things which contradict love, for the love of God is broader than the measures of our mind, as the hymn says.  Of course, none of us is anywhere near that perfection in love, but occasionally in our lives we see it in others, where life is so filled with the love of God that there is no room for anything which contradicts it.

Ali, I forgot to ask you, but I guess you chose that reading, because it contains a lot of what you would want to say and do in your ministry here.  That ministry will be alongside others, that’s built in hereabouts, team work, in this church, in the churches who are your neighbours, in the people you will meet, in the strangers you will welcome in Christ’s name, with colleagues in which you are a partner as vicar, and in the world in which we are all brothers and sisters.

We love one another, because God first loved us: and then comes the astonishing thought, wait for it, God lives in us.  A community of love alive with the very life of God for the world.