We’ve just got back from five days holidaying in Mid Wales. It has been a great time, just me, Angela (my wife) and our six year old foster child exploring and walking the forest paths above Cwm Einion, marveling at the wildlife, playing on the beaches and in the rivers, making memories together that will hopefully last a lifetime.
Unlike those memories, holidays themselves don’t last forever, and already after just one day back I’m beginning to feel slightly overwhelmed as I catch up on news and events that largely passed me by whilst away.
Whilst away I remembered a phrase I’d heard some months back from Phil Togwell at the Joined Up Conference in Sheffield, he offered some advice to pastors and other church leaders to: “Pause daily ….Sabbath weekly ….Retreat quarterly …. Holiday annually”. It is indeed a good disciple to follow I am sure – making time every day to be still and with God seems the easiest and most available, surely each of us whatever our circumstances, however busy we may find ourselves can find that few minutes (even as we settle down to sleep) to let ourselves become consciously aware of the personal link between us and God. Likewise finding a weekly Sabbath space where we stop and rest from our labours means so much more than “the day we go to church”. Sabbaths are resting times, they are days to take breath and know that life itself is good.
Finding time for Retreats whether quarterly or not, is indeed valuable as I have increasingly found. Trevor Miller writes this description of Retreat for the Northumbria Community: “In its simplest form ‘Retreat’, means ‘to withdraw, to drawback.’ Throughout the ages, the Christian tradition has understood Retreat to be an important part of spiritual formation. That is, time consciously set aside for God, a change of focus, a deliberate act of stepping outside of normal routine by withdrawing (not running away) from the noise and pressures; the immediate and insistent claims of our social, domestic and workaday responsibilities in order to be in a quiet place where all our senses are open and ready to listen to God.”
And so back again to holidays – or Holy Days to cite their origin. I feel really fortunate to have been able to enjoy five days away with my family; before I left I was strikingly aware of how many of those families I work with and minister alongside in North Sheffield do not always have this same opportunity. I met someone during a food bank session the other week who told me it had been “five years since [she had] been away with the kids”. In the past the Church knew how to celebrate Holy Days within the local communities and neighbourhoods they served – it created festivals and feast days that all could enjoy. Holidays (just like Retreats and Sabbaths) are about rest and time out, but they are also about celebration and enjoyment. On the last night of our holiday in Wales, the three families holidaying on the site, joined with workers and volunteers from the permaculture eco-project in which our accomodation was located, and the farm owner (just out of hospital that day) gathered all together around a fire. As we sat around the open fire pit sharing food, conversation and watching our children play together this sense of Holiday as celebration was real, it was tangible – and amongst it all, at the centre, whether recognised or not was Godness.
This “new” major study from researchers at Oxford University and King’s College London has tried to get beyond the stereotypes, looking at those using the Trussell Trust’s network of food banks.
“In the most basic terms, these are people with many overlapping forms of “destitution”.
They have been missing meals, often for days at a time, going without heating and electricity. One in five had slept rough in recent months.
They are at the lowest end of the low-income spectrum, with an average income below £320 per month, described as living in “extreme financial vulnerability”.
These are usually people of working age, middle-aged rather than young or old, mostly living in rented accommodation.
About five out of six are without a job and depending on benefits”.
(Source BBC News)
So many events have taken place over the past few weeks, a General Election, terrorist attacks in Manchester, London and overseas, and of course the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower. I have wanted to write about some of these but somehow I could not find the right words.
A Lament is defined in the dictionary as: “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.” or “a complaint” – it is both a noun and a verb, a naming and an action.
Today at our weekly writing group I penned these words, a lament; for now I think this will do.
When I first began in Parson Cross, back in 2010, I read a pamphlet by George Lings called Seven Sacred Spaces (part of the Church Army – Encounters on the Edge series), in it he describe some common spaces that could be found within monastic type communities. The model has stuck with me, and I’ve kept returning to it – and once again this year I’ve gone back to the allotments (on which PXI Projects has a plot) to explore the “seven spaces” there.
The spaces that Lings refers to are:
Cloister: A place for surprising and unplanned encounters.
Chapel: Where we experience faith and worship as a corporate “body”.
Cell: A personal spiritual space.
Chapter: A space where community meets and makes choices and decisions together,
Garden: Physical labour and engagement with creation takes place here.
Scriptorium: Where we can explore creativity and share in the passing on of knowledge.
Refectory: Here the community eats together, offers and provides hospitality to others.
So it was with these in mind that I returned to the allotments on Norwood Road, in the wonderful early summer sun of last week, to reflect on how these spaces are being brought to life already, and how I might join in with that and know God there.
