The time since I retired in 2019 has been in stark contrast to my life and ministry pre-retirement. I have swapped the dry and dusty landscape and high temperatures of South Australia for the verdant green pastures and unpredictable weather in Sussex. It is refreshing to open the curtains each morning in a spirit of discovery as to whether it is raining, windy, dull and wintery or, in summer, sunny or cloud covered. In The Murray almost every day it was predictably bright; hot in the summer and pleasantly warm by UK standards in the winter.
The diary has changed. I made a conscious decision to take a break for at least six months. It has been a struggle to sit and watch and pray in congregations and leave the politics to others. I have busied myself in parts of my life that had been neglected. I have been active in discipleship. I made space to visit friends, I spend quality time with the family, we are able to visit children and grandchildren at weekends, and there is time for prolonged silence, prayer and contemplation. All of this had been marginalized to varying degrees in my daily round in ordained ministry. I am not proud of this admission but quality time in which to love and be loved, to pray and be fed was regularly squeezed out of a busy diary. I expect that this is the case for many.
In my wandering from the southern hemisphere to home in Sussex via Australia and New Zealand, and various chaplaincies in Europe, I have found some common threads in the tapestry of the Anglican Communion. I have gathered with congregations for beautiful liturgical celebrations with sublime music and fine preaching. Most worship has been on a much smaller scale, often filled with hope and expectation, a celebration of the presence of Christ in Word and Sacrament.
Something about our worship at its best has defined us as Anglicans; we no longer have a common Rite but there is something about the ‘style’, the music, the setting and the participation of the whole assembly. I am very conscious that this isn’t common in all of the Anglican places of worship spread across the globe. Therefore, I rejoice that I now have free choice. But worship shouldn’t be a matter of personal preferences. We are formed and shaped by our worship. The hymns we sing, both words and music, take root deep within and form a reservoir of resources for prayer and action. Our buildings and their iconography direct and draw us into the mystery we celebrate.
I have always felt it important to worship at the local church but sadly this isn’t always possible nowadays. The local gathering of people from within an identifiable community permits the offering of the wider neighbourhood on the heart and mind. Prayers bring the cares and concerns of others to the table of the Lord’s mercy and the dismissal is into that wider community we seek to serve and before whom we are called to bear witness.
The gathered congregation seems to be unselfconsciously inclusive. Everyone in the locality feels welcome and on Sunday mornings the assembly is diverse in all kinds of ways, often from a variety of Christian traditions – all together because it is local. In my experience, the ‘style’ is, by nature of its common life, inclusive and diverse. Anyone is welcomed without distinction or differentiation as they were by Jesus in the towns and villages of the Galilee. It is an integral part of the witness of these ‘congregations’, lived out in catechesis, costly service and by numerous examples of holy living, that draws others to the life of Christ into which they are unconditionally welcomed. But it is essential that such catechesis, service and lived examples don’t ignore the demand to transform one’s life that is part of the call when Christ invites us to follow him. Inclusivity is part of our DNA as Bishop Robert Barren has recently noted, succinctly quoting his mentor, Francis Cardinal George: ‘All are welcome in the Church, but on Christ’s terms, not their own’.
Being able to worship in the local church is disappointingly no longer due to simple preferences over music, style, language or Rite. I have become more keenly aware that there are matters concerning the life and witness of many of our churches which have pulled at the threads (broken them?) of the tapestry of Anglicanism to which I referred at the beginning.
The recent letter from several Primates in the Anglican Communion is a very public example of this. Any perceived break in communion is seriously compounded by the fact that, as the failure of the ‘Anglican Covenant’ process reveals, there is no agreed procedure to address the presenting issue, let alone to judge the depth or effects of the schism. I have a hunch that most questions about the use of the language of communion and identity have their root in our inability to agree what Christ’s terms are. Not only whether they should be held in common, but also who decides their extent and application in such a way as to serve our complex and challenging world.
What are Christ’s terms? I persist in trying to discover the answers. Or rather, I will be still and ask the Father to reveal them to me.