Considering the Religious Life – a resource post

When I approached my diocesan director of vocations to discuss my vocation, I was surprised to find that he didn’t have any resources or reading lists to give to someone interested in the Religious Life. I left with a reading list tailored for someone considering ordination, which didn’t really address my questions.

This post will contain resources that either I have used or that have been recommended to me by friends who have explored the Religious Life (disclaimer – I’ll check everything as thoroughly as I can, but I haven’t read everything on here.) If you have any further suggestions, please leave me a comment, or contact me through twitter (@joanna_hollins). The resources on this post are intended to focus on Anglican Religious Communities, but I hope will be useful for anyone discerning a vocation, and will draw on materials from other traditions as I find them.

Ultimately, the best way to explore is to speak to someone living the life, and to visit and spend time with a Community. Send an enquiring email, drop in to their celebration of the Eucharist, send them a tweet… it doesn’t matter how tentative your enquiry is, how little you may feel you know about nuns & monks, how long you’ve been thinking about it – we like enquirers. Come and see.

This doubly applies to vocations advisers – please come and spend time with your nearest community, and use the resources out there!

Books

The Anglican Religious Life Yearbook (ed. Dr Peta Dunstan). Updated annually, it includes contact information and general information for every community in the Anglican Communion, including a summary of the character and charism of the community, guest house information, the size of the current community, their oblates and associates, and whether they take Alongsiders. It also includes a few short articles and many pictures! The Yearbook is due to be replaced by a website in Sept 2019, but can still currently be purchased as a hardcopy.
Books about the Religious Life, Community & Discernment

  • Community and Growth by Jean Vanier
  • Anglican Religious Life: A Well-Kept Secret? ed. Br Nicholas Stebbing CR
  • What are you looking for? Seeking the God who is seeking you by Joan Chittester.
  • Finding Sanctuary: Monastic Steps for Everyday Life by Fr. Christopher Jamison OSB
  • Monastic Practices by Charles Cummings OCSO
  • Crossing: Reclaiming the landscape of our lives by Mark Barrett OSB
  • The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris
  • Selling All and Finding the Treasure by Sandra M Schneider IHM
  • The Calling by Catherine Whitney
  • Poverty, Chastity & Obedience by H.A. Williams CR
  • Towards a New Day by Ralph Martin SSM
  • A Simplified Life by Verena Schiller
  • Stolen Daughters, Virgin Mothers by Susan Mumm
  • The Disciple’s Call ed. Fr Christopher Jamison OSB
  • Discerning Religious Life by Sr Clare Mathiass CFR

On specific areas within monastic life:

Franciscan

  • Franciscan Spirituality: Following St Francis Today by Br Ramon SSF; and for further enquiry into Franciscanism, Augustine Thompson OP’s Francis of Assisi: A New Biography
  • Joy in all things
  • The writings of Clare of Assisi
  • Following Francis: The Franciscan Way for Everyone by Susan Pitchford

Benedictine

  • Monastery of the Heart and The Way We Were by Joan Chittister
  • Benedictine Tapestry by Felicitas Corrigan
  • St Benedict’s Toolbox by Jane Tomaine
  • The Oblate Life

Carthusian

  • The Way of Silent Love
  • The Spirit of Place
  • The Call of Silent Love

Accounts & Memoirs of the Religious Life

The Choice by Sr. Kirsty CSMV (Community of St Mary the Virgin)

Together and Apart: A memoir of the Religious Life by Sr. Ellen Stephen OSH

New Habits: Today’s Women Who Choose To Become Nuns by Isabel Losada

Unveiled: Nuns Talking by Mary Loudon

A list of suggested reading material can be found on the Anglican Religious Communities website here.
Audiovisual resources

Anglican Sister Journey – a wonderful youtube channel documenting a journey into Anglican Religious Life, and answering questions about it. Recent, informative, honest, and engaging, Lizzie covers everything from the mundane realities of daily life (what toiletries do nuns use? can they go to the shops?) to exploring spirituality, questioning vocation and the challenges of entering a convent.

Discerning Hearts is a podcast resource from the Roman Catholic Church, with podcasts ranging from spiritual direction, RC social teaching, bible study and vocations guidance.

