Saturday, 14 May 2022
Monday, 2 May 2022
I’ve been sad to see closed or redundant churches on my travels. Some have been taken over by the Churches Conservation Trust for people to visit, others have been left to rot, and others turned into something else. We were in Upleatham, near Marske on Thursday. I wanted to find one of the smallest churches in England. We drove through the village. I found what I thought was the church. It was now a very plush private house. The Methodist chapel had long since shut and when we found the right Anglican one it was not in a good state. You couldn’t get in it and the grass round the graves was very overgrown. It was incredibly sad.
On Friday, I found the old St Stephen’s Church at Fylingdales, near Robin Hood’s Bay. It stands overlooking the sea and has a very large graveyard and inside a three decker pulpit. I found the whole place cold and as if God had long since left… the view from it was nice though.
On Friday night, we ate out in Whitby in what was the old Methodist Church hall built in 1901. The church used to be next door to the hall but was disused in the 1950’s and the very large hall converted to be a worship space. It closed in the 1970’s.
We had two final visits out to mention in our last week. We have discovered Malton. It’s the food capital of Yorkshire. A vegan outlet called the Purple Carrot is quite superb. It was good to call into the church in the middle of the market square. It was interesting to note it has a minister for the twenties to forties.
We also went to visit Bridlington Priory. The Priory Church of St Mary, in Bridlington’s Old Town, was founded as an Augustinian monastery in 1113 and was from the start a rich and important religious house.
At the Reformation the Priory, along with many other foundations, was ‘dissolved’, most of its buildings destroyed and its property seized. What can be seen now is the original nave. I’d never heard of St. John of Bridlington.
How do I sum up the last three months? Three encounters in the last week of sabbatical I think have reminded me what being in sacred space means. We need to take far more time to just be in God’s presence.
Then, finally, entering sacred space should equip us to get on with sharing what we have found in it in a world that badly needs the love of God.
I admit to having a major wobble on my last sabbatical Sunday about returning to Ripon and to Circuit ministry. I’ve been in ministry, lay and ordained, for nearly 31 years now. How often in the discipline of just turning up in sacred space and giving what you feel to God, can that just being there point you to see it might all be alright…
The (first) act of Judas Thomas the Apostle, when He sold him to the merchant Habbān, that he might go down (and) convert India.
And when all the Apostles had been for a time in Jerusalem, — Simon Cephas and Andrew, and Jacob (James) and John, and Philip and Bartholomew, and Thomas and Matthew the publican, and Jacob (James) the son of Alphæus, and Simon the Kananite, and Judas the son of Jacob (James),—they divided the countries among them, in order that each one of them might preach in the region which fell to him and in the place to which his Lord sent him. And India fell by lot and division to Judas Thomas (or the Twin) the Apostle.
And he was not willing to go, saying: "I have not strength enough for this, because I am weak. And I am a Hebrew: how can I teach the Indians?" And whilst Judas was reasoning thus, our Lord appeared to him in a vision of the night, and said to him: " Fear not, Thomas, because my grace is with thee." But he would not be persuaded at all, saying: "Whithersoever Thou wilt, our Lord, send me; only to India I will not go."
And as Judas was reasoning thus, a certain merchant, an Indian, happened (to come) into the south country from——,whose name was Habbān; and he was sent by the king Gūdnaphar, that he might bring to him a skilful carpenter. And our Lord saw him walking in the street, and said to him: " Thou wishest to buy a carpenter?" He saith to him, "Yes." Our Lord saith to him: "I have a slave, a carpenter, whom I will sell to thee." And he showed him Thomas at a distance, and bargained with him for twenty (pieces) of silver (as) his price, and wrote a bill of sale thus: "I, Jesus, the son of Joseph the carpenter, from the village of Bethlehem, which is in Judæa, acknowledge, that I have sold my slave Judas Thomas to Habbān, the merchant of king Gudnaphar." And when they had completed his bill of sale, Jesus took Judas, and went to Habbān the merchant. And Habbān saw him, and said to him: "Is this thy master?" Judas saith to him: "Yes, he is my master." Habbān the merchant saith to, him: "He has sold thee to me outright." And Judas was silent.We know Thomas founded a church in India and converted many to Christianity. I needed to hear that when we are reluctant or refuse to go where we are called to, we are equipped and there is no choice when Christ calls other than to go.
