Yesterday I spent most of the day at the College of St Barnabas in Lingfield, Surrey. I probably spent 20 minutes less of the day than intended because someone had turned the countryside signposts around and I kept driving the wrong way down leafy country lanes. It was very beautiful but very frustrating.
Whenever I use the word ‘college’ in relation to St Barnabas, people ask about the curriculum and how many students there are. But this is not that sort of a college. St Barnabas was set up a century ago and still fulfils its purpose of providing retirement care for clergy and their spouses. Many residents are elderly and some bereaved of their husband or wife. There is an excellent provision of nursing care for those who are ill or in declining health. Current residents include the wonderful John Stott and Tom Smail, both of whom I was able to speak with yesterday.
What strikes me here is that there is a collection of elderly clergy from across the spectrum who live, eat, worship and serve together according to their ability. But they bring together the accumulated experience and wisdom of decades of service. I met a couple of bishops and other clergy who served overseas and retired here with almost nothing to their name. Their’s was a life of sacrifice and self-giving with no expectation of reward. There are evangelicals, catholics and some who don’t know where they stand. It is a wonderful mixture of what a real church is: great variety, but a common life as Christians.
In a culture that worships youth, beauty and success, here is a community that bears all the power and dignity of age, the beauty of common discipleship and the success of ‘resting’ after a lifetime of service to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I came away – again – humbled by having been in their company and feeling that I have an awful long way still to travel before I get to where some of them already are.
While I was away in Kazakhstan last week a fire took the lives of six people (inlcuding three children) in Camberwell. Camberwell is in my diocese, but not in my Episcopal Area. I had followed the awful news in the media coverage, but only last night got some human detail.
The business of the Southwark Diocesan Synod (which meets three times each year in Waterloo) begins with a Presidential Address by the Bishop of Southwark, Dr Tom Butler. In last night’s address he noted questions arising from the launch of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans before going on to describe the tragic fire in Camberwell. Would the FCA be a (yet another) ‘fellowship’ of like-minded Christians within the Anglican Communion or would it really be the root of a different church?
When Tom went down to Camberwell in the aftermath of the fire he met Anglican clergy of different complexions who were working hard and long to provide facilities for evacuated and traumatised residents, checking names against lists in order to reassure separated residents that their relatives were OK, offering counselling and other support, opening buildings for very practical purposes and ‘being there’ for whoever needed them. Tom’s point was that nobody asked if these clergy were Forward in Faith, FCA, New Wine, Anglican, Baptist or anything else – they were simply Christians doing what the Christian Church is there for. Without spelling it out, Tom celebrated clergy by name who occupy very different positions in relation to some of the dividing issues of the day and who wear very different labels.
The point is that we need to keep our perspective clear, recognising that internal arguments might be important to those engaged in them; but, to those for whom the church exists (that is, those who do not necessarily belong) these are an irrelevance in the face of life’s serious challenges in complex communities. Sometimes being simply Christian is what we are called to be, with the other stuff put to one side for a while.
This reminded me of a quotation by Timothy Garton-Ash on Monday’s Start the Week discussion on BBC Radio 4 (although I don’t remember who he was quoting). He defined a nation as:
a group of people united by a shared hatred of their neighbours and a common misunderstanding of their own past.
I will be interested (when I get the head space to do so) to think through whether this phenomenon could be explored in relation to understanding the contemporary church. Comments welcome…