The Pauline Sisters are a Roman Catholic order dedicated to spreading the world of God through the media. Amongst other work, they publish books & AV material, run bookshops, and create multimedia resources (and many of them can be found on social media). Their website includes many helpful resources on the Religious Life.
Online

The Religious Life page on the Church of England’s website contains useful summary information, including jargon busting and lists of Anglican Communities in the CofE.

Arcie (Anglican Religious Communities) may be helpful in locating a UK based community, and includes useful reading suggestions. The website is slightly out of date, but information appears to be accurate.

The Roman Catholic Office for Vocations in the UK has an excellent website for the Religious Life, including links to RC communities, vocations stories, a discernment app, reading lists and further resources on the Religious Life.

RoOT (Religious of Orthodox Tradition) are a group affiliated to The Society who promote the religious life across the Church of England. Amongst other projects they regularly organise Monastic Taster Days. These vary in location across the country and offer enquirers a chance to meet religious brothers, sisters, monks & nuns, ask questions, and hear their stories. Resources on their website include contact information, a novena for the religious life, resources to help promote the religious life, and information about upcoming taster days. (I attended one of these days in 2016 and found it very helpful. Although organised by The Society religious and enquirers from across the spectrum of the Anglican Church attend.)
Ways to explore: New Monastic Communities, Internships, Pastoral Assistants & more!

Communities with residential options:

The Community of St Anselm The Community of The Tree of Life The Holywell Community The Iona Community Lee Abbey The Scargill Movement L’Arche UK The Northumbria Community The Othona Community Way2Community

Dispersed communities:

The Community of Aidan and Hilda The Third Order of The Society of St Francis (TSSF) Community of Hopeweavers Contemplative Fire The Order of Anglican Cistercians The Order of Mission Martha’s House

The Single Consecrated Life – a fresh expression of the Religious Life. Adherents are not part of a religious community, but are connected through the SCL network.

Internships & Ministry Experience:

The CofE Ministry Experience Scheme • More to be added later!

*categorising these communities is challenging, so I have attempted to divide them on the basis of whether members can live in community, or are dispersed, on the grounds that this may be a useful starting point for those discerning vocation. I have included communities such as the Iona Community in ‘residential’ because they offer opportunities to volunteer for extended periods in one location, forming a temporary residential community, although most members are dispersed.

Bread & Broken Glass

During the night the kneading hands of the wind pried the door of the larger greenhouse loose from its rollers. Untethered at the base, it must have knocked against the frame until the topmost pane of glass shattered. Some glass fell in onto the bolting rocket and cornsalad nearest the door; most fell outwards onto the ground in great slippery shards, and minute silver fragments that hid amongst the drops of rain clinging to the grass.

Plans are discarded. There’ll be no new bed of onions today; I race around dragging escapee cloches back over their frames and tamping them down with old tiles. The greenhouse door has to be fixed as quickly as possible, not for the sake of the hardy lettuces inside, but so the changeable wind doesn’t put her fist through any more panes. We board it up with wood, stuffing rags into the last few gaps, and then with two pairs of gloves on I begin to collect up the glass.

Even in the wind, I like this kind of work. It’s the kind of job you can’t fail at. Every piece collected is a little success in itself. And when it’s done, there’s the satisfaction of something complete, something whole, something untouchable – even in a bag of broken glass.

In the afternoon, I learn to make bread.

I’ve made bread before, years ago, but now I’m learning how to make the large, regular batches we eat every day, and to bake in the Aga. It becomes clear to me very quickly that I haven’t remembered anything very useful; I have to learn this skill from the beginning.

The Community have asked me to take on the breadmaking as part of my work as a Postulant. It’s a way of serving the Community, of participating in the Eucharistic life at the heart of our community, and it’ll primarily be my sole responsibility. It’s not a small undertaking, and it’s in the grey territory outside my comfort zone. Once or twice I’ve joked about my terrible cooking skills – perhaps protesting too loudly. I’m always scared of letting people down, so I try to set the bar low: anecdote after anecdote, told in my biggest, silliest voice, about failed driving tests and burnt meals, clothes torn, examinations scraped through by a hair. The first thing I have to let go of is my anxiety: somehow the Community believe in me, and I have to take on their faith, and believe in myself. And part of this is letting go of the compulsive need to justify that faith, and to prove myself; their faith is offered freely, without qualification.

