Christmas has a very specific flavour and texture for me, it is that which comes from a Raspberry and Almond Pavlova (the fruit mixed into whipped cream on top of a soft and chewy meringue flavoured by an essence of the nut).
I don’t know who made it first in my family but it came into my life through my Granny. When she was unable to make them for Christmas anymore the mantle was passed onto my Mother. When she could no longer make them I took up the honour.
Today I took one to my mother and brother, then stood outside and wished them a happy Christmas through an open window. She might be imprisoned by an illness but her true self and beauty still called out, as did the love of my brother’s care for her.
The Light of the World didn’t come from the sun in the skies above my head but from the room beyond the window I spoke through. Amidst the darkness of this year, I was glad of that.
Midnight Communion, bridging the gap between Eve & Day, amplified the darkness through the absence of those unable to be present to hear the choir sing of the Light born into it. This morning the choir amplified the light brought by the new day, by this new day, by the birthday of Emmanuel. God was, God is, God will be with us in both the dark & the light. Our darkness might continue but we are not alone within it, we are with a Light it can’t overcome.
There is much wrong with the world right now but I am grateful for the Light illuminating the blessings that would otherwise be missed. Today it helped me notice the blessing of a flavour, of a memory, of people & of finally finding my place & purpose in life.
Amidst the many things to grieve and lament during the pandemic there have been some blessings to celebrate. One of these blessings has been seeing many churches embracing technology to broadcast services. These have enabled those who could not be in a church to be there. Some have been interactive and allowed people to participate fully within the service, some have enabled people to add comments to the service as it happens and afterwards, and some have been presented to be watched and used for worship at a time that suits the watcher. I reflect on this often on my Twitter account, and intend to write a blog post on it in the future.
The pandemic caused the ordinations of Priests and Deacons at Petertide (June/July) to be cancelled. There were rescheduled for Michaelmas (September/October) once ways of conducting them safely had been found. In the meantime those who had been due to start their curacies as Deacons were licensed to start them as Lay Workers until the ordinations could take place.
Both the licensing and ordination services were broadcasted online. It is fitting that they be included on this blog, a blog that has shared the journey from initial wonderings about a calling to ordination to being ordained with the online community.
The Licensing Service for Lay Workers in the Diocese of Bath and Wells
This service took place at 10:00 on Sunday, 28th June 2020, the date on which the ordinations had been planned to take place. The service took the form of a video-conference using the Zoom platform and was broadcasted live to Facebook and the Diocesan website, before being added to YouTube later. My thoughts leading into this service can be read in the blog post Would Have, Will Have.
The Ordination of Deacons in the Diocese of Bath and Wells
Originally 1 service had been planned for the 19 Ordinands due to be ordained. The measures to keep everyone safe from catching the Coronavirus meant that 4 services were needed to ordain each person. My service took place at 2pm on Sunday 28th September 2020 and included my friend Steve Rogers who I wrote about in Would Have, Will Have.
Standing on the wide open playing fields, amidst the markings of a football pitch, I realise something is amiss. For many such places are a source of joy: the source of cheers and whoops as the ball gets kicked from one goal to another. Yet as I stood there I felt the desolation beyond that which was brought on by the looming thick grey clouds above me. For me the football field is a place of sorrow, a place of hurt, a place of loneliness.
Football was one of the main sports at school. It was also a sport I sort to find my way into a community as I moved from place to place. There were moments of joy: finding myself playing in my favourite position at right midfield, just like my football hero Kenny Daglish, collecting the ball from the defence and then delivering it to the striker near the goalmouth. But overwhelming the joy of football is the sadness associated with it: the memory of being left out in the cold of the sidelines.
Being picked last for sports at school isn’t great at the best of times, but as the new kid on the block it emphasised that I had not yet been accepted. No one quite knew how good the new boy was so didn’t want him in their team, and the team that ended up with him rarely passed it to him for similar reasons and worries that he would cause them to loose. So he was, I was, the last to be chosen and the last to be involved. My place on the football pitch was one of hopes of friendship and inclusion being repeatedly rejected. I was left on the outside, hoping to be let in to the game, to the team, to the friendships.
Perhaps that’s why I’m not a football fanatic
Although I grew to like the anonymity and solitude, and still do, I’m experiencing the same sense of awkward loneliness at the school gate, and the reasons are as simple and complex as the football pitch. At the school gate I am once again the ‘new kid in town’, and my long-lived out introversion and anonymity is right at the surface of who I am as I wait for my daughter to come out of school.
There are well established friendships between both parents and children, but unlike the children who mix within defined class-bubbles the parents are urged to practice social distancing as a preventative measure against catching the Coronavirus. The combination of introversion, anonymity and social distancing mean that forming new relationships with other parents can feel like an impossibility. It requires tremendous emotional and mental energy to cope with the worry about the words to say and the fear of rejection that might follow. But it also requires a bit of good fortune. Whilst some parents are less cautious about social distancing, I am very cautious – a spell in isolation at my local hospital earlier in the year reminded me of the fragility of life. This means that conversations with unknown people requires the good fortune of being safely positioned and making eye contact, which is remarkably difficult when all eyes are focused on seeing their particular child emerge out of school.
