Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Dear Church of England: from a gay ordinand.

NB: This was written prior to my selection conference in November. I've since heard back and I've received a positive recommendation to train for ordination.

Dear Church of England,

It's me. I'm one of yours - one of the very small cells way out on your western limb. You don't know me very well, but I'm part of you, even if you don't notice me most of the time.

It's been a long journey, CoE. From finding in you a warmth and embrace I'd never known, and the unlikely friendship we struck up, to that strange moment two years ago when we looked at each other and suddenly realised we were both thinking the same thing about priesthood. The past two years have taken us on quite a rollercoaster, haven't they? You've been busy grappling with grumpy synods and a restless global communion, I've been busy grappling with the bells at eucharist and how to girdle an alb.

And now it's all coming to a head. In seven days time I will arrive in Cambridgeshire for three days of intense, gruelling assessment. I'll meet a panel of strangers who will poke and prod into each darkened corner of my personality, penetrate me with questions, observe and note my reactions. Then they'll sit and pray and come up with a report deciding whether or not to recommend me for ordination training.

This is it, CoE. This is the moment that decides the rest of my life. 

So I have something to say, just before I go. I want you to know what it is you're asking of me.

I'm gay, Church of England. I'm gay and I want to give you me.

I'm offering you myself: my hands and feet, my energy, my time, my intellect, my career. And I'm doing it gladly, because I believe in you. You're asking me to give you my entire life in service, to lay it down on behalf of the poor, needy, vulnerable, wounded and lost. You're asking me to work six days a week, sometimes for fourteen hour days, to live on the job, and to bring my family with me. I understand that. That's the call.

But, apparently, for me the call is more.

For me, I'm only allowed to serve you if I'm celibate for the rest of my life. I'm never allowed to marry the woman I love – or I'll be sacked (you've made that clear). I can never bless a marriage of friends who share a gender. And according to this transcript released last week, I can never become a bishop unless I am silent about my sexuality.

I love you. I love your bumbling, old-fashioned, slightly pompous traditions. I love your terribly English lack of cool. I love your willingness to roll up your sleeves and get stuck into the very ordinary mess of life, from foodbanks to Wonga to school assemblies.

But this – this is wrong.

You tell me that the reason I have to be silent is because bishops are a focus of unity. You tell me the conservatives will leave if you change the rules. You tell me the African churches will kick up a raucous tantrum if I'm seen to be accepted by you. You tell me I have to be silent, to be patient, to put up with the abuse. You tell me it's my cross to bear.

Well here's the thing. I love you. I love my conservative brothers and sisters. I love my African family. But I am exhausted with you sacrificing the LGBT community on the altar of a false unity.

We have borne the brunt of your fear of conflict for decades. We have hidden ourselves away, tucked our loved ones out of sight, for fear of upsetting our delicate counterparts. What is the cost of your strained harmony? It is our lives, our families, our happiness, our wellbeing.

Did you know that I ended a two year relationship to pursue ordination? Did you know that I wrestled with this call until I bled from the pain and the anguish of it? Did you know that I spent months weeping because I had to follow where God was calling, but how could I, when you demand I be celibate forever, and I don't have that gift? Did you know that deep in the depression this triggered, I came to the conclusion that suicide was preferable, because my only other options were to deny God's call (impossible) or to force my sexuality into repression and go without love and companionship?

And your communion is fraying. You confuse unity with agreement. You allow yourself to be held to ransom by selfish, loud voices who demand we disappear or they'll walk. You sacrifice your LGBT children so that those who refuse to live with difference get their own way. And you barely acknowledge the sacrifice you make of us.

Like I said – I love you. I even respect you. In seven days time, I will walk into a room full of strangers and tell them why I want to offer you a lifetime of service. But while I make this sacrifice, I want you to be honest about all the other, secret sacrifices you demand I make - and why, and for whom.

With love, prayers, and a dusty, stubborn hope,

Monday, 5 October 2015

Being human: our best gift

Today I got to help out at the hospital chaplaincy. Before I go in, I always dread it: striking up conversations with sick, elderly people I don't know is my worst nightmare. And I'm not allowed to wear jeans. Ugh.

