to help you discover the God you already know

Year: 2014

Has the English Church a future? 1

Who might save the Church?

There was an article on the BBC News web-site recently which began “The Bishop of Truro has said the Church of England has only “five or six years” to save itself’: “radical changes” were needed to halt a “steady decline” he said, and ‘the Church of England will struggle to exist in 10 years.’ This is probably not news to most of us, but what grabbed my attention was the notion that the Church has to save itself. It was not clear if the Bishop actually said that, but all too often those in authority in the Church give the impression that that is what they believe and it gives me considerable cause for concern.

My main ministry is in spiritual direction and the stock question of the spiritual director is ‘Where is God in all this?’ or ‘What is God up to here?’ or even ‘What might God be inviting you to be or do here?’ So naturally I am inclined to ask the same set of questions when faced with the crisis that is undeniably facing the church. And it takes me in quite a different direction from that which the article attributes to the Bishop.

It leads me to assume that the Church’s decline is something which God is bringing about and that there is some divine purpose in it. Our task thence is:

  1.  for each of us to ask ourselves what God might be calling me to be or do at this time?; and to learn to trust it;
  2. to notice what God appears to be calling others to be and do, and to see if there might be things we can do together;
  3. to assume that God is behind all this, and that our role is not to try and control what is happening but rather to trust and follow it. We need not know where we are going. Indeed its best if we don’t, because if we think that we do then we’ll certainly try to control it!

It’s a fundamental tenet of Christianity that we can’t save ourselves, only God can do that, and the same applies to the Church. To ask what the Church must do to save itself implies the opposite: that this is a problem that the Church has to solve by itself, or worse still solve by managing it, and it leads to what one senior churchman described to me recently as a culture of ‘institutional atheism’. A church that talks a lot about God but when push comes to shove appears to place its faith in secular management techniques rather than in the activity of the God about Whom it speaks.

[Read part 2.]

Has the English Church a future? 2

What is God up to?

My ministry means that I listen to people trying to hear and respond to what God is calling them to. Not altogether surprisingly there is a deal of common ground: God does not appear to be calling people in completely random directions. There are certain themes that emerge, and I begin to wonder if it is part of my responsibility to articulate them back to the church? I don’t claim that this is a comprehensive list, others would name other themes, but these will give you a flavour of what I sense that God is up to! And again, I doubt if much of this will read like news to you, but put all together it sounds exciting to me!

  1. The main institutional churches are dying. This seems a common pattern across much of Europe. Clergy are put under great pressure to maintain them, often very much against the odds. They feel that their primary task is to keep the numbers up and the finances healthy: ‘to keep the show on the road’. They mostly know that they are failing in this impossible task. They feel largely unsupported. They have little time for nurturing their own faith, let alone the faith of others. This ironically at a time when society’s interest in things spiritual is high!
  2. All alike, laity and clergy, are mostly feeling a great spiritual poverty. Many seek spiritual nourishment outside the local church. Hence the numbers of people seeking spiritual direction. Hence the number of extra parochial Christian communities: some of whom share a corporate life, others share a common rule of life. But all of whom seek to offer something people are no longer finding in their local church.
  3. While the number of mainline Retreat Houses is declining, there is a growing interest in domestic spirituality. People open their homes or gardens as quiet places for others to use [I’m sitting writing this in one such place in Lincolnshire]; others have ‘holy places’ in their homes in a way that would have been unimaginable thirty years ago.
  4. Alongside this, there is a growing interest in contemplative prayer, and a burgeoning of people feeling a call to some degree of ‘solitary life’.
  5. There is a hunger for the ether of Christianity rather than its dogma. So people go on pilgrimage to holy places like Iona, Lindisfarne, and Glastonbury in this country and Santiago de Compostella in Spain ; they visit cathedrals; and attend festivals like Greenbelt.
  6. God is being encountered, and sometimes named, in the natural world. The old adage about ‘God feeling more real in nature than in church’ is very apt. Hence the interest in gardening, in wild life and wild places, in walking, in ecology, in the preservation of birds and animals etc.
  7. There has been a massive shift in our attitude to our bodies: God is encountered through yoga, dance, massage therapies, fitness regimes. Hand in hand with this goes a positive affirmation of our sexuality, with greater equality for women and growing equality for gay men and women, and indeed for those of all sexual orientations.
  8. Years ago the churches spent a lot of energy on ecumenical relations with very limited success. Nowadays at a grassroots level people move much more freely between churches. And the current issue is inter-faith dialogue.
  9. There is much involvement in social justice issues: The Church of England set up the Church Urban Fund to show solidarity with the poor in our own country, and local Food Banks do the same thing today; the fair trade campaign and the drop the debt campaign had massive Christian support; as has the plight of the Palestinians.
  10. There is huge interest in the arts [partly I suspect in reaction to much literalism in the churches]. So people find spiritual nourishment in art, film, poetry, photography. Novel reading groups are the new Bible study. And Christophers and the Sixteen go on annual pilgrimages around the country taking sacred music to packed cathedrals.

