was the theme of a remarkable diocesan day on Saturday. I went along with rather limited expectations. For reasons that I shan't go into I'm currently a member of the small "Diocesan Healing Group" but have found the few meetings I've been able to attend less than hugely engaging. Saturday was the swan song of the current leader of the group and just two weeks ago we had seriously considered cancelling it altogether, as somehow publicity did not seem to be working and bookings were distinctly slack. However, we'd had to cancel the day when it was planned a year ago, and it seemed just plain wrong to disappoint those who were hoping for another chance to hear the main speaker so we took a collective deep breath and decided to go ahead.
That was so obviously the right decision!
Saturday was warm and sunny, the best kind of spring morning - which was just as well, as the registration queue stretched from the church porch into the churchyard but people were in very good heart as I made my way along the line, sorting out name labels to speed up the process inside. From nowhere well over 100 people had appeared (our target to break even financially was, iirc, 75) and all were in good heart.
When the first session started I discovered why. Russ Parker is simply terrific.
His theme, healing communities by hearing their stories, was completely and utterly perfect for my current situation, as I try to learn the reality of my new parishes. Its message was a glorious escape route from the pessimism that insists "History repeats itself. Has to. Nobody listens." His suggestion that the churches should become the "new acoustic communities", where stories are heard, valued and offered for redemption, chimed with Isaiah 50
"He teaches me to listen, so that I might have the word that refreshes the weary."
It seems to me that there are so many weary people around these parts, each carrying a live legacy that confirms that "all history is a current event".
Of course, we were reminded, we cannot change the past - but if we hear well, we can ensure that our response (as individuals and as a church) is appropriate.
We were reminded, too, that in serving our communities we cannot stand outside their story...The past is part of the present reality, and these people, their story, their wounds and their joys are now mine, part of what I can bring to God. The joys are important too, because what is not celebrated shrinks and dies...
I attended his first workshop session too, and felt a wave of recognition when he described the experience of the priest in the parish as often that of an actor in a play someone else has written, a play whose lines and moves we can't quite grasp. Expectations are shaped by the past experience of the community, so we need to read its history in order to help to reclaim it and to seek its redemption.
Even those mostly closely bound by it may not be aware of the story they carry, but healing can come when the story is recognised and owned.
To illustrate, Russ told us the story of a mining town, founded by the forcible transplantation of the workforce from their home county, hundreds of miles away, by a Victorian industrialist who put people second to progress. His workers were offered a stark choice...move or be unemployed. No third way was presented.
In common with most of the captains of the industrial revolution, having established his pit and built housing for his workers, the owner of the mine then built a church - and brought in a priest to serve it...not a local man...not in any sense "one of their own."
The relationship between congregation and clergy continued to be distant and strained through the decades that followed, no matter who was called to serve in that place (barring one "home grown" priest, who was remembered with respect and affection for long after his death) until, while Russ was serving there, he heard and grasped the history of the place. Then, one Sunday morning he was inspired to apologise from the pulpit for the church's collusion in the founding of a community based on exploitation and greed. As the congregation realised that their past was being honoured, they experienced the sort of healing that can change everything - and indeed everything changed.
We were invited to re-read the greetings to the churches in the opening chapters of Revelation, to see there the recognition of the story of each community and to consider what the Spirit might say to the angels of our churches. My two parishes both date from the nineteenth century, but were founded in such different circumstances that it is no surprise that difference seems built into their DNA.
To consider the story of their beginnings has certainly helped me to make sense of what I am learning about their current realities as I begin to look for God's way forward.