Abba Moses, one of the Desert Fathers once said: “Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” And so, at first I sat for a while in my own cell our plot (76) in prayerful reflection and preparation, the sunshine and shade dancing and moving across the place, trying to clear my head of my own plans and assumptions, and allowing myself to simply encounter the spaces and the people on the site.
After some time I journeyed out, along the pathways between the plots (the Cloisters if you will), peering over hedges and fences into the individual plots (Cells) taking in the birdsong around me, and the variety of cultivation happening on the allotments. At first I met Carol, it had been sometime since I last saw her, but we greeted each other and briefly passed the time of day, before I carried on my walk. I passed by Garys Lane, Plot 76 had been Garys previously but we took it on after he moved to this new plot, there was no sign of Gary but it was good to be reminded again of the continuity that lasts even when we ourselves are absent. I turned another corner, when a voice shouted “…give us a hand will you?” I walked onto the plot where the voice had come from to see Les tying a new scarecrow to a pole – I helped him until the task was complete, and we carried on chatting. Les’ plot is one of the neatest and best kept on the site, he’s put years of care and love into it, making it personal and a reflection of something that is him. On one shed wall was a painting done by Carol, it was of a field of poppies, she’d painted for Les in remembrance of all the Allotment holders that had died as a result of war.
On returning to the LEAF community plots (LEAF being one of our partner organisations) I found Diane hard at work in the sun with some children from one of the local primary schools, learning about and getting to work on planting out peas in trays ready for the coming growing season. One of the children had overheated in the hot sun, and in the end I had to drive him back to school with his class teacher (it was his birthday too – so the drive back became an extra treat after he cooled down a bit). He was glad he was back at school, and in the shade once more; and I too was glad to be back on the allotments, and to once again get the feel for the sacred and special spaces that we can find when we thoughtfully and intentionally seek them out.
Last week I was fortunate enough to spend time with some wonderful people, and here a number of inspiring speakers.
First last Monday 8th May, the Chris Howson was the guest speaker at Sheffield Church Action on Poverty, of which I am currently the chairperson.
Chris spoke to us about the challenges of the Gospel message and the call to a Radical Christianity, In particular he spoke of the need for:
1. The message of a Subversive Gospel to be proclaimed.
2. A Compassionate Christianity to be practiced.
3. A Christianity that speaks out for just whatever the cost.
4. The sharing of a Joyful Solidarity with the vulnerable, marginalised and oppressed.
On the Friday I had been invited to attend the Godly Play conference at Sheffield Cathedral, once again on behalf of Church Action on Poverty. The key speaker that evening was John Bell, well known through the Iona and Wildgoose networks an beyond. John talked about Jesus and the Miracle stories.
He noted that Jesus had “no set approach” to how he performed miracles, each used a methodology particular to its context, sometimes he uses touches, sometimes not …. sometimes they involved groups of people, others only one ….. sometimes they public, and sometimes private, to Jesus a sensitivity to context is crucial. John then went on to show how in the miracle stories Jesus also powerfully addresses powers, authorities and taboos – challenging them is at the very heart of the miracles.
Finally on the Saturday at the Godly Play conference, Peter Privett spoke to us about playful and childhood spirituality. He challenged us all to move from a focus on an “intellectual” faith, to a faith based on experience and wonder. Among the things he left us with were these words from the 14th century Persian poet, Hafiz:
“Every child has known God,
Not the God of names,
Not the God of don’ts,
Not the God who ever does anything weird,
But the God who knows only 4 words.
And keeps repeating them, saying “Come dance with Me, come dance.”
“It’s like the buses in Briggate” as my Mum would’ve said. In the first twelve months of this blog I’d never felt the need or call to re-blog anything from anywhere else, now in the space of a few days “…two coming along after another”.
Today I’m re-blogging an open letter that I am a signatory to in my role as Chair of Sheffield Church Action on Poverty, a letter that has been written in response to a pastoral notice sent out through the Anglican Church today from Archbishops Welby & Sentamu. The letter and blog first appeared at “This estate we’re in…” by Rev Al Barrett: http://thisestate.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/dear-archbishops-response-ge2017.html?spref=tw
Thank you for your pastoral letter, which many of us read eagerly when we received it. We do indeed live in ‘frantic and fraught’ times, and deeply-rooted Christian wisdom in the lead-up to this most critical of General Elections has the potential to make a valuable, even crucial contribution. As those who share with you both the weighty responsibility for helping Christian congregations reflect on the current political challenges with Christian faithfulness, your efforts to support and resource us are appreciated.
Thank you also for highlighting the vital issues of education and housing, of community-building and healthcare, of overseas aid and campaigns against slavery, trafficking and sexual violence. Thank you for pointing to the need for justice in our economic and financial systems, and for “a generous and hospitable welcome to refugees and migrants”. All of these we welcome, as crucial issues to be placed at the centre of our political conversations and decisions.