The bread I’m asked to make, in my work in the kitchen, in my work in the garden, is the bread of service. It can be made from flour, yeast and water in the kitchen. It can be made from a bag of broken glass collected in the garden, a row of broad beans reaching out of the ground, a handful of flies swept off the windowsill in an unused bedroom. It is bread, and it isn’t like any bread I’ve eaten before.

When I taught myself to make bread, in my final year of university, I was living in a large student house with four lovely, and very tolerant friends. I used to walk from room to room idly tossing the dough in my hands, wanting to be admired for my craftiness. (I have an idea now that this didn’t particularly do the dough any good.) My friends bought me a smoothie maker for Christmas. My family bought me Mason Cash mixing bowls – I ended up with three – and I bought myself small things that made me feel as if I owned the world, and all its domesticity: a rolling pin, a wooden spoon, a bread tin.

There was a time when I imagined that my happiness was dependent on drawing everything I touched and everything I loved into myself. this meant lists of all the artists I liked, so I couldn’t forget their names. It meant an endlessly re-written CV, intensely proud of all my certificates. It meant trying everything, and wanting to know and have an opinion on everything. And to symbolise all of this, I had a dream of a house. It would be an end of terrace red-brick, with bay windows and a long, sloping garden. I imagined a wide patio, fairy-lights strung down from the house to a dwarf-stock apple tree halfway down the lawn. Inside the kitchen would have warm, yellow walls and a farmhouse table. And upstairs I’d have a study full of books, where I could shut myself and all my dreams and hopes and ideas away. My Wilko rolling-pin was the first piece of that security.

The unexpressed, unrealised aspect of this wasn’t about possessing material goods, but about building up a ‘self’. I spent my university years desperately trying to build up a ‘character’, who would be tough, and cool, and clever. Without denying any of the interests and the wonderful people I met in those years, who changed me for the better in so many ways, I now have the task of deconstructing that person. I can love the things she loved, but now they have to become distinct from me, and I have to find a sense of self which doesn’t depend on piercings or poetry or an intricate knowledge of the history of Norwich or any one of a thousand fragments of broken glass I tried to hide behind. Part of the call of the Religious Life: love these things, but be willing to leave them behind.

When I make bread, and think longingly of the beautiful Mason Cash bowls wrapped in newspaper in my parents’ attic, I’m baking a new bread. This bread can’t be baked in my fictional buttercup-kitchen; it’s made because I’m asked to make it, with what I’m given.

And this bread comes as a choice. I can receive it a crutch for my fragile ‘self’, something that validates my place in the Community, that makes me Useful and Necessary.

Or I can give it as the bread of service, which we share. It isn’t mine and it doesn’t matter that I made it, and every impulse to brag or worry about it has to be left outside the oven door. But I receive it too. Before it is even cut, in the making, I am receiving that bread. I can’t explain it, but when I was told: this is part of our eucharistic life, I understood. It’s a blessing to make bread, as it is a blessing to break it.

Lent 1: Ash Wednesday

Lent begins in silence. I was late downstairs, rushing to put the water on, finish making porridge before chapel. At quarter to seven I’m pushing a wheelbarrow full of bin bags down to the gate, passing the woman who delivers milk to us three times a week. I say good morning, and we smile at each other, and the silence somehow stays complete. I’m discovering the strange elasticity of silence, how sometimes it stretches around whole conversations, how at other times a cold shoulder or a single word can make it snap like burst bubblegum. There is a constant friction between me and the silence: a yearning for it fighting with the impulse to push the clutter in my head out into the empty space.

