Monday, 27 October 2014

On Celts and Carns

Today Ben and I visited Perranarworthal church and her wardens. We discovered that Perranwell (the nearby village) is named after the ancient well of St Piran. Down a narrow, shrouded path deep in drifts of autumn leaves, through what looked like a private garden gate, down steep, moss-covered steps, there is, indeed, an ancient well. It is fed by a natural spring, with water collecting in a stone bath, overshadowed by stone walls and a roof. Funny how I lived here for 18 years a few miles from the well, and had never heard of it before today.




I love the ancient spiritual history of this county. Churches are almost entirely thousands of years old, dating back, most of them, from Norman times, more often than not built on sites which have been used for worship before even that, with buildings of wood, or old monasteries. You can traipse around Carn Brea without noticing the remnants of its bronze age settlement, although you can hardly fail to notice the castle, built in 1379 as a chapel to St Michael. But beneath the bracken there are hundreds of flint arrowheads, remnants of celts from thousands of years past. My sister, Chess, was married in Gwennap, one of the churches I'm working in; it wasn't until last week I discovered the church was built on the site of an ancient celtic abbey, parts of which still stand.

Coming back here, I feel strength flowing from the land into my soul. I have always found myself more at home in Cornwall than anywhere else, and not just because it is familiar and I grew up here; it's home in a much deeper way. My bones feel hewn from Carn Brea granite. To have been born and lived all your life under the shadow of that great monolith, rugged and ominous and beautiful, shapes you. My father still stretches and swells with the land, though it's a long time since he farmed it. In the long winter seasons he sighs and retreats, muttering about the days drawing in and the long nights; with the first light of spring he perks, and the light comes on in his eyes. He moves with the weather, flourishing and retreating as the land does. There is a sense within myself of belonging here, and not with the towns, with the streets and houses I grew up in, but with the sea and the sky and most importantly, with the earth beneath my feet. My forefathers have ploughed and sowed and reaped this soil for centuries, subsisting from the fruits of the earth, hungering when it hardened and died. Standing on Carn Brea, wind hurling itself around me, the land stretched out before me and the sea spreading the horizon, I come alive. I love this place.


Carn Brea castle (my future home, in all my dreams...)

Monday, 20 October 2014

Elvensong

Last night I went to Devoran church for evensong. It was the most beautifully constructed worship service I think I've ever been to. Utterly perfect. It helps that the church is so gorgeous, perfectly symmetrical with dark wooden beams and a dome painted deep blue. The service used the Book of Common Prayer, comfortably well worn, like a well-thumbed favourite novel, and for the first time I didn't get lost (an achievement!).

The Reader, Claire, sang with a crystal clear bell of a voice, and enunciated the prayers with a perfect mix of pause and emphasis. She had the barest hint of a Cornish accent (i.e. she pronounced 'path' correctly, instead of this pretentious 'parth' rubbish); it softened what would otherwise have been a little too formal. Plus we started with my favourite hymn, Be Still, My Soul, which I've only ever sung once in church in my life. Glorious. I left buzzing. I cannot WAIT to lead an evensong. It's basically like cosplay; you're pretty much an elf out of Lord of the Rings.

Except focusing on Jesus, of course.

I think my ideal church, should I get ordained, is going to have to be a heady mix of charismatic evangelicalism and catholicism. Can you be an evangelical charismatic catholic? Probably not. Well, I'll start the party. Evensong with the congregation getting slain in the Spirit. Definitely for the win.

When God Breaks In

I love the church: the beautiful, bumbling, stumbling Bride of Christ. She is strong, weak, courageous, confused, victorious and above all heartfelt. So it breaks my heart to see divisions rise up within her and with them hurt; like the threatened split over the issue of homosexuality. It’s a big issue, one many people feel strongly about, and not to be taken lightly. For me, it’s an issue that has threatened to tear me apart.

I am a lesbian. And writing that, just then, still made my heart beat a little faster and my breath come a little shorter. I am still nervous to say it, still scared to write it out. The only thing that gives me strength to do it – strangely, some will think – is knowing Christ. I’ve known Him since before I can remember – as far back as my toddler years, squatting in the wet sand at the beach making castles. He’s always been there, as much a part of my family as my parents and siblings.

So when, aged 13, I reached with no little bewilderment the realisation that actually, I liked girls in the way my friends liked boys, I found myself in a state of confused dread.  I grew up in a Baptist church in Cornwall where homosexuality was only mentioned in lists of sin and shame and I knew, as everyone did, that gay people were weird and unnatural. To calm the rising panic, I grabbed hold of the line thrown around by every magazine, book and sex ed. class: it’s a phase and I’ll grow out of it.

For three years I waited. Patiently, impatiently, prayerfully, anxiously. I studied the Bible passages with an obsession, and read up on all the various theological interpretations. Nobody seemed to know quite what was going on, which certainly didn’t help me: there were so many theories about Greek words and Roman fertility cults, lust, culture and all the rest that I barely knew where to begin. I’m no theologian and found myself utterly unqualified to discern what the truth behind the scripture was. At sixteen, I found my ‘phase’ excuse beginning to wear thin and the burden of not knowing who I was or what I was feeling weighed me down; with dread and desperation, I knew I had to battle this out once and for all, to discover who I was and what the truth was – above all, what the truth was.