I had not walked onto the football pitch earlier with a mind to reflect on the loneliness of being the new kid in town. I had gone for a walk to marvel at the immense beauty of the hills around where I live. From the edge of the plateau on which the football pitches lie, one can see from Salisbury Plain in the east, to the Mendips and beyond in the south, and to the Brecon Beacons in Wales to the West. One can also see across the City of Bath and look down on where the steep topography has halted its spread. I asked God what all this meant as I continued my walk past the Racecourse and came across new vistas.
I let my thoughts wonder as my feet did. My feet took me to the summit of another local landmark, my thoughts took me back to last Sunday.
After the second church service last Sunday I had felt like a failure. My struggle to engage in conversations with people I don’t know meant that I lost a golden opportunity to speak with someone I had not seen at church before – I don’t know if they were visiting or new as most are still new to me. Even those I have spoken with can be hard to identify, with much of their face hidden by a facemask.
Last Sunday all barriers to beginning a new relationship, however briefly it might be, had been removed; all barriers except one —myself. God had presented me with the opportunity to invite a person from the edge of the pitch and into the team that is the Body of Christ, the Church. Instead I had said a banal “nice to see you” and they walked on. They had been left on the pitch-side and the ball passed onto someone else.
The instance after church, and my sense of failure, fuelled my determination to do better. So I looked for opportunities to speak with a parent at the school gate. It took a few days but one did present itself, and I pushed past the nerves screaming at me not to speak and found a way to start a conversation. The conversation was little more than small talk, but it established a sense of who each other was to the school and therefore to each other. It might be a relationship that doesn’t go beyond pleasantries, and that’s fine, but as more such presented opportunities are seized the more I will be known and the easier conversations will occur. As they do the ability to serve and pray with the community will emerge.
But that wasn’t why the football pitch revelation had arisen. Finding the energy to get off the sidelines was looking at the situation through my eyes. The memory of the loneliness of the football pitch had surfaced to remind myself of the loneliness of those who are distanced from the activity going on without them. Just as I looked on as the other children chased the ball up and down the pitch, so others are watching on from the sidelines as church, school and life in general goes on. Just as I hoped someone would notice me and invite me into the game by passing me the ball, so are others hoping to be noticed and invited in. Those people might be seen at the edge of the pitch, standing or sitting silently alone by the edge of a school, church or other such gathering. But they might not be there to be seen at all. In times such as this present pandemic, many are not even able to get onto the sidelines — instead their protective isolation keeps them out of sight. These remain in need of being brought into the team, they remain with the desire to be involved in the game, but most of all they remain wanting to be seen.
Starting a curacy in a pandemic is challenging, whether any more so than starting one not in a pandemic is impossible for me to know. But I know that the pandemic has exacerbated one problem I, and others, have: seeing and knowing those we don’t know and can’t see. God knows and sees them. My prayer is not just that He helps me to see them too, but that he helps me to know them as well. If that happens I can invite them to the game, and if they want to come off the sidelines and join in, then I will be there to invite them to join in and receive the love that God channels through His Church.
Today was supposed to be when a time away from my family came to an end; a time when I would have finished a Retreat (a focused quiet time contemplating, praying and listening to God) and I would be walking from the Bishops’ Palace in Wells towards Wells Cathedral. I would have been wearing a cassock and a surplice, and carrying a stole in my hands as I walked through the doors of the cathedral to see my family sitting there, along with hundreds of other people. I would have taken a seat in view of the altar, and the service that would have see me ordained would have begun.
The ordinations cannot happen today.
Today, the cathedral lies empty.
The coronavirus pandemic that has claimed and devastated so many lives means that it is not yet safe to gather in the cathedral. With no ability to gather, Bishops cannot lay their hands on the ordination candidates, and without that the line of apostolic succession that links each deacon and priest to the first priests of the Church will be broken. That is a tradition worthy of keeping, worthy of waiting to keep. Knowing this, knowing that the cathedral would be empty today, I sat alone within it on Monday. I went there to trace the steps from the Bishops’ Palace I would have taken had the pandemic not arisen. I went there to remember that we have lost, and that we still have: people and possibilities. I went there to remember Steve and light a candle where he would have sat.
Steve Rogers was a former Church Army Captain, a friend, a Father, a Husband but above all, Steve was a Man-of-God. Steve had led St Andrew’s Church in Foxhill, Bath for many years. It was the sister church to Holy Trinity, Combe Down in Bath and the congregations of both had sent us both. We had worshipped together, prayed together, laughed together. Together we had trained at Sarum College, and together we were going to be ordained on this day.
I last saw Steve outside my house. We had just returned in his car from a weekend at college. We were due to return to college but neither of us would. For me it was the coronavirus pandemic that prevented my return, for Steve it was cancer. Steve passed by my house one last time at the moment, in ‘normal’ circumstances, we would have begun our final journey to college. He was on route to his final act of worship, his final resting place, his funeral: Steve had died weeks before he would have been ordained.
