Changing Trains

It can’t have been a real weatherman, it must have been somebody in Dead Ringers, who once said that tomorrow there will be weather – everywhere. Well, it has been Lent everywhere, even in the Episcopal Area of Wonderland (sorry, Woolwich).

The March edition of the Diocesan Newspaper, delightfully called The Bridge (it doesn’t say the bridge to where, mark you), chronicles the fascinating goings on in Wonderland.

A double page spread recalls the diocese’s heyday of forty years ago under the banner ‘Honest to God. A book of its time – for our time?’

A local vicar (not from the Wonderland part of the diocese, I hasten to add) sets the tone. He writes, ‘Looking out from the back cover of my copy of Honest to God is John Robinson wearing the most preposterously trendy 1960s shirt, with big collars and a large floral motif. … The shirt is a perfect metaphor for the book … academic theology made accessible to the non-specialist. … Robinson spoke of God in a language that people could understand.’

The former Provost of Southwark writes an effusive piece under the title of ‘I published it’ and a former Canon and Precentor reminisces about the heady days of the 1960s. Stirring stuff, but what of Lent in 2003?

Well there is the Diocesan Bishop’s Lent Call. He urges us to deny ourselves and give to others. He commends five projects, a school in Papua New Guinea, a school in Cape Town, a health project in Bangladesh, unspecified work in Zimbabwe and a Child Contact Centre in Abbey Wood.

The projects are well explained and it is probably not too late for you to contribute to the Bishop of Southwark’s Lent Call, but how are the parishes responding? The only clue is in an article headed, ‘How Toby the cat will help the Lent Call’.

However, the Bishop of Wonderland was making a really special effort. He was travelling round his Episcopal Area by train on two Saturdays in Lent. You might think that stations like Loughborough Junction and Mottingham were up north somewhere, but in fact they are both south of the Thames in the midst of the suburban sprawl. In Samuel Pepys’ day, much of the area was rolling countryside as station names like Maze Hill, Forest Hill, Denmark Hill and Sydenham Hill testify. The rural idyll is enhanced with evocative names like Blackheath, Abbey Wood, Westcombe Park, Grove Park, Honor Oak Park and Hither Green. Hither, I should point out is one word, not two.

Tributaries to the Thames, most long since piped underground, are remembered with names like Deptford, Deptford Bridge, Ladywell, Catford Bridge, Kidbrooke, Canada Water, Rotherhithe and Surrey Quays.

And, of course, no episcopal visitation of Wonderland would be complete without a trip to the home of Del Boy and Rodney – Peckham Rye.

Bishop Colin visited them all. Can you imagine him, resplendent in his episcopal garb, spending ten minutes on each station platform meeting anyone who happened to have chosen to spend their Saturday waiting hopefully for a Connex train, but finding a Bishop an acceptable substitute?

The Bridge said that the Bishop warmly invited anyone, free, to come on to a platform and meet him for a few minutes. Hopefully the Connex revenue enforcement teams weren’t following the Bishop around or his non-fare paying visitors would have found themselves contributing £10 each to the Railway.

The Episcopal presence was, of course, shaking a tin to collect small change for the Lent Call, even though the Bishop said he was happy for people to say hello without bringing gifts. I wonder if he was able to meet some of the people he has confirmed, as he hoped. Sadly though, weekend engineering work meant he was unable to visit Crofton Park, Bellingham or Beckenham Hill.

Wonderland really is a special place. There is nowhere else like it in the Church of England as far as I know, but I daresay that even now, the new Honorary Episcopal Chaplain to Connex South Eastern is dreaming up new Diocesan Synod Motions about goodness knows what to fill General Synod Agendas for years to come. But then Wonderland is part of a diocese that has three Area Bishops and no fewer than six Archdeacons.

In the real world, what else was going on in Lent? In the Diocese of Chichester, for example, a five week course called Getting to the heart of Christianity attracted hundreds of people to four different venues across East Sussex. Led by Wallace Benn, the Bishop of Lewes, the course drew people of all ages from students to pensioners. It attracted fringers with only a tenuous link with the Church and regular churchgoers alike.

The course looked at John’s Gospel and its account of Jesus’ death and resurrection and participants were given a special edition of the Gospel. They were encouraged not only to read it cover to cover themselves, but also to read it with their family and to hand it on to others.

The sessions certainly had their effect. The Bishop said that after the meetings some of the students who came were keen to hit the local pubs to discuss how one can live a ‘cross like life.’ Perhaps the pews in Sussex will be getting fuller in the weeks to come.

If the Church of England is to be a missionary church, not just in far flung places but in our backyard as well, there are many issues to address, not least the calibre of clergy we recruit, how we train them and how we deploy them. I know that is managementspeak – we know that ministry is a vocation not a job – but all the candidates at selection conferences, even those who are turned down, believed that they were called.

The live issue at the moment is how we train our clergy and Bishop John Hind’s working party has just launched a radical report which proposes rolling up the theological colleges and courses into regional training partnerships.

The basic proposal is a bit like taking all the institutions we have at the moment and popping them in a blender to come up with some sort of bland soup whose flavour defies description. It challenges us to think seriously whether a new incumbent of distinctive churchmanship will achieve more for the gospel in our parish than someone with a more easy going approach to diversity. We need to read the report and ask that sort of question, because make no mistake, if the proposals are accepted in their present form the flavour, the ethos and the mission of the Church of England will be dramatically changed in years to come.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.