For many years I’ve thought of Lent as empty space. It’s a time of waiting, a time of absences and restrictions. The chapel is stripped of flowers and the liturgy of cheerful Alleluias. There is a need within me to fill empty spaces. Sometimes I fill Lent with projects. If I give something up, I talk about it ceaselessly; if I read a Lent book, or study, I read hungrily, without time to stop and meditate. And then comes the cavernous emptiness of Holy Saturday, between the grief of Good Friday and the blissful end of emptiness on Easter Day. In both of these days there’s plenty to fill my head and heart. But I’ve always hidden from that long, empty Saturday, unsure what to do with it, how to understand that stretch of time.

This morning I helped to clear our smaller greenhouse, ready to take trays of seeds. In the pouring rain, we emptied the space, levelled the ground, and begun to plan and place shelves. Excess soil, which I had assumed was dead to all use, we sieved and saved for seedlings which need poor soil. I’m beginning to realise how often the garden changes, and how adaptable we need to be to keep up with it. In my naivety I’d imagined that anything we hadn’t used in the last six months was never used, and sat as a permanent fixture in one place, as if it had sat there since the convent was founded. But even unseen, even in absence and emptiness, life changes our garden. The tomato seeds that lay dormant three days ago have sprouted inch long stems and inch imperceptibly towards the glass even as we turn them back. As we clear away, I see the greenhouse in a new light. Even emptier now than it was this morning, laid bare but for the neat shelves, it suddenly seems so full to me. I can see the rows of young tomato and chilli plants and the trays of lettuce and beetroot and chard, rocket and perpetual spinach, bean and berry. The greenhouse is a womb holding the next few months of our garden, even before the seeds are planted. And in it’s emptiness it also holds my hopes, for the things I might learn, the journey I’ll take over this Lent and the months and the years to come.

As a student I once wrote an essay on ‘blank space’ as a metatextual element. Emptiness and absence have become an uncomfortable recurring interest, an academic obsession. But it’s not so comfortable to be asked to live alongside emptiness or uncertainty. If we really go into Lent, this is inevitable, and it’s so human to run away. But it seems to me that, like the waiting greenhouse, the silence of Lent is a growing silence: empty, and yet so, so full.

Where there’s a will, there are at least five ways: thoughts on growing up Christian & being interchurch

In the summer of 1994, my mum wrote an article for the Journal of the Association of Interchurch Families (AIF), describing the journey that lead to my baptism, and their hopes for my life in faith. It was not as easy journey.

Planning for my baptism began before I was even born. With the support of AIF, my parents and the two priests who served the Anglican and Catholic communities which both worshipped at St Andrew’s, Cippenham, my parents wrote a service which would allow me to be baptised into both churches. It took courage and a painfully detailed knowledge of both churches’ guidelines on baptism and ecumenical relations. But my parents were determined that they wanted me to have the freedom to explore my faith in both of their denominations, to fully inherit the traditions of both of my parents in all their richness and diversity. This was no Solomon dividing the baby decision – both wanted me to inherit the others tradition as much as their own!

My mum’s eloquent article speaks for itself (it can be found easily by searching for the journal & year online), so I won’t reproduce the whole story, but it ends with these words:

‘We hope [being registered in both churches] will help Joanna to understand, as she grows to grapple with her own loyalties, what priorities we have. It is not for Paul and me to choose a church for Joanna. With her godparents, we pray that she will choose to follow Christ – for us, that will be wonderful enough.’

I did choose to follow Christ. I do. I make that choice again each day. Some days it feels like a light choice, an easy choice, a natural one. Some days it feels like a fight, and I feel like I’m feeling in the dark. But from the very beginning of my life, my parents taught me that Christ choses me, and calls me to be one of his own; that I am sought out by my God, even when I don’t know how to begin looking.

But as my parents had predicted, I would eventually have to grapple with my denominational identity.

triptych-complete

The Association of Interchurch Families Triptych, painted by Sister Regina of Turvey Abbey