Steve’s time with us on Earth may have ended, but the fruits of his ministry have not. He served both God and community with such intoxicating fervour that the impact of his presence would be seen and rejoiced for years and years to come.
I sat alone at my desk after Steve had passed by, and I am sitting there once again today. Then it was to begin my final college weekend, today it is to begin my curacy — not ordained as a Deacon but licensed as a Lay Worker. My curacy is not going to begin with the laying on of hands, but with a digital proclamation. When the clock hits 10:00 the Bishop of Bath and Wells, the Bishop of Taunton, the Diocesan Director of Ordinands, myself and 17 other Ordinands, and several others will appear on my screen. And we will appear on the screens of our family and friends’ computers and TVs when, together over the internet, we walk not physically but digitally together into curacy.
Starting my curacy sitting alone at my desk will certainly be a strange experience. But I have been sitting alone at my desk for much of the past 3 years. The experience has taught me much, including how easy it is to be detached from the world around us when viewing life through a screen. And Steve’s death has reminded me how easy it is to take life for granted. I knew that Steve and my other friends and family were around and ‘with me’ because we met often enough, both physically and digitally, to be reminded of and continue the relationship. Gaps in our meeting were usual. We would have met more often if we could, but life was busy.
So whilst Steve is no longer with us, it is still difficult to accept he isn’t here because I’m used to not seeing him for chunks of time. It will, perhaps, only be when his face fails to appear on screen for the Licensing today that I will truly feel his absence. Or maybe it will be when I gather with others for a pre-ordination retreat in September. Or maybe it will be when we finally walk into Wells Cathedral to be ordained. Or maybe, and most likely, it will be at each of those pivotal liminal moments. Either way, the licensing today will, I anticipate, be as much a painfully raw experience as it will be a joyful one.
When the service ends online, my screen goes blank, my room will return to normal – everything will be as it was: the desk I have studied from for the past 3 years; the window beside me looking out to the community I haven’t yet moved from; the lack of people around me. Yet so much will have changed: I will be a Curate, a Lay Curate at that. I will be serving new churches, congregations and communities. Steve would have been serving too.
Life is full of ‘would haves’, but life needs to be lived for what we do have. From my all too limited time with Steve I learnt that he lived for what he had and wanted others to have: the love he had received from God; the love he had received from and had for his family, his friends, his community, his church. I have all those things and the time has once again come to celebrate and live those things. I have had 3 blessed years of Ordination Training having been sent by the Church. I have a family, I have friends and I have a new community to love and be loved by in return. Tomorrow I will wake for the first time as a Curate because I will have been licensed. I plan to celebrate that and each moment that will follow, including ordination when I will have walked into the cathedral.
Rest in peace Steve, rise in glory and save a drink for me at the eternal party.
In normal circumstances I would have said goodbye to my family and gone away for a pre-ordination retreat this week. There 18 others waiting to be ordained as a Deacon, and others waiting to be ordained as a Priest, would have gathered away from the hustle and bustle of life to pray, contemplate and prepare for the change in identity about to come.
But these are not normal circumstances. The Coronavirus Pandemic that has claimed and devastated lives across the world has impacted ordinations as well. We cannot yet safely gather in large groups so the collective retreat isn’t possible. Nor are the ordination services which requires a bishop to lay their hands upon the ordination candidate — in part to maintain apostolic succession. I will start my curacy as a Licensed Lay Worker before, hopefully, being ordained as a Deacon on 27th September 2020 (should it be safe to do so).
One tradition connected with ordination that was new to me, when I started discerning my call, is the Ember Card.These are visual reminders for people to pray for a person about to be ordained — they are the equivalent of a ‘save the date’ invitation, though the invitation is not to a party but to be praying up to and during the date of ordination.
A few weeks ago evidence of my family’s love for me presented itself that I never wanted to see, and pray will never have to see it again.Back then, my children stood shaking and crying before me as they witnessed my health deteriorate so quickly that an ambulance came to take me away from them.They didn’t need to say it but I knew; I knew what they were thinking: they might not see their Daddy alive again. Continue reading →
The stoles I designed for my ordination that were finessed with, and painted, by Yvonne Bell
My Ordination Training is coming to its end. I was due to be ordained in Wells Cathedral at the end of June 2020, but due to the Coronavirus pandemic the ordination has been postponed. It is currently scheduled for 27th September 2020.
One thing that goes with being ordained is wearing stoles – these are akin to scarfs that people wear during services as an indication that they are ordained. It is customary to have different stoles for the different colours and times of the Church calendar: Ordinary Time stoles are green; Advent and Lent stoles are purple; Pentecost and Saints’ Day stoles are red; and stoles for Christmas, Easter, major feast days, weddings and funerals are white or gold. Continue reading →
In my previous blog post (A man who doesn’t have it all) I wrote about how certain questions and conversations can be unique to certain groups – in that post I wrote about how asking what it’s like to be a male priest is not itself sexist and can indeed be a helpful question to ask.Recently I returned from a Retreat for Ordinands and their families, and it presented a parallel: sometimes it is good to live inside a bubble with people like you. Continue reading →