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.

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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. 

 

Compost

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There’s something special about the convent garden. It’s not just the six-foot sunflowers, or the lazy rows of ripening apples, or the sleeping cats who wander absentmindedly through the flower beds, although each of these has held me spellbound momentarily. Nor is it in the rows of cornflowers and cosmos, the ripening strawberries, the loganberries and elderberries fattening in the insect-rich hedge. And it doesn’t start in the Lady Garden or the new orchard or the meadows full of wary sheep stretching down into the valley. It starts behind the plants and the flowers and the hedges, in the unexplored corner where we make our compost.

The compost starts life in several bays, separated by old pallets. Some contain compost ready to go onto the garden; others collect its constituent parts, as yet undigested. Cut grass, boiling down into blood-warm mulch. Vegetable and plant cuttings (bar the most virulent weeds). Food waste from the kitchen, tamped down in metal bins. And fresh woodchippings, which steam as the shovel lifts away each hunk. Over two mornings I layer these ingredients into tall compost barrels, where they will begin to rot down, as millions of tiny bacteria digest the mix and excrete nutrients which can be reabsorbed into the garden. The compost will be turned and moved into a second barrel, then finally a third barrel, where it can be stored until needed. I’m instructed carefully on the layering of the compost: first a dry, or ‘brown’ layer of woodchippings, then a mash of ‘greens’, the vegetable matter; at the moment our pile contains a lot of comfrey, which I’m told aids the breakdown. Then the food waste, and then finally heaps of steaming grass, packed down on top. And so on until the barrel is full.

Part of coming to a religious community is confronting yourself, all the things you ignore or try not to acknowledge. I’ve come dashing in from the noise of the world like a soaked dog running in from a storm. Now I’ve learnt my way around the house and the names of the Sisters and begun to understand the Office Book, and I feel like I’m barely beginning. We bring so much baggage with us. So much mental noise. I have a lot to learn about silence.

If I am to learn to love composting, then I have to look at it differently. While it’s still a chore – a smelly, tiring chore – I find it hard to enjoy. The pleasure of learning something new and understanding the excitement of the gardeners brings me a little closer to happiness. And I’m happy to be useful, and to be working. But everyone I speaks to sees something more in this task. It’s a spiritual experience. I inwardly groan, and start the task. Composting as metaphor. Composting as a way of personal growth. Isn’t this a sermon illustration I’ve heard before?

The woodchip is the easiest layer to lay. It’s satisfying to run the wheelbarrow across the lawn, piled high with wood, and to hear it rattle into the empty barrel. The dry wood and the spaces between it will help make space for air, aiding aerobic digestion. It will absorb excess moisture and prevent the compost from becoming slurry. Each ring of a tree is a year’s wisdom. How many years are re-released here? Each splinter is a day of growth, a day of birdsong and rain on the hills.

The woodchip will be the Community, for their structure and experience, for their guidance and wisdom, and for the sheer love that radiates around them. On this layer, I will build my compost. Ha.

Next, the vegetation. I bundle comfrey, courgette stem, yellowing brassica and dried flowers into the tub. After a little deliberation, I decide that this layer will be the good things I bring with me. My skills and experience, my ability to learn, all that is in me that gives life. But these two layers aren’t quite enough to start a compost. There’s no heat yet.

Thirdly, the kitchen waste. I plunge my gloved hands into a week-old stew of rotten apples, egg shell and potato peelings. Everything squelches. I thank the Lord, without irony, for my genetic lack of a sense of smell, and wish I’d picked tougher gloves. This layer is the catalyst. It’s desperately needed. And it stinks. Easiest labelled: this will be my ‘sin’ layer, all the things I don’t want to confront, everything I want to hide from sight (and nose). Some of it slides down the sides of the bin and I crouch in the nettles to scrape it up. Something damp seeps though my gloves.

With the food bin recovered for the moment, I turn to the last layer. Some of the grass I cut that morning; other cuttings are older and have begun to dissolve. They are horribly warm, and the fresh taste of cut grass has begin to alter into something much more earthy and intense. We have essentially made our own manure.

Grass, piled and left to rot, creates incredible heat. It can spontaneously catch fire, someone tells me. In the compost, it will cook our layers, creating the environment for the bacteria to digest everything else. But on its own, it dissolves into slime. The magic is in the mix. In the metaphor I’m now absorbed in, as I pat down this last layer, grass will be prayer. It will be the heat and fire that changes the rest of my life, if I hold nothing back: my life as an individual and in Community, my skills, my failures, my fears, my loves, everything must come to prayer. And so I close the lid of the composter, and stand mesmerised, looking at what must be my life. Is this what I am? Heat and commotion, packed down into one human-shaped vessel? A compost of constituent parts, that somehow becomes a life?

And then I remember the garden. I have forgotten it even exists, I’m so absorbed in my task. When I turn round it seems more beautiful than ever. This is where the compost will go, and where it will create new life. And it comes to me that perhaps when I look at my life, and I focus on the compost – especially on the slime and the rotting food waste – God looks at my life and sees the garden, and longs to tend it and walk with me under the apple trees. Tend the compost, and see the garden grow.

This morning at breakfast I finish reading Thomas Merton’s No man is an island, and after I finish reading I sit with my tea and wonder at the garden Merton describes. For every challenge he raises – and there are many – the description of the life lived in relation to God becomes more and more beautiful.

So here’s my final thought from the compost bins: God sees the whole of you, and how beautiful you are, and loves you with the tenderness of a gardener walking in the early morning through a newly-flowering crop. Everything you bring, good and bad, is compost for your life. Every hard lesson and mistake, every joyful memory and good work, and it can all be used by God to enrich the garden of your life. But you are not the compost. You are not the sum of your mistakes and successes. You are the garden, and the garden is wonderful.