In the evening at evening prayer, which was just us and Sam Quilty, the curate at the church, we were commissioned to return after a brilliant and timely journey, back to whatever faces us, with the sending prayer used with pilgrims leaving Holy Island, after being there for a while to rest and be renewed:
Maybe this quote from Joseph Campbell is why sabbaticals are there for ministers and what sacred space is meant to do:
“To live in a sacred space is to live in a symbolic environment where spiritual life is possible, where everything around you speaks of the exaltation of the Spirit.
This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you might find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.
Your sacred space is where you find yourself again and again.”
Saturday, 23 April 2022
Evening Prayer this week with just a few of us, has been a special time. The lectionary has reminded us post Easter of the marvellous works of God and his power. On Monday we had Psalm 135 where Og was smited! “He struck down many nations and killed mighty kings -Sihon king of the Amorites, Og king of Bashan, and all the kings of Canaan and he gave their land as an inheritance, an inheritance to his people Israel.” Then on Wednesday, we recited Psalm 105: “Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done.”
Holy Island when the tide goes in is the most peaceful and sacred spot we know. We spent a long time one evening this week on the causeway watching the sky post sunset. To walk along the causeway alone in silence was amazing. I’ve always come here to find peace and this visit has given me lots of it again. We both love the beach by St Cuthberts Isle. I proposed to Lis on it on a very cold November day! Cuthbert found peace on it retreating from a busy ministry on the island. The island is connected to Lindisfarne at low tide in the same way Lindisfarne is connected to the mainland, but it is an island at high tide. It was here, within sight of the main island, that Cuthbert first attempted living as a hermit. He soon realized it was still too close to Lindisfarne; monks could still shout over to him. After that he went to Inner Farne, where no one had ever stayed for long.
I wanted this week to see what Inner Farne was like so I booked a Farne Islands boat trip on Wednesday from Seahouses. I wasn’t expecting the sea fret to be so thick you couldn’t see a thing! Allegedly we passed seabirds and seals as we went round the islands! You could see a bit more on Inner Farne. Cuthbert spent over 10 years living as a hermit on Inner Farne and was on the island when, in 684, he was informed he had been elected Bishop of Lindisfarne. Cuthbert had moved to the island in 676 and died there in 687.
Even just spending an hour on Inner Farne, I got a small glimpse of what being there as a hermit might be like. The island is bleak apart from an unbelievable number of puffins! It’s now run by the National Trust and rangers live five days out of seven a week there. We were told they’ve no running water but they do have 4G!
This week I’ve spent time trying to walk in the footsteps of some of the Northumbrian saints. How did they find peace and bring the sacred to what was a pagan environment? On Tuesday I wanted to visit the church at Chester le Street.
For over 100 years the travellers settled at Chester le Street. I never realised they stayed that long. It’s also said that in fear of further attack they look Cuthbert inland to Ripon, before finally arriving at Durham, where his remains now rest.
We visited Finchale Priory, just north of Durham on Tuesday lunchtime. It owes its origin to St. Godric, who was born about 1070. After years of travel as a sailor, merchant and pilgrim, he felt called to the solitary life. He eventually settled at Finchale, where he lived to about 100. About 25 years after his death his hermitage became a priory and by the 14th century it was serving as a holiday retreat for monks from Durham.
An article in the Northern Echo tells us that the college is a hidden gem, surrounded by seclusion. It is tucked away in mature countryside about five miles west of Durham city, hidden by physical barriers of trees, walls and gatehouses which are a response to the centuries of persecution endured by Catholics.
From Ushaw, we went to find the delightful church at Heavenfield. St Oswald’s Church is on the site believed to be the location where King Oswald raised a large wooden cross and called his troops to pray before the battle of Heavenfield in 633.
