Saturday, May 24, 2014

A Tale of Three Stoles

The most extraordinary month is about to end...A period between jobs, designed to enable me to get straight in the new house (pretty much achieved, in those spaces for which I'm responsible), have a bit of a rest after the long slog from Christmas through Lent, Holy Week & Easter to the emotional roller-coaster of my final week at St Matthew's, and generally put myself together in preparation for the challenges and joys ahead.
The 1st couple of weeks were wonderful, particularly as I spent one of them at the On Fire conference...The mix of charismatic catholic worship, friends to whom I can say pretty much anything and excellent speakers (highlight this year, Sr Helen Julian's Bible Study - which really ought to be published somewhere) in a context where God's presence is absolutely tangible at pretty much every second of every day was just what I most needed, and I came home with the added bonus of a huge influx of pure joy, - after one wise priest prayed for this blessing. It seems that somehow it's easier than ever before to notice and celebrate God's gifts - and, as an off-the-scale extrovert who is currently living a less populated life than usual, this has been a wonderful bonus.

So much for the "time off" aspect of the past month. I'm more than ready to start my new job now - not least as it is beginning to look increasingly terrifying as I teeter on the brink, and I know perfectly well that once I'm actually DOING it, things will begin to make sense.*

[*If you were considering praying for me, please don't read that last sentence as a suggestion that such prayers might not be necessary! I'll take every single one going, thank you very much indeed: in fact, I'm relying on them.]

But this month has not been an empty one in terms of the Church of England - since 20 years ago, the first women were ordained priest and, as we still wait for the final validation that a vote in favour of women bishops will bring, there have been many celebrations across the country. I was privileged to be part of the great service at St Paul's at the beginning of the month, on a day of brilliant sunshine when a walk along the Embankment was truly an affirmation of sisterhood, as we chatted with new friends, heard the inside story about ministering as women in other dioceses (surprisingly good news from at least some places that I'd worried were specially hard) and stopped the traffic (drivers were remarkably good humoured about this - no idea why!). It felt very special to have travelled there with new friends and colleagues from Coventry, while also managing to exchange hugs and waves with the Gloucester contingent and with representatives of that unofficial body, the Twurch, and I reflected on the journey of the past 20 years, since my own call to ordination came, loud and clear, as I attended the ordination of the first women priests in Gloucester Cathedral.

I was already on the road...a year before I had encountered my first ordained woman, Eleanor Powell, who was at that time diocesan Children's Officer. Ordained Deacon, she came to take a Family service in our small Cotswold village - and as she preached, I heard a voice "You could do that for me".
It was so very audible, I looked round to see if one of my neighbours had dropped something and wanted me to rescue it, but everyone seemed to be fine. I had no idea what "that" might be, so was sure, when Eleanor spoke to me afterwards about the new diocesan category of "Reader for Children's Ministry", that this must be my calling. So, with #3 child just a few months old I filled in the forms, jumped through the hoops and started training, confident that this combination of children's work and public ministry must be just exactly what God had in mind for me. True, assorted people did voice their surprise that I wasn't offering for ordination - but I sailed blithely onwards, lapping up the Reader training, passionate to ensure that everyone near and far understood that children were not the "church of tomorrow" but an inseparable part of the church today. 
And all was absolutely fine - til that evening in May when I joined the congregation in the Cathedral as our Rector, Sue, was ordained priest...I was excited, of course - history was being made; delighted for her and her colleagues, obviously...but I was totally unprepared for the moment when Viv Faull gave me Communion and it was suddenly, non-negotiably obvious that this call to priesthood was my calling too.

It took me another 10 years to work out the practicalities, to jump through the necessary hoops (twice - my 1st selection conference was undoubtedly helpful in the long run but a thoroughly miserable process at the time) by the time I made it back to Gloucester Cathedral for my own ordination, the door that others had battered at was well and truly open. Standing in the congregation at St Paul's, I was thrilled to glimpse Eleanor, part of the wonderful procession that was the "Class of 94". As they passed by, some now very old and frail, pushed in wheelchairs or supported by sticks, the standing ovation that we gave them was all we could do by way of gratitude for their courage and their ministry, or by way of apology for the wounds that the church had inflicted. Our corner of the Cathedral was packed with their husbands - and there were many tears shed as that procession went on its way.

The following week, I represented those priested in 2005 as Coventry Cathedral held its own celebration. It was strange, in some ways, to be there - where the stories of the past were not in any way "my" story, where the names of pioneers were unfamiliar, where my own new future loomed so large - but it was good, too, to find myself part of such a supportive group, and to receive an unexpected welcome to the Cathedral that will soon be home.

So - the stoles? Well, here they are for starters - each representing a different part of the story.
The white and gold on the left was part of my leaving present from St Matthew's...I love it for itself- the way it matches my chasuble, the life of the Spirit that those wave-like lines represent (moving over the face of the waters at Creation, making all things new)...but I love it even more for the people it represents for me, that wonderful congregation who allowed me to serve them as their priest for 6 years, in times of sadness and struggle as much as those festive golden joys. For me it speaks most clearly of presiding at the Eucharist, when our own often troubled waters are transformed and for a brief while the world seems full of light and hope.

In the middle, the green and growing season of Ordinary Time is represented by Messy Church...for the families that come are growing in faith, and beginning to blossom most beautifully. It reminds me that the roots of my own calling came through children's work, and that wherever I have ministered since, this work has been a huge and life-giving part of my calling.
Each and every member of Messy Church is a star, as I have taken care to remind them often...And each of them is brim full of God's love...
I love that this stole was made in the course of Messy Church on the afternoon of my departure, when so many of "my" families filled the church...
I love that they made not just my stole, but individual bookmarks for themselves AND a new lectern marker for St Matthew's too - a reminder that we remain connected wherever we are. 

