New Kid on the Block

On the sidelines

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.

Would have, will have

Wells Cathedral, where I ‘would have’ been today.

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.

Would have.

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.

Would have.

A candle for Steve, lit close to 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.

Would have.

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.

My desk where I, and my study-buddy Ron, have sat as I studied for Ordination.

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.

Would have.

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.

Would have.

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.

Will have.

Rest in peace Steve, rise in glory and save a drink for me at the eternal party.

Details of how to watch the Licensing service live and afterwards is available in Getting my Curacy License.

The walk I have, would have, and will have walked from the Bishops’ Palace to Wells Cathedral:

Ember Cards — what they are and how to send them. 

My Ember Card produced before Bishop Peter became ill (an updated one can be downloaded at the bottom of this page)

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.

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Life, Love and Isolation

RUH Bath

The Royal United Hospital in Bath

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

I belong because I don’t

Sunrising behind 3 crosses on a hill

Sunrise in Easter Day 2019 from an ecumenical service on The Roundhill, Bath

I am over half-way through my Ordination Training and thoughts are starting to turn to curacy.  When my diocese asked me to indicate which type of church I would and wouldn’t work with my reaction surprised me.  The question saddened me.  It was asking me where I belonged.  At once I realised that I belonged everywhere and nowhere. Continue reading

A Rescue Plan for Humanity

Easter Sunday 2017

Celebrating the Risen Christ on Easter Sunday, 16th April 2017

Did you hear about the sheep who got his head stuck in a traffic cone and had to be rescued? The RSPCA said he was fine afterwards, although he did look a little sheepish! And did you hear about the Swan that was stuck on the roof of a restaurant? Apparently the bill was too much! Thankfully some firefighters rescued it and returned it to a nearby river. And finally, did you hear about a man and his dog who stopped a cyclist from disaster with some bread? It was a Matter of Loaf and Death! Three ‘strange but true’ rescue stories, okay two of them: Wallace & Grommit used buns not bread to stop the bike.

There is another true but far more dramatic and important rescue, one that really is a ‘Matter of Life and Death’: Jesus’s resurrection. Within Chapter 2 of the Book of Acts Peter helps people to see God’s rescue plan for humanity that the resurrection unlocked.

Acts is a book full of eyewitness accounts and pioneering ministry, and where church as we know it began. It starts 40 days after Jesus’s resurrection with an account of Jesus ascending into Heaven having spent the time in between visiting and being seen by a whole host of people (Acts 1).  10 days later the Disciples spoke in languages they didn’t know but those who witnessed it did.  They had received the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised.  It was the first Pentecost.

Peter stood up to explain what had happened and help make the connections that gave birth to the church we know today (Acts 2). Continue reading

Take me to your Leader

When I met with a Vocations Chaplain a few weeks ago (see Can I see clearly now?) I was  encouraged by his confidence that I was being called by God to be on this journey that may lead to ordination.  He left me with 3 issues to ponder ahead of meeting him for a second time this week.

It took me a week to simply take in and comprehend what had happened during the meeting but then I began to look at each issue, one at a time.  In my post Who is He? I looked at the image of God that I carry with me.  His second topic, the ‘sin of the helper’, was more challenging but certainly helpful to consider (see Is it ever wrong to help someone?).  Now it is time to look at the final topic of what leadership means.

The Toy Story aliens

The Toy Story aliens

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