It isn’t just politicians who use these few weeks at the beginning of autumn for getting together and thrashing out who they are and where they’re going. I’ve been part of three conferences this week – a bit of a record for me I think – but fascinating in giving me glimpses into different aspects of the life of the church.
My mini ‘conference season’ began with the one day Conference and AGM for the Society of Catholic Priests. We were meeting at Southwark Cathedral and whereas in the past the AGM was part of the residential conference that’s held each year (this year in Jerusalem) it has been decided to decouple the two so that it gives more people the opportunity to participate in the AGM.
Anyway the theme for the mini-conference was young vocations. SCP is committed to encouraging and supporting priestly ministry in the church, for people whatever their gender, age, ethnicity, sexuality, ability. As part of that we are concerned for vocations to priesthood and concerned that among parts of the church there are not sufficient young people offering themselves. As we heard from one of the speakers this particularly applies to women. Fr Jonathan Lawson from Newcastle and Mtr Kim Wasey from Manchester challenged us in what they had to say about vocations.
What was particularly important to me was the challenge to our perception of what someone who is called by God will be like. Am I looking for people like me as an indication that they have a genuine call? Do I want to see myself replicated or can I begin to have a bigger imagination about who God is calling into ministry? It is a personal challenge but its also an institutional challenge and something that ‘Call Waiting’ is trying to help us to respond to in the CofE.
For instance, has priestly formation became caught up too much in an academic agenda? One member of SCP, a founder member, stood up in during the question time and said that she had a few O levels and no degree. She knew that she could never get a degree yet she also knows that she is a good priest, called by God and equipped by God. But is there space in the church today for a vocation like hers?
It reminds me of the call of Jeremiah which comes at the beginning of the book that bears his name.
Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ But the Lord said to me,
‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.’ (Jeremiah 1.6-8)
Jeremiah couldn’t recognise his call, he knew others wouldn’t but God empowered him because God had a task for him.
It isn’t just priestly vocations we should be concerned about. My second conference of the week was that of the Southwark Diocesan Headteachers Association. They were meeting in Canterbury and I had been asked to join them again as a workshop leader. So I spent the whole conference with them. They had taken as their theme ‘Hearts on Fire’ the diocesan focus for mission and witness.
Over 100 of our Heads and Deputies were there and what a fantastic bunch of people they are. There was a real sense of vocation amongst them, that what they were doing was part of their calling as a Christian. But I was also conscious, as we spent time together, of how important it is to care for those in leadership positions.
In the workshops I was leading we engaged in Lectio Divina in order to address the subject I had been given to talk about – ‘Walking with Jesus’. It was very impressive to see the way in which they all eagerly engaged with this pattern of immersing oneself in the scriptures. But what was also apparent was that they were hungry for spiritual food to sustain them in their ministry. Who feeds the feeders? Who pastors the pastors? Who teaches the teachers?
In Mark’s Gospel we read this
As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. (Mark 6.34)
He taught them and then he fed them. Jesus always recognised the need he saw in people and responded with abundant generosity.
It was abundant generosity that was apparent in the third conference of the week. Again this took place at Southwark Cathedral (it isn’t just about being London-centric – we are next to a major transport hub!) and was for the Association of Friends of Cathedrals and Greater Churches. Those who came were secretaries and trustees of the Friends organisations that do so much for and are so generous towards our great churches.
We began with a wonderful evening at the other Anglican cathedral in London, St Paul’s, visiting some of the places seldom seen by visitors including the fantastic library. As we walked through the door into the small, dimly lit, and almost claustrophobic space, the smell of books and leather and learning was almost overwhelming. It was like something out of the ‘Name of the Rose’ – gosh, it was a privilege to be there – a moment of awe and wonder.
On the Saturday the delegates had a series of sessions on a variety of topics. But we began with a presentation by the Chief Executive of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, Neil Constable and their Head of Revenue Fundraising, Colin Mackenzie-Blackman. There was so much that the Globe are doing with friends and volunteers, the care of donors and visitors, that was immediately applicable to our situations.
But one phrase from Colin Mackenzie-Blackman struck a deep chord in me. He said that it was the job of those gathering the friends of a church or a theatre ‘to help people fall in love’. It was so simple but true. All in the room listening to him were there because they loved their cathedral or church. What we have to do is to help others fall in love and not just with the building but with Jesus Christ. That is our mission.
The three themes of this conference week of call and feeding and love come together in George Herbert’s great poem.
LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.
Priests, teachers, friends – what a fantastic week, what a fantastic and blessed church.
you call us,
you feed us,
you draw us into the heart of your love.
May I hear your call,
eat your meat,
and love as you love us.