As I grew older, I began to notice the differences between denominations, and following my mum’s ordination in the Church of England, I became acutely aware of some of the particular challenges of being in a Catholic-Anglican family; my parents, technically, cannot take communion together, and my mum’s orders are not recognised as valid in my dad’s church. As a child I was taught that I, and children like me, would need to be bridges between our communities, and in the loving environment of AIF, and our two home churches in their shared building, these difficulties had seemed trivial. How could anyone miss the obvious – we were all Christians! As the distance between those denominations became apparent, I became angry at the Roman Catholic church, and began to feel rejected. By the age of fourteen, I only attended Mass if I was coaxed, and identified with the other ‘Protestant’ kids at my Roman Catholic school. At that time, my mum was on secondment with the Methodist church, and my dad was taking my sister and I to a church in a Local Ecumenical Partnership (he also attended Mass on Saturdays, sometimes with mum, my sister or me alongside him). St Lawrence was a wonderful, vibrant church, and I grew hugely in confidence and faith there, and was happily confirmed through the LEP in an ecumenical service, being received into the Anglican Communion, the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church, and the Baptist Union of Great Britain. In doing so, I technically ended my membership of the Roman Catholic church, into which I had been baptised and received my first communion. At the time, this didn’t bother me, and I was excited to explore the three new denominations which had become part of my world!

At the age of seventeen, looking for the right church environment to grow in as an adult, I moved to Newport Pagnell United Reformed Church. This was my own choice, and I moved alone, as my family continued their journey in other churches. I was soon received into membership of that church, and they continue to support me in prayer to this day, for which I am immeasurably grateful. In the United Reformed Church I discovered a church for whom ecumenism is not a source of division, but a source of joy. The foundation of the church is in the uniting of three smaller groups of churches (some Presbyterians, some Congregationalists, and the Churches of Christ). Their guiding principles state that should there be a day when unity and the Spirit call them to change or dissolve, they will do so joyfully and gladly. There is an incredible beauty and grace in the writings of the United Reformed church, and I found incredible wisdom and grace there. I twice attended the URC Youth Assembly as a delegate for my Synod. I was convinced that I’d found my denominational home.

But God had something different in mind for me. As I moved away to university, the church hunt began again. I visited a number of wonderful churches over that first year; several Anglican, one LEP, one Methodist, two United Reformed, one independent Baptist. All were lovely, none of them were quite ‘right’. And whilst I searched for the ‘right’ church, I occasionally slipped into the back of the 6pm Roman Catholic Mass on campus. They were welcoming and familiar. I knew my way roughly around the service, and as long as I kept quiet about my background, I could receive communion. It didn’t bother me at this point that I was – and still am – in ‘impaired communion’ with the church, or that I wasn’t allowed communion in the canons of the church – I believed I could and should receive, and over the three years I eventually spent in that church, I received more than I could ever have imagined. After a year battling with God, I had eventually realised that He wouldn’t give in – I had to go to Mass, in that church, and I had to be fully open to learning about my faith in that environment. The angry teenager who had called the Hail Mary ‘blasphemy’ shouted and stamped her feet in my heart, but I was there so her anger could be healed.

Over three years I explored and questioned the Catholic nature of my faith. The Eucharist opened up to me; while I had always valued communion, to a point, the dull prayer of consecration suddenly became a call to my heart. I had always been a liturgy of the word gal, but now the Sacraments were beginning to speak to me too. This was not without misadventure; I turned up to the first confession I had made in over a decade determined that it ‘wouldn’t work for me’, had no idea what to say to the bishop who was doing confessions that day, and left disappointed and vindicated. I couldn’t become a perfect Roman Catholic overnight, but I was willing to begin to walk in that direction, and let God lead me. I became vice-president of the Catholic Society for a year, helped support interfaith work in the university, and worked on improving relations with the broadly evangelical Christian Union. And I committed to that community. After Mass, when we gathered downstairs to drink tea and listen to speakers and talk about faith, I listened, and sought to learn. I also sought to belong.

But I didn’t. A few instances stand out in my mind. I remember a sermon where the preacher mocked Anglican bishops and female priests, and hearing the room laugh at the idea of a woman priest – only a room away from the office of the female Methodist minister who served as one of the university chaplains. I remember asking to become a Eucharistic Minister two years into my time in that church, when we were gravely short of Eucharistic Ministers, only to be told I could not serve as I was not in proper communion with the Roman Catholic church – due to having asked the deacon in question for theological advice on the sacrament of confession, and having confessed to him that I struggled with it. He told me that until I couldn’t be a Eucharistic Minister unless I was able to go to confession; I wasn’t in communion with the Catholic Church. In short, I wasn’t Catholic enough, and I felt I never would be.