On Thursday, we discovered Brinkburn Priory, a surprise at the bottom of a long, wooded track. The history of Brinkburn Priory dates back to 1135, when William Bertram of Mitford established an Augustinian priory in a loop of the River Coquet, in secluded, deeply wooded countryside. According to surviving documents the new priory was a daughter house of 'St Mary de Insula', which probably referred to the priory at Pentney, Norfolk. We had the priory to ourselves. It was quite damp as was the Manor House next to it riddled with dry rot. The site is now managed by English Heritage. The manager made us very welcome. I’m not sure she gets many visitors and we spent quite a bit in her little shop!
On the way back to Holy Island, it was nice to discover Alnmouth and to find the little Methodist chapel up a tiny lane. One of my friends becomes its minister in September.
Our final trips this week were on Saturday. We began by visiting St Aidan’s Church in Bamburgh. There has been worship on this site since 635 when St Aidan of Iona was invited by King Oswald of Northumbria to bring Christianity to his kingdom. St Aidan is said to have died here in AD 651 whilst leaning against a forked timber beam that supported the outside wall of his church. That beam now forms part of the tower roof and is the only part of the 7th century church to survive. Since it survived at least two fires the beam became an object of veneration and was said to have miraculous healing properties.
Then we went to find the churches in Ford and Etal. The church at Ford is massive, clearly having been supported by the neighbouring castle. It had an interesting way of interacting with the poor…
The church at Etal was simpler. Both are set in very well heeled villages!
It’s been good to be able to be based for another week on Holy Island. I’ve found being here towards the end of sabbatical helpful. I don’t though want to leave. It always feels like coming home when we visit. The place where we’ve mostly stayed over the last few years has been a place of sanctuary for us. The owners are moving into it in the autumn so this has been our last stay in it. You can’t get closer to the church!
We ended the week on the beach which was lovely. I can’t believe I’m about to begin my last week of this journey. What will be our story when others read of us one day? Will we have been as courageous as the saints of old or as close to God as them? They brought the Gospel to people who’d never heard it. We have that same challenge in our age. What sort of church will there be beyond us? I guess that’s up to us. The saints of Northumbria knew those marvellous works and they were compelled to share them because they knew God was at work. Holy Island especially for me is a reminder of God being there. Being here this and last week has to inspire me to try to get my churches to look up and around and see him again. As a poem I found here years ago says “you didn’t come here to get away, you came here in order to go back.”
Sunday, 17 April 2022
Easter weekend on Holy Island… on Saturday the place was heaving. Every cafe was full and I gather one of the shops took more in takings in one day than it would normally in July or August. I wonder what makes people come here in large numbers?
The world thinks Easter began on Friday and the next day is Easter Saturday. In recent years, having discovered the spirituality of Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, Easter always begins for me when least expected, in hard waiting times and times of grief when I think all might be lost. Easter begins in the dark and in anticipation that what happened on Friday just might not be the end. Easter begins with holding on to hope even where it feels hopeless.
Biblically speaking, the Gospels infer that nothing happens on the first Holy Saturday. Jesus was in the tomb and the disciples and women were no doubt grieving through a very quiet Sabbath, hidden away from the authorities whom they no doubt thought would be at the door first thing Sunday morning (Sunday being the first century Jewish equivalent of Monday for us).
Most churches skip the commemoration of Holy Saturday, but this year it seemed especially relevant. The first followers of Jesus were in a state of limbo–caught between the events of Good Friday and an uncertain future, and so are many in the world this weekend.
We can learn a lot from those who take Holy Saturday as an Easter beginning as seriously as the other days of Holy Week. Some traditions begin the Easter vigil on Saturday, looking toward Sunday, while others simply wait quietly for the Easter dawn. I have done both here which I will come to in a bit. The Eastern Orthodox tradition, however, takes a more active theological viewpoint–that Jesus not only is in the grave but that he also descends into Hades or hell to liberate those who have died.
On Holy Saturday, the disciples of Jesus surely descended into their own kind of hell–one to which anyone who has lost a loved one to death can relate. The finality and wrenching silence of death strikes fear in us. The silence of Holy Saturday reminds us powerfully that death isn’t something to be circumvented or avoided.
We need to go through a Saturday of death, recognising its power, before we can realize the power of a Sunday of resurrection, when death is defeated. We know that the dawn will still break the darkness, the tomb will be empty, and Christ will have broken death’s power. Much of the world still lives on Holy Saturday, poised between the pain of the cross and the hope of resurrection. We weep with those who weep, and sit with those who have no tears left to cry. We rage at injustice and the way it so often seems to triumph.