I don’t know if there is anything comparable to coming out to someone for the first time. If you’ve ever done something really, really bad when you’re a kid, really humiliatingly naughty, and had to own up, that might come close. It’s that same cold sweat, sick to the stomach style confession, standing in front of the class with black heavy dread like a rock in your gut. You’re so afraid you think you might throw up. The five minute walk to my youth pastor’s house took fifteen, and I almost turned back three times. When I finally got the words out of my throat – which took even longer – I almost choked on them, though I knew them so well from rolling around my head for three years: “I think I’m gay.”

To give her credit, my youth pastor didn’t, as anticipated, curse me as heathen and throw me out of house and church. Nor did she rush to my parents. She talked it over with me, mentioned the phase theory, and asked if I’d thought of healing.

Now, I’m not going to try to persuade anybody of any theological view in this post. All I can do is explain to you what it’s like to be a homosexual person seeking healing. I spent two years on my knees, with gritted teeth and tears, pleading with God, my friend, my Father, the God who had brought me up, to show me the truth. I begged Him to take away anything in me that wasn’t of Him. Whatever happiness I felt lay with women, and marriage to a woman, I wanted Him more than any of it; and I knew that anything He didn’t want me to have wasn’t worth having.

For two years, I received no healing, no theological direction, and no clue as to what to do. With nothing else to guide me, I decided to simply opt for the safe option, and reject all homosexuality – thoughts, feelings, all of it – as sinful. I may not be able to stop myself desiring women, but I could cut dead everything thereon.

They were long months. The burden of not really knowing who I was hadn’t been lifted and I was as confused as ever; but I had made my decision and I wasn’t going to let go of Jesus, whatever anybody said. Christ was mine, and I was His, and nothing, not least the church – who still threw around sermons like barbs and spoke of the ‘cult of homosexuality’ and the ‘homosexual lifestyle’, whatever that was – was going to come between us. I would sit in my seat and freeze, willing myself not to cry, as the people I had grown up with stood behind the pulpit and called me disgusting, filthy, Satanic, idolatrous. And inside my stiff, still body I would cling to Christ, desperate for Him.

It was a slow Saturday afternoon that He broke in. I was reading Tony Campolo’s Speaking My Mind, not thinking about much, when out of the blue, suddenly what felt like a deep bowl of peace, joy and love broke over my head and flooded me. It drenched me so strongly that the breath left my lungs, and I heard God say, “You’re gay and I love you. You’re mine, my daughter. I love you.”

Things were never the same after that moment. The joy that had flooded my heart drenched me so thoroughly that for a year all I had to do was think of that moment and my heart would swell with such joy and laughter that I thought it would burst out of my chest. In the highest heights of worship, I would cry in my heart, “I’m gay!” and the joy would come rushing up like a flood, welling out of my mouth and eyes in devotion to God.

That was six long years ago and that moment is still, when people ask me, the most defining moment in my Christian walk. The certainty it brought me as to my identity, the knowledge of Christ's infinite love for me, has never left, nor shaken, nor moved, not once. When people tell me - as they do, relatively frequently - that I should pursue more healing, I reach out to God and always, always he repeats those words: You're gay and I love you. The fruit of it has been greater confidence, unshakable joy, and increased closeness with God. I can't explain to you why or how this has happened; but every part of me knows that I am gay and I am so, so, so loved by God.

My identity is rooted in Christ’s love; and now I know who I am, grounded in Him, I don’t need the affirmation of other people, even Christians, although I love my church family and it makes me sad when they don’t give it. But what grieves me more is the dozens of people I know who have left the church because they cannot bear to hold their burden alone any more. There is a community which has suffered rejection and humiliation in their workplace, friendships and families, people who have been turned away point blank by their parents and siblings, and these are the very people who feel they have no place in the church. And there’s no use making excuses; it’s because as a church, we have failed them.

This is not a distant, hypothetical issue. If you have a congregation of more than 30, I can guarantee there is someone in it who has been or is struggling with this. And every time you say the word ‘gay’ and fix it in a sentence with sin and shame and Satan, another little part of them freezes. Every word you speak will hit like bullets, whether you see it happen or not. I’m not saying don’t be honest. I’m saying speak the truth. It is not enough, not ever enough, to say ‘you are a sinner’ – any sinner could tell them that. We are the Body and breath of Jesus, and it is our duty, role, delight, to tell the life-shattering truth that Christ has made it all all right and that nothing, nothing in all creation could ever come between us and God’s love. As a church we must turn to the broken, rejected, hurt community of people the world has turned their back on and get on our knees to ask for forgiveness, because we have not only not embraced them as Christ commanded, but we have added to their woes and laid burdens on their backs which have broken them. We have caused untold hurt by our words and our attitude – but the story is not over and it is not too late to write the final chapter; there is still time for us to turn around and begin to serve the lost and the broken with the heart-crying depths of love that drove Christ to the cross and us into His arms. There is still time for the story not to be the failure of the church to reach the hurting but a victory of grace, and for a generation of lost, outcast people to be ushered into new life in the arms of Christ’s beautiful, bold, broken, perseverant, but above all heartfelt, Bride.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Huntsmen, Sierra Leone and Islam (and you thought Cornwall was boring)