And I love, too, that the stars of the stole remind me of the Godly Play story of the Great Family that I shared that afternoon, in which Abram and Sarai learn that "all of God is in every place", change their names and become the parents of a great family, "as numerous as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the shore"

Last but not least comes the stole I was privileged to wear as Coventry diocese celebrated 20 years of women priests. It was made, along with more than 20 others, by a new friend and colleague, Naomi - and it was quite wonderful to be invited to represent "my" year of priesting that day - and for me, the stole is also a promise of things to come, a reminder of God's faithfulness in all that has been, and a connection with those wonderful women whose determination in the face of a hostile church transformed that church so that others, like me, can flourish in ministry today. To be very nearly a Cathedral Canon, with just one incumbency behind me, feels both daunting and amazing - and I know that if that first generation of women had not shone so very brightly in their calling, the way would have been so very much harder for all of us who have come after. 

So, for me, those 3 stoles sum up the past month most beautifully. I suspect that opportunities to wear my own vestments may be distinctly limited in the foreseeable future, but I know that whenever I do take my stoles out of the cupboard, their stories will remind me of where I have been and those who've travelled beside me - for whom I am so very very thankful. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Ending well

It's noticeable that, though a new ministry is welcomed with all sorts of excitements, and a service that demands the presence of both bishop & archdeacon as the priest takes on a shared responsibility for the cure of souls in that place, departures are a rather different matter.
Though if all has gone well, there's every chance that the parish will give you a splendid send-off, there is no formal liturgy to enable the departing minister to lay down the responsibilities they have carried...and this can make life very hard. 
So I was interested when a good friend, moving on from parish ministry last autumn, devised her own farewell service - a kind of "decommissioning" which sought to undo the processes that had launched her ministry in that place...and when I found that I too would be leaving a much-loved place and people I set out to follow her example - and I am so very glad that I did. Liturgical Commission please note - we need a rite of letting go - though this might not be to everyone's tastes!

My last Sunday at St Matthew's was extraordinary...Deeply emotional, but not in a heart-rending, how-can-I-bear-to-leave-here, sort of way. I know that alot of that is due to the huge volumes of love that seemed to be sloshing about the place, and the many prayers that kind friends were offering in all directions.
I was, and am, amazingly blessed that so many people chose to come to share my farewells. The Eucharist was glorious...though I would recommend to anyone attempting farewells that they don't think too hard about the words of "Brother, sister, let me serve you..." if they are keen to avoid tears.
"I will weep when you are weeping, when you laugh I'll laugh with you" seemed such a perfect summary of the way our lives had been intertwined as I ministered there, that it was hard to sing about it without weeping myself...But to feed everyone at the be able to name every one of the 100 or so there and to pray for them knowing something of their stories...that was quite wonderful!
And we sang some of my non-negotiable, desert-island hymns. "God is here as we his people", "And Can it Be?", "Lord for the years" and beloved Daphne played the Lefebre Wely Sortie, which defies anyone to be sad for long...and then there were presents (including a most wonderful festal stole that matches my chasuble as if they were made together) and lunch and time to hug and cry and hug some more....

And later came Messy Church, and more loveliness. All sorts of wonderful people came, quite beyond my wildest hopes and expectations, so that the church was filled twice in one day by people I love.
I told the story of the 18th camel, (with grateful thanks to Pam) which reminded us all that the role of the parish priest is not to make themselves indispensable but to enable the ministry of others...And the Godly Play story of the Great Family, that reminded us that "All of God is in every place" and yes, I cried a bit but truly, the love was so overwhelming it was impossible not be bouyed up by it. 
It did take me some time to articulate this prayer - but it did say exactly what I needed it to, so I'm thankful that I managed to get the words out.

God of our pilgrimage
You are always calling us
To follow you into the future
Inviting us to new challenges
New adventures
New ways to care
New ways to touch the hearts of all.
When we are fearful of the unknown, give us courage.
When we worry that we are not up to the task
Remind us that you would not have called us
If you did not believe in us.
When we get tired
Or feel disappointed with the way things are going
Remind us that you can bring change and hope
From every situation.
We pray for the future life and ministry of this church building,
For the communities it stands to serve
And for all who will come through its doors.
May this place and its people be always a sign of your Kingdom on earth

For Jesus' sake.

And I followed my friend's example and asked the congregation to help me give back what had been entrusted to me, and handed my keys to some very special church children, who placed them on the altar and then, in a wonderful subversion of the service as I'd planned it, all "my" children laid hands on me while my lovely colleagues prayed a blessing. I couldn't fathom why some of the photos on my daughter's phone just seemed to be the back views of an awful lot of people, til I realised what had been happening in the service - and I can truly say that the weight of loving hands has been a continued strength from that moment onwards.

Then there was cake, and tears, and hugs and presents - including another stole, made by the children that afternoon - to match a marker for the lectern Bible and individual bookmarks that they took home - another reminder that loving connections are not broken by geography. 

And, somehow amid all that the business of leaving, of handing back that most precious cure of souls was achieved in a way that was not just bearable but incredibly affirming both of all that has been and of all that is to come. 

Thanks be to God! - and to my beloved colleagues in ministry, ordained and lay, who steered me through this stage of the journey with so much love, care and kindness.