But then every time I leave with a huge smile on my face, feeling on top of the world. This morning was full of chance encounters, brief yet meaningful: an elderly lady who had lost her only child at a week old; a woman whose son was murdered a decade ago; a gentleman who gripped my arm with tears stark in his eyes, wracked by the loneliness of age and hospitalisation.

I was directed to one very elderly gentleman by a nurse. At ninety six years old he was as sharp as ever, wearied and aged but full of fire and passion. He had been a preacher in these parts for over fifty years, and boy, could he still preach. He told me of a vision he'd had as a young soldier lying wounded in France in 1939. Dying, he saw a vision of Jesus before him; thinking of his wife and two young children, he begged Jesus not to take him. He'd survived. Seventy six years later, he lay dying again, this time in a hospital bed. Now, it was enough. Now, he was ready to go. But still, as I prayed with him, he clutched my hand and prayed too, with all the strength he had, and urged me to use his story, to tell as many people as I could about this Jesus whom he knew, whom he'd been preaching of all his life. Maybe there was still one person his story could touch.

It touched me. I left that ward feeling unbelievably privileged to have been invited into the most vulnerable moments of these people's lives. Who was I to sit with them and hold such treasure?

The thought of any one of those encounters would have crippled me a few months ago: the idea of having to come up with a prayer, of trying to meet the spiritual needs of someone who is trapped in a circumstance I can't begin to comprehend. But that's where the beauty lies: there is no professional way to love. I am not there as the person with the answers. I'm not there as a professional fixer. I haven't got a clue what the right thing is to say, or the correct prayers to use. You know what I do, mostly? I sit beside them and I listen. I ask them who they are, and who they care about, and what matters to them. I invite them to share themselves.

It's as simple (and profound) as that. Slowly, beautifully, one person unfurls to another. In that pale hospital ward, I have no answers: all I can do is be human, and share in their humanity, and hope that somehow in that space, something holy is discovered.

It's just listening, holding a hand, blessing. Just being human. But I'm beginning to learn - being human is all we are ever asked to do. And there is a joyful mystery in this: for it seems to be when we are most human that we come closest to the divine.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Amateur Lovers: Finding Christ in the Hospital Ward

My latest placement, following on from St Petroc’s homeless charity, is with the hospital chaplaincy in Treliske Royal Cornwall Hospital.
I have to be honest, I was dreading this placement. I am not drawn to sick people (!), and I’m not great at striking up conversations with strangers, let alone ill, elderly or (understandably) grumpy strangers in hospital gowns, who may or may not be experiencing the worst moment of their life. I feel overwhelmingly unqualified to offer pastoral care to people who are wrestling with such serious physical, emotional, mental and spiritual pressures. Who am I to hold the hand of a dying woman, or comfort a mother at the loss of her firstborn baby?
I still feel unqualified to do these things, but since joining the team at Treliske my understanding of chaplaincy has shifted dramatically. Firstly, as Margaret Whipp writes in her study guide to Pastoral Theology, there are no professionals here. We are all (as Switchfoot put it) ‘amateur lovers’. However much you study, however many tricks and tools and theories you know, ultimately no formula can ever cover the complexities and nuances of human interaction. The most important thing is your presence: just being there can make a huge difference. You’re called primarily to be a comforting, grounded presence, a channel for the peace and the love of God, when all else is chaos and confusion and frightening. Of course, the more you do it, the more you talk to people, the more you open yourself to conversations, the more you hold hands and bless and pray and bring the presence of God in small ways to that sickly hospital ward, the better you get at it. I watch the experienced chaplains with awe as they move from grieving with children to rejoicing with new parents, to encouraging the frazzled nurses with their gentle humour and understanding. They are utterly focused on the person in front of them, effortlessly communicating compassion and patience, as if they had all the time in the world and no one was more important at this moment than you.
I also love how boundaried it is. All ministry requires strict boundaries of time and relationships and energy so that you don’t burn out; often in parish ministry this is hard to manage, and too often clergy find themselves struggling to wall off their all-important rest and relaxation. But in the hospital, this is a priority. You simply cannot burn yourself out at lunchtime ticking all the boxes off your to-do list because you need to be rested and ready to spring into action at any moment. Who knows whether at 3 pm, just as you’re hitting your caffeine-deficient slump, your bleeper will buzz with a dying child and emotionally wrecked grandparents, or a young bloke in A&E who’s just received the news he’s going to lose his leg and his whole world is tilting on its axis; you have to be ready for the utterly unexpected because anything can happen and you need to be the grounded, soothing presence by that manic bedside.
This is ministry at its rawest. It is liminal, meeting people in their moments of transition, the slithers of life which shift, turn, and dazzlingly refocus their entire future. You are with people as they are born, as they die, as they lose the most precious thing to them. You are the person who helps them navigate these new, uncharted waters.
I love it. Every day I leave with a huge smile on my face. It is a privilege to meet such a range of diverse, vibrant people, to hear their life stories and to be invited into their most private worries. It is a privilege to help smooth their journey forwards into the unknown future. And so as hard as it is, as stretching as it is and as terrifying as it is (as soon as you stop doing and start thinking about it), I cannot think of any other aspect of ministry as rewarding or worthwhile as hospital chaplaincy.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Priests are weird, dull & unfashionable: why I want to be one anyway