I like the way the Church of England reflection for Saturday puts it: “With all of creation, we cry out ‘Lord, have mercy’, and wait for God to meet us in pain and despair, and lead us into a future we can barely imagine.”
I chose to spend Saturday afternoon quietly walking round the Priory here on Lindisfarne. Since 635, when Aidan founded the first monastery, prayers have been offered for peace and hope year after year after year. There was a community at the Priory until 1537. Now it is a place where pilgrims come and today it felt a place amongst the tourists of solace and space to seek what God might be planning to do with me next. Contemplating return from sabbatical is hard.
One of my favourite verses of Scripture seems to sum up the belief that in our pain, God might do something. It’s from the Benedictus in Luke chapter 1:
“In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” It’s a verse that constantly reminds me of the nature of God who breaks into our lives when we need him. Easter might well come with exuberance but maybe it also comes with quiet assurance.
The Easter vigil on Saturday evening is now an important part of my spiritual journey. Methodists don’t generally do it! We gathered on St Cuthbert’s beach where the paschal candle was lit from the fire we stood round.
We then followed the candle into a darkened church and the service went through a series of readings reminding us of God’s saving work in history culminating in the resurrection of Jesus. Before I started doing Holy Saturday properly it never occurred to me Jesus rose in the dark of the night. It was the first time I did an Easter vigil very strange to sing Christ the Lord is risen today about 9pm on Saturday!
So to Easter Sunday. What is the Easter message this year? Well, I went to three services - dawn on the Heugh at 5.30am; a Book of Common Prayer Eucharist at 8am and a Festal Eucharist at 10.45am - then I had a sleep!!
Doing Saturday and then seeing Easter emerge this year has left me with three thoughts. First, that God’s way of new life is stronger than any death we might face. We read Psalm 118 on Saturday night after the church was lit again and we had celebrated Jesus had risen.
Give thanks to the Lord,
for he is good,
for his mercy endures forever.
Let the house of Israel say,
“His mercy endures forever.”
The right hand of the Lord has struck with power;
the right hand of the Lord is exalted.
I shall not die, but live, and declare the works
of the Lord.
The stone which the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone. By the Lord has this
been done; it is wonderful in our eyes.
Whatever we face, it cannot destroy us.
Then in the early morning of Sunday, an awareness we have to wait for God’s right time to remind us he is there even in the darkness. The sun was meant to rise just before 6am on Sunday morning. It did, of course, but behind a cloud. Most of the folk who gathered for the dawn service went home a bit disappointed they hadn’t seen the sun. I went down to the harbour as I was convinced there would be a break in the clouds if I was patient enough.
At just after 6.30am, the sun appeared like a orange filling of a black sandwich. The orange reflected on the water below it. I had an Easter theophany, standing in silence on my own. It was as if God was reminding me it’s all going to be okay.
I’m having a huge wobble about returning to work soon because I don’t know what’s been happening in my absence or whether people will want me back. I’ve barely started in my appointment due to the pandemic and I don’t feel I’ve made much difference and bits of my patch are struggling with little energy. It was as if this Sunday morning God was wanting me to wait for his reassurance of light amidst the darkness and uncertainty. He has a right time to speak to us and we might miss it or think it isn’t going to happen if we don’t just wait. Amazingly the orange glow disappeared soon after I’d been in awe of it, but just a moment was enough.
Then finally I guess Easter this year has been about remembering everyone matters. We renewed our baptism vows in the service both on Saturday night and in the 10.45 one on Sunday morning. We renounced the devil! We promised again to follow because Jesus has come and found us again like he found Mary in the garden. He has again called us by name.
It’s been heartening to hear a lot of sermons on Easter Sunday state that sending refugees to Rwanda is contrary to the nature of God. The promise of new life is for all, we cannot choose who we help find new life out of their dire circumstances, Jesus has risen for all, not just some. So that affects how we do things. Easter reminds us we need to be inclusive and inviting and radical in our love. Whoever we are, we get to begin again when it all felt hopeless.