There were, however, aspects of your pastoral letter which have given us cause for deep concern, and which have driven us to respond to it with urgency.
Most prominently among those concerns is your use of the word ‘stability’. We appreciate the word’s Benedictine roots, and the critical contemporary challenge of “living well with change”. However, words also acquire meaning from their common usage in the present, and it is impossible to escape the fact that the leader of one of the major political parties competing in this General Election has used the phrase “strong and stable” almost as a mantra throughout the election campaign thus far. For your pastoral letter to focus so positively on such a politically freighted word seems to us, at best, as a case of desperate political naivety, and at worst, an implicit endorsement of one party in this election.
Our concern goes deeper than the level of perception, however. Your focus not just on ‘stability’, but also on ‘cohesion’ (as “what holds us together”), your commodification of ‘courage’ as “aspiration, competition and ambition”, and your conflation of the deeply-contested discourses of “our Christian heritage” and “our shared British values” (a conflation often appropriated by far-right nationalist groups) are also all deeply troubling. The quest for reconciliation and unity of course has a vital place within both the Christian tradition and the work of politics, but at this point in the history of the United Kingdom, politicians issuing calls to ‘unite’ risk concealing deep divisions under a banner of conformity, rather than addressing these divisions at their roots. The emphases on stability and cohesion in your pastoral letter risk colluding with such dangerous political rhetoric. The Benedictine vow of ‘stability’ goes hand in hand with the vow of ‘conversion of life’ – an ongoing process of allowing our hearts to be changed. That process often involves plunging into the heart of our divisions and conflicts, coming face to face with our ‘others’ and our ‘enemies’, and confronting our own tendencies towards self-deception, greed, exclusion and violence. There is a prophetic calling for the church here, that goes well beyond appeals to shared values.
The third Benedictine vow is that of ‘obedience’. Understood in a purely hierarchical way, it could be argued that this response to your pastoral letter is an act of disobedience. Our understanding of Benedictine obedience, however, is more mutual: as Rowan Williams has put it, “[n]ovice and senior monk are ‘obeying’ one another if they are attending with discernment to one another and the habits that shape their lives are habits of listening, attention and the willingness to take seriously the perspective of the other, the stranger”. At a time when the voices of the poorest, the most vulnerable, and the most marginalised are being ignored, silenced, even demonised, we want to respond to Benedict’s call to obedience with our whole hearts, and listen most attentively to those voices, not in the centres of power, but in its margins. When those voices are not being heard at the heart of our deliberations and decision-making, Jesus himself is being silenced.
You remind us at the beginning of your pastoral letter that we are currently in the season of Eastertide. We pray, with you, that the risen Christ will be seen and welcomed among us, as in the stranger on the Emmaus Road, that hearts will be changed, and that the peace of Christ will break down all our dividing walls.
In joyful obedience to our Risen Lord,
Revd Al Barrett, Rector
Revd Dr Sally Nash, Associate Minister
Revd Dr Genny Tunbridge, Common Ground Community
Penny Hall, Church Warden
Sarah Maxfield, Community Development Worker
Paul Wright, Street Connector Mentor
Jane Barrett, Youth & Community Worker
Bob Maxfield, Julia Bingham, Jo Bull
(all of Hodge Hill Church, Birmingham Diocese)
Revd Dr Richard Sudworth, Christ Church Sparkbrook, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Dr John White, Kingsbury, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Priscilla White, St Faith & St Laurence Harborne, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Kathryn Evans, St Paul Blackheath, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Andy Delmege, St Bede Brandwood, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Dr Susannah Snyder, Oxford Diocese
Revd Kate Pearson, Coventry Diocese
Revd Canon Kathryn Fleming, Coventry Cathedral
Revd Elaine Evans, Vicar, St Bertelin Stafford & St John the Evangelist Whitgreave, Lichfield Diocese
Revd Judith Jessop, Methodist Pioneer Minister, Parson Cross, Sheffield
Revd Ray Gaston, Team Vicar, St Chad & St Mark, Parish of Central Wolverhampton , Lichfield Diocese
Revd Simon Douglas, Team Vicar, Parish of Tettenhall Regis, Lichfield Diocese
Revd Mark Hewerdine, Priest-in-Charge, St Chad’s Ladybarn / Fresh Expressions Enabler, Manchester Diocese
Ray Leonard, St Andrew Blackwall, Durham Diocese
Ann Marie Gallagher, Roman Catholic, Birmingham
Adam North, St Peter’s Hall Green, Birmingham Diocese
Nick Waterfield, Methodist, Chair of Sheffield Church Action on Poverty
Kim E Lafferty, St Stephen’s, Kearsley, Manchester
Dr Charles Pemberton and Ms Irene Roding, St Margarets Church, Durham