So it's day five of living in the Stithians Community House, and almost a week since I left London. This week has been fairly spacious with a lot of settling in time, and getting to know the clergy team, which is quite big (with eight churches, you need a lot of vicars!).

Rural parish work is incredibly different to the urban parish setting I'm used to. Aside from the differences in churchmanship (the Eight Saints cluster is primarily liberal anglo-catholic), day to day life is so incredibly different that ministry has to look very different. Stithians village has a very strong sense of communal identity, and there are a whole host of village activities which most of the village are involved with - from choirs and scout groups to a community library, a pantomime, coffee mornings, live music and all sorts. The methodist and anglican churches work together often, and many of the village will come along to events and support them even if they don't go to church.

On Monday, a catholic priest from Sierra Leone, Father Daniel, came to dinner at the Community House. A nearby catholic church have been supporting his parishes in west Africa for years by raising money to build wells out there, and so the village has a longstanding relationship with Father Daniel. He happened to be in the village, so my first day in my tiny Cornish village was spent with an African catholic priest - really not what I had been expecting!  It was fascinating to hear of how in his parishes (he looks after twenty churches!), Muslims and Christians live peaceably side by side. Often Muslim children will hear about Christianity at school, and convert; Father Daniel himself converted as a child. Their families support them in this, while remaining Muslim themselves, and so church growth there is mostly amongst children. Once a month, Father Daniel goes to the mosque with his Muslim counterparts and prays with them; and once a month, the Imams come to church and pray with him. There is a sense of brotherhood between the two religions, of worshipping the same God in different ways and with differing understandings of Him.

I wish communities like this were reported as widely and significantly as the horror stories. With all of the atrocities occurring in the middle east, it's important to hear about our shared humanity, and of the many examples where Muslims and Christians live and work side by side. Another great example of this is Canon Andrew White, the Vicar of Baghdad, who is ministering on the frontline in Iraq where Isis are a blood chilling daily reality. He partners in this ministry with Dr Sarah, a Muslim.

On a totally different note, tonight I have been invited with the curate, Elly, to the Huntsmen Harvest Supper. This is an annual supper and charity auction by the fox huntsmen (!). They've kindly offered for me to spend a half day with agricultural chaplain - I have no idea what an agricultural chaplain is; I assume it's more than baptising sheep. But who knows. Frankly this week has been so surreal already that anything might happen...

The Stithians Community

Greetings all! It's day five of life in the Stithians Community.

Stithians Community is a new monastic community in west Cornwall. The Community House, with wardens Bridget and Nigel Guzek, has been operating as a retreat house and centre for contemplative prayer for just over a year, but the Community itself began when Ben and myself joined two weeks ago.

The Community has both a resident community (myself, Bridget, Nigel) and a dispersed community (including Ben and his wife Lucy, who live in Feock, one of the nearby parishes). How this works, and the rule of life we follow, is evolving; it's exciting to be involved in pioneering this! Prayer is a foundational corner of the Community; we join together to pray the Daily Office morning and night, and host a regular contemplative prayer evening, which is open to all.

The Community House is located in the village of Stithians, one of the parishes in the Eight Saints Cluster. The Eight Saints is a cluster of eight rural parishes, stretching between the towns of Redruth, Truro and Falmouth and including Stithians (St Stythians), Gwennap (St Wennapa), St Day, Feock (St Feoca), Perranwell (St Piran), Devron (St John and St Petroc), Carharrack (St Piran) and Chacewater (St Paul). Lots of Cornish saints! Cornwall has a long history drenched in Celtic spirituality, and almost every village has its own Celtic saint. Each of these parishes has a different flavour, and there is a strong sense of community in each of them.

While we are here, Ben and I will be getting involved with church life and ministry in all of the eight, as part of the Way2 Project that the Stithians Community runs. This is an opportunity for those exploring vocation to ordination or the religious life to join the Community and gain experience working in the parishes, as well as make use of the space and support to explore spiritual life and formation in ministry.

I only moved in on Monday, but already, five days in, I'm loving my time here. I'm fascinated by new monasticism, and it's really exciting to be a part of the beginning stages of this Community. The Eight Saints cluster is a beautiful tangle of different spiritualities, churchmanship and village life, and from the few days I've spent I can already tell that I'm going to learn a lot! I'll be updating this blog as I go along with reflections and updates of my experience here.

You can also follow me on twitter (@rosegrigg) for the less reflective in-the-moment action shots and comments!