Robert Beaken reports on the Richborough Eucharistic Congress
Bishop Norman mused as he welcomed everyone that the conference really ought to be called the Richborough International Eucharistic Conference because, amongst others, it was attended by a Lutheran bishop from Latvia, four Church of Sweden priests (one of whom works in Austria) and the Anglican chaplain from Antwerp. Almost sixty bishops, priests and deacons gathered for three days of prayer, teaching, reflection and fellowship at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in early November.
The opening address was delivered by Bishop Roger Jupp, Superior-General of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament (CBS). Bishop Roger gave an update on the ever-changing work of the CBS, including a short and moving reflection on the importance of the Eucharist in the lives of priests experiencing isolation. He also spoke of the painstaking work which has gone into producing The Catholic Catechetical Course, which is soon to be published by SPCK in association with CBS and the Additional Curates Society. This is an exciting new teaching resource for use in Anglo-Catholic parishes. It has a certain amount in common with Alpha and Emmaus, but unlike them it has a distinct catholic and sacramental basis from the start.
Our keynote speaker was Father Damian Feeney, who gave two well-crafted addresses entitled ‘The Priest as Evangelist’ and ‘The Ring of Confidence’ in which he both challenged and encouraged us. Father Damian looked at some of the problems we frequently encounter in our evangelistic work in our parishes. He encouraged us to try approaching both our problems and opportunities imaginatively from different angles. He spoke passionately about the centrality of the Eucharist in the Christian life: it is not just a service for the super-devout who like that sort of thing, but it is the whole of Christianity, sacramentally-enacted. Father Damian led us in some very fruitful question-and-answer sessions, which evolved into group discussions of many issues close to our hearts.
Father Trevor Jones, formerly the vicar of St Peter’s, London Docks and now very busy in his retirement at Walsingham, gave a talk entitled ‘The Eucharist in the East End.’ Father Trevor had recently been incapacitated with a bout of ill health. This was his first public appearance since returning home, and he received a very warm welcome. He spoke both humorously and thoughtfully about the place of the Eucharist in his ministry in East London, and especially of the privilege of offering the Mass daily for his parishioners.
We were also richly nourished during the conference by the worship. We had a concelebrated Eucharist each morning, with very helpful intercessions. In the middle of each day we enjoyed a time of silent prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, accompanied by Bible readings and beautiful flute music, ending with Benediction. There were opportunities to go to confession. We joined the clergy and people of the Shrine for Evening Prayer. Our worship was very simple and unfussy—almost Benedictine in its simplicity—and we were provided with very well designed and printed service sheets. It was very pleasant to be led in worship for a change, rather than leading it.
On the Monday afternoon, Bishop Norman led us in a ‘Walk of Reparation’ in the grounds of the medieval priory. This devotion was originally begun by Father Alfred Hope-Patten, who restored the Shrine of Our Lady in the 1930s. We paused at various places to pray together, hear readings from the Bible and sing hymns. We sought to offer reparation to God for the disrespect and sometimes violence shown towards the Blessed Sacrament and also towards the Blessed Virgin Mary during the dissolution of the monasteries and Reformation in the sixteenth century and during the Civil War and Commonwealth in the seventeenth century. As Bishop Norman pointed out, we should not underestimate the importance of praying for the healing of the past, especially in holy places such as Walsingham.
There was much happy conversation and laughter amongst the participants at mealtimes and at many other moments throughout the conference, and this itself was fruitful and stimulating. It was remarked how good and natural it felt to be gathered around a bishop for teaching, reflection and prayer—almost like being in the early Church. Many people spoke of how refreshing it was to spend a few days with bishops, priests and deacons who all shared the same Christian vision and vocabulary, rather than constantly having to seek common ground at deanery and diocesan gatherings with people of often diametrically opposite theological views, who were not always very concerned with what others believed or cherished. Similarly, some people said how good it felt to hear spoken aloud important words and concepts which had once been common in the Church of England, but which seemed to have been put away for a generation or so.
The reaction to the conference of the Swedish clergy was interesting. One of them mentioned that clergy training days and courses are held in Sweden, but they tended mainly just to be lectures, with little worship or sharing. They were most appreciative of the rich mixture of the programme, which had a good balance between presentations, worship and fellowship, peppered with good humour.
‘Gosh, I’m whacked’ said Bishop Norman when it was all over. I think we all felt tired, but it was a happy tiredness. We had been fed a rich spiritual diet and given much to think about. It will all doubtless continue to nourish us in the months to come. By the end, and feeling reinvigorated, we were all rather excited about returning to our parishes and getting on with our work, mission and outreach.
The Revd Dr Robert Beaken is the vicar of St Mary’s, Great Bardfield.