Well – never let it be said that ordained ministry doesn’t have its interesting moments.
It’s been the usual sort of weekend – the kind of things one does while other people are doing whatever they do with their weekends. Our Diocesan Synod demonstrated that we have some truly remarkable people on board and that I am gradually being relegated to a ‘smiling and waving’ posture. It was, I thought, a bit ‘on message’ so we’ll need to arrange to make it a bit more unruly and spontaneous next year.
And this morning, I found myself on BBC ‘The Big Questions’ – discussing earthquakes, pornography and the [suggested] link between faith schools and sectarianism in Scotland. In my world, discussion of pornography would normally involve something rather – forgive me – pedestrian with a group like the Mothers Union. But this was good telly so they had two real live porn stars. Fortunately it was not a very revealing discussion – as we struggled to talk about whether making pornographic films is degrading or just another way of making a living – but it was a presenter’s dream – ‘And now bishop …. ‘ I’d love to have had a cup of coffee with them afterwards to find out … well maybe not. If you want to have a look, you’ll find it here.
Well I did manage the somewhat-delayed retreat this week – and have been paying for it in the unequal struggle with the Inbox ever since. It was great to be with the Benedictines in Rostrevor again. So much to learn.
Some ‘on the surface’ things. Those who go into church with me will know that I come back wanting to incline before the altar – 45 degrees from the waist and no nodding. I think it’s the French thing. On the ‘nice bit of chalice work there, Ted’ front, they do wonderful things with a thurible. It’s all very spare …
But here’s a thing. My life is to some extent driven by my chosen priorities. But often it’s driven by a mixture of urgent/must do and things which other people want me to do. And no harm in that. But in the monastery, a bell rings. You stop what you are doing and move to something else. No ‘I’ll be there in a minute’ or ‘maybe I’ll give it a miss today.’ All things may not be equally important. But they all need their time in a balanced life.
We’re back in what the locals call Norn Irn for a suprise party – tho’ if I told you about it it wouldn’t be a surprise.
Anyway it gave us the opportunity for a few visits just to check things out. A visit to McMahons in Portadown for the suit is always high on the agenda. I know that it is possible to buy clothes in other places but …. the object of the exercise is to buy the first suit which John offers me because he knows better than I do what is required. We did manage that this time – although the need to try on a second one did represent a slight failure of nerve, although it was of course rejected.
We did some visiting of old friends and tuned in to the debate in the special Church of Ireland General Synod today about whether there should be an Episcopal Election in the Diocese of Tuam. It’s a question not unlike questions which we also face – and which we answer by stretching ourselves across the space between the prudent measurement of viability and the faith-full assessment of mission potential.
The north coast of Northern Ireland – particularly around Portstewart and Portrush – is simply horrendous. One looks at the building development and tries in vain to deduce what the planning policy might be. As we’ve headed east towards Ballycastle, things have improved and we’re now looking across the sea to Rathlin Island – the space across which Marconi first experimented with radio signals. We also took a brief look at the Corrymeela Community of Reconciliation which is located on a cliff top just outside the town. Like the Iona Community with which it is closely linked, it is a dispersed religious community. There were periods when I was closely involved there and it was one of the things which kept me going.
It started during the great snow of December. Suddenly Skype in the Snow became a welcome alternative to setting out never knowing when you might return. It was surprising how much could be done from the comfort of the office in Perth .. including a full meeting of the College of Bishops.
So I’ve gradually been extending the range – I have a monthly meeting on Skype with my ‘coaching bishop’ in the US as part of my involvement in the College for Bishops Training Programme. And today I spent an hour – and we mutually agreed to mention it – discussing with Kelvin issues like the IT implications of the new Mission and Ministry Policy and diocesan websites and various other things. A meeting which we might not otherwise have had – no time required other than the meeting time – no cost whatsoever. Sharing the cup of tea is a bit more difficult.
Part of our diversity as a church is that we welcome significant numbers of clergy from outwith Scotland. Indeed, if we didn’t have them, we would be in difficulty sustaining our ministry. So now and again we have a ‘New Clergy Day’ in Edinburgh which is a sort of induction and welcome to the SEC.
I may have been deluding myself – but I did not find the move from the Church of Ireland particularly difficult. As a ‘formerly-established’ [until 1869] church, the Church of Ireland has a sort of residual solidity which the ‘definitely not established’ SEC doesn’t have and wouldn’t want. As a small church, the SEC has a disarming ability to be whatever the last person you spoke to thought it was. And there is no doubt that some clergy coming from the C of E find our combination of light government, open internal dialogue and apparent minority status quite a culture shock.
In my now six years here, I’ve gone throught a continous process of exploring, testing, defining, rejecting … And I invited – through my croaking larynx – people to join that with me. I see it as a series of doors which have inviting labels – but you need to open each door in turn and learn that, behind it, things are not all that they seem and certainly not as simple and clear-cut as others would want you to believe.
Some of my ‘doors of the moment’ are catholic, small, liberal, identity,secular, Scottish, anglican, edgy …
Mute I have been since I got back. Maybe a plane-borne bug or just tired. I think voice is maybe starting to return now. Body telling me something, no doubt.
Anyway .. all sorts of new things to think about. Particularly the contrast between the absolute chaos of the average Calcutta street with bicycles, random cows, cars, honking horns … and the grace, order and fundamental decency of the people we met. I’ve come back content that we have in our hands a relationship which can challenge and enrich us .. and hope that we can offer something similar. There’s much more to explore. We hardly got to the edges of how a church like the Church of North India, ecumenical in its foundation, actually works. The interfaith dimensions are fascinating. The Christian schools are highly sought-after by all religious, cultural and ethnic groups. They are overtly Christian – in one, the school song was ‘Make me a Channel of your Peace’ – and that doesn’t seem to be a problem. Yet there is huge sensitivity about any suggestion that the Christian community might proselytize.