When I returned to the university the next year to study for my master’s degree, I wanted a fresh start. I decided that I would explore the local Anglican churches. As I worshipped in an Anglican Church when I visited my parents’ home, it seemed a logical place to go; I knew I’d be welcome, be communicant, and I’d know one end of the service book from the other. And now I had a better idea of the kind of church environment I was looking for; I knew I wanted to find somewhere inclusive and broad; somewhere with strong and trustworthy preaching; somewhere I could receive communion regularly; and somewhere with a strong sense of community. Enter St Anne’s, Norwich. I loved St Anne’s from the moment I walked in. It was a small congregation, mostly elderly with a smattering of younger families, worshipping in a converted church hall built after the original church was destroyed by a WW2 bomb. They were quiet, kind, and loving. At the peace every week a lovely, strange older lady embraced me, and would hold my hand as if no-one ever held hers. Over coffee a frail older man would tell me jokes and long, clever anecdotes from his youth. People asked after me and listened to me talk about my week. Small children scooted around us with biscuits. Our choir of two sung their hearts out each week. When the beloved retired priest in our congregation took a baptism and got lost in the service, no-one complained. Over that year, they loved me gently, and best of all, they gave me space to pray.

It is hard to write about denominational identity without also beginning to write about vocational identity. In the time since I moved away from Norwich, I’ve worshipped mainly in the Anglican Communion, partly out of geographical necessity, but also as my exploration of my own vocation has led me to find an unexpected home within the communion – within its Religious Life, and the Religious Communities of the Anglican Communion, who appear as a constant thread in the story of my faith. The Society of the Precious Blood at Burnham; The Sisters of the Love of God in Oxford; the Jesuits; the Order of the Holy Paraclete; the Order of St Benedict at Mucknell Abbey; the Community of All Hallows, Ditchingham; the Iona Community – each has touched my life, in a different way. After a year worshipping with the wonderful St Edmund’s, Hardingstone – now my beloved ‘home’ church – I became part of the Holywell Community, a new monastic community in the Church in Wales, and from there I have moved to exploring my vocation as an Alongsider with the Society of the Sacred Cross, also CinW. One of the most attractive parts of Religious Life when I began exploring it was the sense that ‘vertical’ connections mattered as much as ‘horizontal’ ones – the connection to others sharing the same rule of life, and others living the spirit of religious life, across denominations. If you’re a Benedictine, for instance, you are living the exact same Rule of Life as other Benedictines across the globe, of all and any denomination. They become your brothers and sisters.

The essence of our faith is in our shared life, and our journey alongside each other.

Last week I travelled to another religious community for a study course on Liturgy, the Daily Office and the Eucharist. As we looked at the history of the pieces of the Eucharistic Prayer, the question was raised as to which were necessary for the Eucharist to be considered ‘valid’. Questions of ‘validity’ are often cited in discussions of ecumenical progress. Is apostolic succession necessary? And which line has the best claim? Are Eucharists celebrated by women, or divorcees, or laity, or people ordained by women, or from non-episcopal traditions, valid? Can we accept the sacraments of another denomination? The heart of these questions is our own confused searching for God. Is God present here? When, and why? And above all: can we know? Can we be sure that God is with us?

Dear God, are we getting this right?

I feel a certain sympathy for these anxieties. I could never understand why so many people are concerned by these technicalities and legalisms, but they are often rooted in the depths of our personal and communal struggle for deeper faith. But that engagement is created by the catalysts of social context and change. We may speak more from a response to our tradition then an instinctive response to God.

As we considered these questions, our course leader posed another question. He suggested that the question ‘Is it valid?’ is the wrong approach; rather, we should be asking: ‘Is this the best we can offer God?’ So instead of asking which parts of the Eucharistic prayer ‘make’ the consecration happen – as if consecration was a magic spell performed by the priest (!) – we ask: does this prayer honour God? Does it serve pastorally? Is it accessible? Does it draw from the best parts of our tradition and theological development? Are we truly sharing in the way we believe God has instructed us to do?