People ask me a lot why I want to be a priest. My hairdresser. The nurse sticking the needle in my arm. The RAC recovery driver fixing my bike. The friend of a friend who met me over the dorritos and dip and stares at me like I'm some sort of alien being because she thought her friends were normal people and here is somebody clearly from the Strange:Avoid category.

Partly it's because I'm young and I'm female and I drive a motorcycle and I play the drums and I hang out in gay bars and people can't quite put that together in their heads with 'priest'. 'Priest' mostly means Father Ted, Dawn French or old, decrepit, potentially-a-paedophile.

And I pretty much suck at answering why, if I'm honest. I laugh a little self-consciously and say how it's weird isn't it and rush to reassure them that I used to be a normal person, honestly, before I started this whole priest thing - I used to play guitar and go to gigs for a living, and I was cool and normal, really I was. And then we get into a conversation about how churches are all right, good for a wedding, but cold and full of old people and, well, if you're honest, mind-numbingly boring. And I can't seem to get the words together to explain that it's got nothing to do with petting pensioners and school fetes and jumble sales and pottering about raising money for the roof, and everything to do with laying down your life for the bleeding and bruised, breathing life into the dry dust of the depressed and hopeless, reaching out and touching skin to skin with the shivering lonely, and stepping into the awful liminal space of death when the grieved are staring, shocked, wordless, into the echoing emptiness. It's screwing up your courage and fighting for the freedom of the poor and the oppressed, shouting for the voiceless til your lungs are hoarse.

But it's quite hard to say that with your hairdresser snipping round your ears and falling over her words trying not to offend your weird lifestyle choice.

I have a new option. In future, I'm just going to refer everyone to this poem by Andrea Gibson:

This. This is why. This is what priesthood is. And this is why no matter how uncool it is, no matter how frustrating it is, no matter how long and arduous the process of discernment, I can’t walk away from responding to this sense of call, even if it turns out I’m wrong.

'This is for those...
Who know we can sound the music in the people around us
Simply by playing our own strings
For the ones who sing life into broken wings
Open their chests and offer their breath...
For the time you mastered the art of giving yourself for the sake of someone else
For the ones who have felt what it is to crush the lies
And lift truth so high the steeples bow to the sky...

This is for the man who showed me
The hardest thing about having nothing
Is having nothing to give
Who said the only reason to live is to give ourselves away...
This is for the people who rattle the cage that slave wage built
And...right now are beginning songs that sound something like
People turning their porch lights on and calling the homeless back home...

This is for saying - yes.'

Friday, 1 May 2015

Reflections on the first Shared Conversations

There’s something slightly intimidating about walking into a room packed with forty seven Anglicans of varying age, dress and demeanour, leaning back casually in their chairs, flicking through their booklets and side-eyeing one another while pretending to sip water. Thus began the first of the Shared Conversations, the Church of England’s reconciliation initiative on the issue of homosexuality. I was there representing the under-40s for my diocese as a gay, evangelical church-worker.