So I had a bit of enforced ‘time out’ – missed the meeting of Church Leaders with the First Minister … and a meeting about the Anglican Covenant with one of our Area Councils.
We ended our visit with Sunday worship – I was in St Paul’s Cathedral while Bob and Andrew went to St Andrew’s Church. Within the CNI, St Andrews is a little piece of Scotland [some corner of a foreign field that is for ever, etc., etc] with a strong Presbyterian tradition and a tendency to hoist the Saltire on special occasions.
I thought the Cathedral was splendid – all the fans over our heads were so evocative of the Raj. So I allowed myself to think about that for a bit
We began today at Serampore College, which is for us the equivalent of our relationship with York St John University. Serampore It awards degrees and accredits the courses of many theological colleges and seminaries all over India – including Bishop’s College in Calcutta which we visited this evening. We had a fascinating meeting with members of the theological faculty – I was delighted to find that one of them had been involved in writing material for the Continuing Indaba Project in the Anglican Communion. We discussed the issues involved in providing theological education in a situation of such cultural diversity – and learned about how they manage their own diversity, given the range of denominational background from which they come. We shared a meal with them – people have been incredibly generous with their time and their hospitality.
The founder was William Carey – another of the heroic missionary figures of the past. He built the College. The cross by the bank of Ganges marks the place of the baptism of his first convert – seven years after he arrived. The painters who are defying both gravity and all Health and Safety rules were on bamboo scaffolding in the village church. William Carey’s grave carries the words, ‘A wretched poor and helpless worm – On thy kind arms I fall’
Then we returned to Calcutta for a meeting with Bishop Askoke and the clergy and we explored a little about how we might develop our link.
And finally to Bishop’s College – the Theological College for many churches of the CSI and beyond. We met some students and shared a meal with the staff. Students mostly do a four year residential course. We learned about how challenging it is for many of them to study theology in English when it is not their first language. The beautiful chapel was hosting an exhibition by the Indian artist, Madhvi Parekh. The painting is of the Last Supper. In India people seem just to wander up and talk to you – questions included, ‘Is this a Catholic Church?’ and ‘Why are the Zoroastrians dying out?’ The former took me straight back to Portadown. The latter – to be cricketing again – stumped me.
Of course it wasn’t over yet. Because we moved on to the Annual Prize Day of St John’s Diocesan School – over 3500 children and the school motto: ‘The good retain The better follow’ Yes it took me a little while to work out too – The good – retain.
The better – follow’
We were greeted as honoured guests. We listened to the school choir, heard the MInister for Minorities speaking and we all had a turn at distributing the prizes. The picture is of Andrew doing his bit.
These schools are very impressive – ordered, disciplined and with a single-minded reverence for the idea that education is the way to advancement and, as the Headmistress told us, to a healthy democracy.
And then there was more food. Bengali’s, they say, like to eat. They offer you food. They offer you more food. They stand over you to make sure that you eat it. Truly Mrs Doyle must have passed through here.
One of the things about life in the Scottish Episcopal Church is that we learn to do a lot with a little – I sometimes refer to it as a ‘loaves and fishes’ operation. But that is nothing to what we saw today. India – in one of its modes – is a bit like Ireland fifty years ago. It seems to be possible for one passionately-committed individual to do anything to which they put their mind – as in ‘I think I’ll start a hospital’. That kind of determined and creative individualism has simply been squeezed out of western society. So it was very refreshing to meet it today – and, as we did so, to find ourselves following in the footsteps of the Archbishop of Canterbury last August.
First stop was the Arunima Hospice – a children’s HIV/Aids Hospice founded and run by Suborata Das. The children sang and danced – more Banks and Braes – and then we met the children and the staff. What is so impressive about people like Suborata is that they are always building towards a vision – always pointing to a scrubby piece of land and telling you what they are going to build there. Not my first visit to a place like this – but I found this one incredibly moving. It’s partly the people – partly the utter simplicity of the surroundings – partly the sophistication of what they are actually doing.
Next door was the Sister Florence College of Nursing. Sister Florence herself was obviously a formidable person as the Times Obituary suggests. Her equally formidable successor was building up a fully-accredited School of Nursing in the most astonishingly limited surroundings.
Then across the road to the Oxford Mission – the Chapel is in the picture – which was set up as a mission of the University of Oxford by ten men who formed a Brotherhood of the Epiphany and sailed to Calcutta in response to a call from the Bishop of Calcutta. Today, the Brothers have gone to their reward – but the work continues in the care of over 100 children, many of them orphans.
And on through the chaos of Kolkata traffic to Mother Theresa’s House. I met her once when she sat down beside me on a flight from Belfast to London – the Sisters of Charity for a short time had a house in Belfast during the early years of the Troubles. It was a fascinating encounter which I shall always remember – particularly seeing her padding off at the end with her simple cloth bag. I’m not sure that she would be very keen on the big, shiny marble tomb where she is remembered. And then we visited the orphanage. I’ve seen other orphanages in other places – the children here were bright, active, noisy and engaged. Some things are simply remarkable.
It’s back to these extraordinary, passionate, faith-ful individuals who simply acknowledge no boundary or limitation on what they can do.