Lindsay Urwin explains the vision which has led to the bishops’ initiative

Kiss-me-quick hats will be replaced by mitres, and ‘I do like to be beside the seaside’ will give way to songs of a more sacred variety as bishops, priests, deacons religious, and ordinands meet together for a retreat conference at Caister holiday centre, Great Yarmouth during Low Week next year…..

It has to be admitted. Many consider that the bishops opposed to the legislation allowing women to be ordained as priests have been somewhat lacking in initiative since November 1992. Of course, that’s a half truth. Aside from the exhausting daily round of pastoral care and diocesan duties which are the lot of a bishop, on the national scene there has been much negotiation and reflection behind the scenes. The Act of Synod and episcopal visitors are a tangible sign of some pretty costly and passionate argument in the house of bishops and elsewhere.

However, THE WORD IS NEAR is an episcopal initiative. The idea emerged following several meetings of bishops, all with reservations about the ordination of women, some ordained before 1992 and others, like myself, ordained more recently. It is also the fruit of some listening to people around the country. The invitation to come to Caister from Monday 15th April to Friday 19th is issued to clergy, religious and ordinands who believe the unilateral decision to ordain women as priests to be inappropriate.

There is a variety of reasons why people hold such a view and there is certainly controversy about what sort of practical response, structures etc. should result or be created. If Church history has anything to teach us, questions of profound significance and acute debate generally take a long time to resolve. This is hard to take in the sort of immediate, ‘now’ culture of today. I would argue that the vote in favour of such blatantly unsatisfactory legislation, was less to do with determining God’s time, than with this contemporary ‘It must be now and this is the best we can do to have it now’ attitude. However justified our anxieties, we must not fall into the same trap! Unhurried reflection is not necessarily a sign that what has happened doesn’t matter. Indeed, it may show a real trust in the grace and providential care of God, who calls us to do his will and proclaim the faith ‘in season and out of season’. These days together will not be an attempt to ignore these questions but to lay them aside, or better still, to enfold them into a corporate time of worship, listening and relaxation, and reflection about the gift of ministry we have received.

The Theme

Two verses of Scripture underline the hopes for this retreat conference. First, one which gives the retreat its name:

‘The word, that is the faith we proclaim is very near to you, it is on your lips and in your heart.’ (Romans 10.8)

It’s true, isn’t it, that at the heart of the ordained minister’s life is a desire to bring others to a knowledge and love of the Word made flesh? Of course, this calling belongs to all baptised believers, but it is the special care of the ordained. And isn’t it also true, that in giving ourselves to this task of creating an environment in our dioceses or parishes in which others experience this love, we can ourselves experience a strange emptiness, almost a lack of God’s love, or a spiritual apathy. In bringing others close, we ourselves feel far away. Preaching a message of hope and reconciliation, sometimes wondering about the message ourselves. Those who preach Christ crucified should not be surprised at this occasional sense of alienation for the Enemy, who St Augustine says, is within as well as without the Church, would seek to distract us from this life.

And perhaps it is true that those who have been entrusted with the day to day offering of the holy gifts by which Christ makes himself known and conveys his loving presence – the sacraments – can at times lose sight of their intrinsic power as saving and evangelistic signs. Familiarity can breed overfamiliarity. We cease to wonder. In a ‘throwaway’ culture with its distinct lack of reverence for people and things, and in the Church which has its fair share of liturgical minimalists, and those who demand that we entertain, we can begin to lose sight of the glory which is ours in the ministry of Word and Sacrament.

Now not all Anglicans who understand our Catholic inheritance have found the ordination of women as priests exhausting and distracting. Not all of us are questioning our Church’s and our own place in the Church universal; and not all find themselves wondering if there is any real understanding of our catholic vision of the Church and the priesthood as a gift from Christ to the world. But for those of us who do have some concerns, this retreat will be a time to refresh ourselves with the Word, Jesus, who is near to us. He is on our lips as he inspires our preaching and touches us with his sacraments, and he is in our hearts.

Identifying our purpose

In a retreat given many years ago by Archbishop Michael Ramsey to members of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd, he began his first address with a verse from Mark’s gospel, and this will provide the theme for the three keynote addresses:

’..and he called the twelve to himself, so that they might be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach, and to heal… ‘(3. 14)

Although years before my own profession in the Oratory, I think I can safely assume it was a motley crew who sat at the feet of Archbishop Michael, and perhaps he would have seen the oddness of the collection as its glory. He explained that he considered this verse to provide a clue to our value, our identity and our purpose.

Certainly, it speaks of our personal life of discipleship which begins with Christ’s desire for us, not ours for him, and it links our own salvation and meaning to the apostolic adventure and the ministry of reconciliation. We are to embody that calling, and to foster discipleship and apostolic witness in others by the way we live our priesthood and diaconate.

Hour of silence

Two key elements in each day of the retreat will be a corporate hour of silence in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament beginning at midday, and the offering of the eucharist in the early evening. Various of the bishops who will be present for all or part of the retreat will preside and another will give the homily.

In good ‘Spring Harvest’ fashion, there will be the opportunity of optional seminars in the afternoons, though some participants may wish to relax or sleep! Recreation, will be an important element of our time together and the holiday centre with its excellent facilities will be a great environment in which to do just that. The bar will be open….

My hope is that many clergy and ordinands will want to share in this experience. It is not meant to be a ‘high powered’ gathering, and there is no publisher on hand ready to print a book with the addresses and bible studies. It is not to ‘launch’ anything! The bishops hope that this retreat and the common life lived together over these few days will stir the heart, be a sharing in the Spirit, rekindle our apostolic zeal, and fill us with a common care for unity and love for one another.

I sense in many with reservations about the ordination of women, a gentle confidence, a second wind. John XXIII prayed for the Spirit to come as with a new Pentecost, and his immediate successor called on the Church to stand ‘downwind’ of the Spirit. The Norfolk coast may well be just the place to do that!

The fee for the retreat is £135 all inclusive. It begins on Monday afternoon and will end with a mass on the Friday morning. Some dioceses have funds to assist clergy with retreats – why not ask for help? It may be that your parish will sponsor you. Facilities at Caister are of a high standard and all participants will have the opportunity for a single room and will be able to express preference for sharing chalets. Wives of participants will be very welcome to play a full part in the retreat. The ACS is willing to give some financial assistance to our ordinands, including candidates thinking about the ministry but not yet sponsored.

Write to me for a brochure and reservation form, or simply send £20 deposit made out to ‘Retreat for Priests’ and details will follow. And please pray that God will bless this time consecrated to him.

The Rt Revd Lindsay Urwin is Bishop of Horsham, in the diocese of Chichester.