It was the most intense three days of my life. This is my first warning for future participants: you will be knackered. Totally, utterly, exhaustively wiped out. You wouldn’t think talking would take so much energy - but I found myself falling into bed on the first day and blanking into a dead sleep by 9.30 pm. By the third day I was so emotionally drained that I almost cried as I clambered out of my nice hotel bed. Don’t be fooled: you might be going to a plush hotel, you may be super-comfortable talking about LGBT issues, but these conversations will be one of the most gruelling experiences of your life.

My second warning: you will be turned inside out. The reason for this is that the facilitators do a really good job. They took a room full of edgy Christians, used to drawing lines in the sand and manning the theological defences, and turned us into a humble, listening family, yearning for reconciliation. As we talked, we painfully lowered our own defences and exposed our most vulnerable selves; and we listened to others doing the same, witnessing and treasuring the gift of their own painful stories, holding their experiences with respect and empathy. There is nothing as emotionally exhausting as exposing your wounds to your enemy, as they peel back the skin and reveal their own.1

The best example I can think of this is my interaction with someone I’ll call X. X and I were in the same discussion group on Day 1. We’d somehow found ourselves in a random but perfectly mixed group of three pro-gay relationships, three against-gay relationships, and one undecided. The topic was scripture and we discussed it back and forth for a good 30 minutes. There was a genuine desire to get to the core of the issue and gradually, we peeled off layer after layer of personal experience until we were speaking honestly from the heart of our experience. Two of us were gay; obviously it was raw for us. It was just as raw for the three evangelicals who were opposed. They were kind, loving Christ followers: they wanted desperately to love and embrace and accept, but they were equally committed to the truth of scripture as they understood it, and they couldn’t compromise on that truth. After half an hour of painful discussion, X interrupted and said, “I’m sorry, but I have to say this. In 1 Corinthians 5 -” (her hands trembled as she held her Bible) “- it talks about a man sleeping with his father’s wife. They’re proud of their sexual relationship. Paul says, ‘Do not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral…Do not even eat with such people. Expel the wicked person from among you.’” She looked up painfully. “I’m sorry. But I don’t see how I can read this any other way.”

My heart was suddenly heavy, full of grief; my head was crying, don’t make me leave - not from outrage but because I was filled with a love for her, for the others, for these strangers who were my family; my heart broke over the tearing of this family. The only thing I could say was, “Sin matters. There may well be times when someone is keeping back a portion of their life from God, refusing to let Jesus in, sinning intentionally, when the church needs to act as a wake up call to them. But -” here my heart grew desperate, “I love Jesus. He’s the most important priority in my life. And I truly believe he’s okay with this. I might have got that all wrong - I might have misheard him, or blocked him out - and if he led me into celibacy, or healing, I'd have to follow him. But I truly believe he loves me as a gay person.“ I hesitated. “Can’t we be in communion together? Because - our hearts…they’re focused around the same person.”

We looked at each other and I could see she was feeling the same tearing. We said nothing more, and I didn’t know what she was thinking, whether she still felt gay people had to be removed from church.

That night, there was an opportunity to suggest discussion questions. X stood up and held up hers. It read: ’How can we be better at being family?’

* * *

Nobody, that I know, changed their views. X didn't, in that she still felt homosexuals were required to be celibate. Most people went to the Shared Conversations with a particular Biblical stance, and they left with the same one. What changed was people’s attitudes. We heard each other, and heard the pain and the integrity and the faith of the other, and by the time we left, we were family. It made the tearing more painful, in a way. Some still believed there was no other option but to split. The difference was that they had spent three days laughing, praying, talking and eating with the people they were going to split from: the loss became real.