In the context of ecumenical relationships, this encourages us to reflect on our own denominational practices, and why we do what we do. Do we genuinely believe our own way best serves God, or are we simply loyal to our own inheritance?

At best, we can use this model to look at other denominations and understand that they practice in the way they do from a genuine belief that this is the best way to serve and honour God, and that we may be able to learn from the strengths of those traditions. If we acknowledge that all Christians are on a journey of seeking God, and that their practices are leading them closer to God, than we can find peace in living alongside otherness. It is a joy to know that another person’s practices of faith are bringing them into closer relationship to God, even if those practices seem bizarre (or even ‘invalid’) to us. Recently I’ve encountered many practitioners of Christian meditation and had the joy of joining them and learning a little of how they use meditation practices, including ones drawn from Buddhism, to deepen their faith. Whilst I realised that this doesn’t personally appeal to me, and I found some aspects of the practice personally off-putting, I also saw in the people I was with flaming, living faith, that catches fire in their tradition and is spreading the love and light of God.

The other side of this is that in our desire to do our own best for God, we end up considering other people’s practices inadequate or even dismissing their faith. In the contexts of all the denominations I’ve worshipped in, I’ve heard people looking at the work of other churches and dismissing them as ‘not good enough’ – and to be honest, I’ve often been that person. Is Messy Church insufficiently sacramental? Is the BCP Communion at 8am failing at evangelism? Does the church down the road neglect the ministry of the Word? Does the church up the road understand the importance of pastoral care? We often look at other denominations with a condescending friendship; of course they’re Christians, but they aren’t proper Christians, like us – not with those clothes, and services like that, and different priorities to us! We can become obsessed with evaluating the quality of other people’s faith and faith practices, using it as a rule of thumb on which denominations are acceptable to us, and which we’d rather avoid.

In the question of validity, and the question of ‘best practice’ – for want of a better term – we are ultimately asking ‘What does God require of us?’ And what does the Lord require of us? The prophet Micah offers one answer: ‘To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.’ (Micah 6:8; NIV). I’ve always loved this verse. It strikes me that this speaks most strongly of our relationships, with God and with each other. So being the Church, being the body of Christ, begins with how we serve one another. And then we are asked ‘to walk humbly’ with our God. Learning what that means in practice is the work of a lifetime, but I think the essence of this is in listening, in being, in trusting in God. We are not asked to get everything right, all the time. And we are not asked to meet a set of pre-conditions before we can meet God. We are asked to encounter God – our duty is simply to come humbly into God’s presence and ‘be’.

During my course on the liturgy, we spoke of the places of encounter within the Eucharist, and our course tutor proposed a threefold encounter: God met in the bread and wine, God met in the Scripture, and God met in each other. I think of Gerald Manley Hopkins:

[…] for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

to the Father through the features of men’s faces.

We use the word ‘sacrament’ to refer to encounters with God. Whether this is the ‘real presence’ or spiritual presence or symbolic presence – as your theology prefers – the Christian faith is unequivocal in insisting that we treat the other as Christ. If there are no other sacraments we can agree to share – if we must bear the heartbreak of not sharing Communion, of disagreements on our interpretation of Scripture, of not recognising each other’s baptisms, ordinations, and blessings – than this is at least one sacrament we can and must share: the sacrament of the Peace, where we look each other in the eyes, and recognise another human being made and loved by God, and in their own way, searching out the great and beautiful Mystery of Faith.

I’ve worried for so long about whether I belong in one denomination or another. After years hoping it would matter less and less, and we’d all somehow become one big, ecumenical Church, I do understand a little more about why it does matter, and my yearning to belong hasn’t fallen away. And the question of belonging still matters. It matters for those of us who live in the strange gap between denominations. And it matters even more for those who are excluded by the Church, who deserve far more than a footnote in the conclusion of an essay. I hope that ecumenism will exist within a broader context of listening and understanding one another that leads us to welcome more people into the Church. I hope that all comers will know that they are part of the Body of Christ, and that exploring their faith will be joyful. I hope that we will have the strength to send people out, even if their journey takes them away from our own ‘corner’ of Christianity. I hope that we will be willing to change and to be changed.