Do I think the process was successful? It had its flaws. There wasn’t enough time to get into the nitty gritty of the Biblical texts, or to dig into the ‘issues behind the issues’: our approaches to scripture, what is sin, what is truth, what is salvation. The process was streamlined towards a conclusion of ‘good disagreement’; but there were many there who weren’t sure good disagreement was what we wanted. We hadn’t answered the question of exactly what we were disagreeing on; or whether that disagreement was something we could live with, or something which was so definitive that a split had to happen. In this way, the process was geared towards those of a more liberal standpoint - those who were more likely to agree that the church could coexist with different theologies.

There also weren’t enough traditional/conservative folk. The problem with the Bishop choosing who to send from the diocese was that his selection was limited to those he knew (meaning there was a disproportionate representation of those who sit on committees, synods, etc, and not enough ‘normal’ churchgoers), and that he didn’t necessarily know the theological approach of those he sent. I suspect, for example, the my Bishop put me forward with a vague idea that I was evangelical and therefore more likely to be conservative. It’s not his fault I happen to be one of the only evangelicals in Cornwall who is also a flag-waving, rainbow-wearing lesbian.

So was the process successful? The jury is still out on that one. Whether it will have any lasting impact on anybody other than the participants is doubtful. That will be largely down to the participants themselves: if they, changed by the experience, go back to their diocese with a renewed vision for engaging with the issue, that may well have an impact on their parishes and deaneries. It depends on their passion, and the support of their Bishops.

I’m not sure it matters. What it showed me was not a clever political resolution, but the heart of the church: a commitment to listening to, respecting and loving every view and every person in this tangled, messy, conflicted, wounded family. Someone wrote up on the board during a feedback session, 'Our dream is churches with different theologies recommending each other's pastoral care.' We are not a lumbering institution, but a body. We can't exist without each other. When one part is wounded, we are all wounded. If gay people leave the church, we will all suffer. If those opposed leave the church, we will all suffer. We need us all, the conservatives, the evangelicals, the gays, the catholics, the liberals, the charismatics, the fence-sitters, the confused, everyone.

So I'm encouraged. Yes, we get it wrong; yes, we argue and we shout and we hurt each other. But we also forgive, and listen, and strive to love even when it hurts like hell. So I leave you with the words another participant confided in me on the way to the lifts one night: “If this is what the church is like, we’ve got nothing to worry about.”

1. I know we're not 'enemies', but unfortunately that's often what it feels like, and psychologically, the terror is 'you're the person who has hurt me and who might at any time again wound me.'

Friday, 20 March 2015

St Petroc's

Most of my time here in the Stithians Community House is spent studying theology, planning for a Sunday or midweek event, or helping out with day to day parish activities. But once a week, I disappear off on my motorcycle to Truro to my Friday placement. This term, that placement’s at St Petroc’s homeless charity.
St Petroc’s is a charity that began 25 years ago in Cornwall for those experiencing homelessness. They have a number of houses around the county where clients can live together in supported housing, engage in outreach work to meet and help those living on the street, and operate a drop-in centre in Truro where clients can get a shower and a change of clothes, do laundry, use the internet and phone and get help with financial, housing and health issues. It’s at this drop-in centre that I’ve been working since January.
The work itself is fairly routine: I either operate the front desk, or help with paperwork; sort donations or help clients with laundry or personal storage. It’s all simple stuff. What I’ve appreciated is the opportunity to get outside my nice comfortable bubble and hear the stories of people who have faced true struggles for survival. They’re incredibly tenacious. Many of them had fairly normal lives before a traumatic event triggered a downward spiral. Marital breakdown is a common issue; people have suffered the emotional trauma of divorce, spiralled into depression or alcoholism, lost their job and their home and ended up broke, homeless and trapped by addictions. What’s even harder is that the original trauma hasn’t disappeared, and their present difficulties make it even more difficult to process the pain of that event.
Others have grown up in extreme and difficult circumstances: parented by addicts or alcoholics, plagued by mental health issues, handed a rough deal and expected to somehow make it work. The most common thing I hear, when clients talk about their lives, is, “Sometimes, life throws crap at you.” There’s no attempt to spin it or idealise it. No drawing of healthy ‘life lessons’ from the pain. Just a simple acknowledgement that sometimes, bad things happen; sometimes, decisions have been made which, mixed with chance, have landed you in a stinking mess; and you can’t always haul yourself out of that. Life is complicated. Life is hard.
This is something which as Christians we’re not always great at acknowledging. Often, we want to spin the story so that God comes out on top, so we draw the light from the darkness and the moral from the parable. But some stories aren’t like that. Sometimes the only thing you can do is sit in the darkness alongside someone and acknowledge that the light isn’t there. Acknowledge that pain exists, an it hurts.
It’s hard working at St Petroc’s. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It’s long and it’s high stress and you’re constantly face to face with frequently inebriated, often angry individuals under a great deal of strain. Frankly, if I’d just spent a cold night on a hard pavement and woken up hungry with nothing in the bank, I’d be angry and stressed too. The staff are incredibly patient and compassionate, while maintaining clear and strict boundaries. I have a lot of respect for them, because I know I leave each evening feeling utterly exhausted; the way they go to work day in day out, calmly accepting all the setbacks and chaos and police and ambulances and fights and paperwork and government agencies – it’s simply incredible. I hope that by the time my placement is through, I have a quarter of the compassion and patience that they do.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

February Update

I'm not entirely sure where February went; it's lost to me in a haze of cocktails, sleep deprivation and motorcycle crashes. Which is fairly close to how I stumbled into March this morning, blearily hauling myself from deep sleep, wrapping myself into my luminously white robes, and using the excuse of an all-age worship service to blackmail Father Simon into doing thirty star-jumps, fully robed, in front of the whole church.

A number of significant changes have occurred however, in the forgotten mist of February. The first and is that fellow intern Ben has left the community. The community aspect of this is really hard work trying to get it off the ground. This is why, I'm reminded, communities take a long time to get going. Because people are so different, and have such different expectations, and unless you have a miracle of personality dovetailing, you drive each other nuts and get confused and pull in different directions.

The second change is that - hooray! - I'm off my drugs. Thus far coming off the antidepressants has resulted in:
1. Insane amounts of itching. Oh my gosh, so much itching. I feel like a thirteenth century peasant. I want to find some excellent scratching post and rub against it like a shaggy furred bear, possibly humming to myself with a pot of honey.
2. Staying awake past ten o'clock. Quelle horreur! I had forgotten what this was like! I now not only occasionally witness midnight, I also wake up before my alarm in the morning. What is this newfound daylight! Unfortunately I'm also not sleeping so much in between those hours, but I'm assured this will pass.
3. Not wanting to eat the entire world and every carb that has ever grown in it. I feel like Cecil the Caterpillar after he's been sick. This is incredible. So much food - without wanting to stuff it in my mouth!

Another listed side effect of coming off is 'suicidal thoughts and depression more severe than it was prior to taking the antidepressants'. Wtf?! Thankfully I have not experienced this, but I can't help feeling this is along the lines of 'oh yeah, we'll fix your leg, but after we take the cast off it's going to be less walkable on than when you broke it, fyi.'

Other than that, life is ticking over, the internship is getting more and more interesting - I'm much more involved now in just two churches; deaconing and serving most Sundays, preaching, leading a lent group and other bits and pieces. We've just launched Messy Church in Stithians, which got off to a cracking start, and we've appointed a new Team Vicar who'll ease Father Simon's somewhat unbearable workload a little. Eight parishes is a lot to be getting on with when you're understaffed.

I'll keep this short, but I promise I will try to be better at updating in the future, and try not to lose a whole month to cocktails and mud...

Monday, 19 January 2015

Welsh Monks

Before Christmas, I had the privilege of visiting the Holywell Community in Abergavenny. I pulled up on my motorcycle outside St Mary's Priory with the sun sinking into golden mist behind me, and trooped inside that ancient, beautiful stone building - the 'Westminster Abbey of Wales' - with Amy, one of the lay members of the Benedictine community which restarted in September last year, 927 years after it was first established in 1087 AD. We prayed the evening office together with the community in the hushed choir stalls, beautifully wrought and every square inch covered with the carved graffiti of generations of bored medieval choirboys. It was amusing to see that however else the church may have changed in a thousand years, nothing can dampen the teenage compulsion to carve your name everywhere.

Back at their community house, we opened a bottle of wine (in the long monastic tradition) and talked community and church and Wales until I had to regretfully hop back on the bike and leave. Before I did, we prayed compline in their tiny chapel upstairs, where I was amused to find this fellow lurking on a windowsill:
(In the true monastic spirit, they had hidden tiny monks around the house, just in case someone broke in and was unsure of who they were stealing from.)
It's an exciting time for communities. The past twenty years has seen an ecumenical revival of community and religious life, bursting into bloom in as many different expressions as there are people. I remember the first time this dawned on me, in university, where I lived in an intentional missional community house with six (enormously tall) guys. We were members of the tiny campus Christian Union, and had been meeting to pray and worship in university daily for a year now. We were naive, uninformed and brimming over with energy, spirit and the kind of idiotic headstrong passion which young people have, charging off in the first direction they can think of. We didn't really know what we were doing, but we decided to live together in a place that could be an open house for not only our community but the whole campus, somewhere with a bed and a meal for anyone. We held parties at any excuse we could find, like Thanksgiving when we squeezed forty people into our kitchen and living room, and graduation, when we rented a hot tub for the week and held a different event each day (poker night, movie night, flame-juggling night...). Once a week we would keep aside for our sacred 'house meal', where we ate, laughed and prayed together. More often than not, I'd come home to find the fire pit burning in the garden and my friends sitting around it laughing with strangers, who would end up staying for days. We were musicians and artists, and most days one of us would start playing something, and someone else would join in, and we'd end up worshipping late into the night.
This whet my appetite for authentic communal living, with a missional focus and worship as its heartbeat. Before long, I was hearing daily of new missional communities springing up in east London, Hammersmith, London Bridge. They were friends and friends of friends, young, free-church graduates, who had a zeal for community and outreach. They didn't know what they were doing and most of the communities only lasted a couple of years, but that wasn't the point. They were transitory, temporary, seasonal communities. For the short time they flared up and flourished, they were fruitful.
Other communities have grown in recent years; grown and put down roots. The Northumbria Community, which started in the 90s and now has hundreds of dispersed members. Moot, another dispersed community, based in St Paul's. Lee Abbey, which includes long and short term community members. These are celtic, evangelical, liberal, ecumenical, young, old, including single people and families, city-centred and far flung into the countryside. Justin Welby speaks of the necessity of the 'renewal of prayer and the Religious Life', and I think he's hit on a pulse of quickening life which the Holy Spirit is awakening. Across Britain, across denominations, across ages, across lifestyles and traditions, Christians are joining together to commit (for a season or longer) to living together in worshipful, mission-oriented communal life.
It's exciting to watch, exciting to be a part of. Every place I turn, I seem to hear of a new community. And they all look so different: Justin Welby's Community of St Anselm, based in Lambeth Palace, will include young people from across the worldwide Anglican communion, with a new wave of members each academic year. Some members of traditional religious communities have mentioned to me that this model, with short term commitment and a paid prior, is so far from the traditional religious life that it should be called something different - something other than monastic. I'm not sure I agree; the new monasticism which is springing up across Britain is distinguished by the Twelve Marks: they are monastic in their commitment to a rule of life, prayer, hospitality, communal living and a disciplined contemplative life; the 'new' part describes the involvement of both married and single people, the lack of lifelong vows (while the lasting communities contain members who are committed for a significant season, if not all, of their life, many other members will join simply for a year, two years, or an even shorter season), and by the dispersed members, who may live miles from the community but are committed and follow the Rule of Life (although, to be fair, many traditional religious communities include 'third order' members, who may be married and lived elsewhere).
In April, the Stithians Community will be joining many others from around the country at the 'Treasures Old and New' conference on traditional and emerging communities. I'm excited to meet others on this adventure, to hear stories from around Britain, and to catch a few more melody lines of the new song the Spirit is singing today:
'Behold, I am doing a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.'
                                               (Isaiah 43:19)