[Read part 3.]

Has the English Church a future? 3

New life outside the city walls?

I draw a number of conclusions from all this:

  1. Interestingly most of the above take place outside the structures of the institutional churches.
  2. They incarnate a face of God other than that incarnated by the church.
  3. They often involve men and women of deep faith taking risks, stepping out into the unknown, not knowing where they are being led, and not being sure that they are right.
  4. They frequently require people to accept failure as part of the process.
  5. Yet, they appear to be overwhelmingly life giving, for all that is touched by them.
  6. Often those involved in them are people who have either left the churches or are only clinging on by their fingertips.
  7. When they come together they are, by definition, new ways of being church.
  8. One of the things that frequently typifies these people is a willingness to trust themselves.
  9. Trusting God and trusting oneself are two sides of the same coin: it’s difficult to do one without finding yourself doing the other. In doing so we discover who we are called to become and something of the nature of the God Who calls us. It is invariably Good News.

I find myself reflecting that the New Testament tells of how the persecution of the early Christians in Jerusalem drove many of them out of that city. It must have felt like a terrible loss combined with an uncertain future. I wonder if something similar is happening now. Many are finding themselves driven out of the institutional churches. They often find it a bewildering and lonely experience. But it also seems to be a seedbed of creativity. I wonder if it is God Who is driving people out of declining churches, bringing about a death, so that there can be a re-birth?. And perhaps this God is already planting signs of new life, indeed has been doing so for some time?

If there is truth in this, then the Church’s task is not to save itself. At the heart of the Christian message is the reality of death leading to resurrection. The current form of the Church appears to be dying. We need to embrace that dying as a gift not a problem. We need an honourable and dignified funeral [I think that Archbishop Rowan Williams spoke in these terms] and we need a celebratory excitement about the signs of new life that are emerging. Crucially we need bridges to be built between the dying and the new.

Keeping Sabbath

I met up with my friend Mary Dawson this week at Stixwould. She’s a retired Anglican priest with a spirituality earthed in the everyday, and she was telling me about the way she keeps Sabbath. I found it very interesting, and with her permission I share below two pieces from her blog on the subject. If you’d like to read more of Mary’s wonderings you can find them at


Fridays are very busy in my house as Friday is the day I get ready for Saturday!

Saturday is, for me, the Sabbath. Now I am not Jewish but Sabbath is one of those aspects of Judaism which fascinates me. At the beginning of this year I decided to make Saturday very special, not trying to copy the Jewish Sabbath but making a day to refresh my soul. For me it is a day of withdrawal which I spend alone. Sometimes that just isn’t possible but most weeks I can manage it. And it is very important that my home helps me to feel calm.

So on Fridays I do most of my housework. I am not very good at house work. In fact, let’s be totally honest, I am rubbish at housework. Every couple of months I pay someone else to clean the house through for me and I consider it to be money very well spent. But each week I dash through with a duster and the vacuum cleaner, I replace the flowers and it’s the one day of the week when the bed is sure to be made properly.

I also make sure that I have done the preparation for taking services on Sunday. My quietness tomorrow is not to be spent thinking about what I will say on Sunday.

I plan my meals so that everything on Saturday is really easy. However, Friday evening is often a special meal to start my special day. After my evening meal I will load the bread-maker so that on Saturday I wake to the wonderful smell of baking bread.

And Saturday

Today has been Saturday and has been my Sabbath.

It seems odd really that I value a quiet day so much. I value it more now than ever I did when I was working. It is the day I renew my spirit and listen to God. There is no agenda although there are a few rituals.

The house has to be calm ready for Sabbath. It starts with a special meal. Friday night is not the time for a scrabble in the bottom of the fridge. It’s the time for something carefully chosen which may take more effort than my meals on other days. Yesterday it was a lovely homemade paella. The evening was spent quietly – no TV, just an audiobook and my knitting.

After saying Compline and loading the bread-maker it’s off to bed, and I always turn the bed down early in the evening and leave fresh nightclothes to be enjoyed with my fresh sheets. Often I put flowers in my bedroom too.

Saturday I always wake with a smile on my face. I know it’s going to be a wonderful day. The house smells of fresh bread and the crust is for breakfast. There is no question of a to-do list, I just do things which delight my soul.

My Sabbath has now ended and I still have my smile. I have no family to delight me, my health is not brilliant but there is much to delight in. God is indeed good.

Hungarian spiritual direction

When I travel abroad I like to read a novel or some poetry, look at some art, listen to some music, from the country I am about to visit, to give me a bit of a sense of the culture I will be entering. So when I visited Hungary some years ago I duly read a couple of Hungarian novels in preparation!

Whilst there I mentioned the novels I had read and their authors to a Hungarian friend wondering if she had read them and what she thought of them? She looked at me blankly. She clearly had no idea of whom I was talking about! And then the light dawned. ‘Ah’, she said, ‘she you are giving me their names as if they are English.’ Now it was my turn to look blank.

‘In England you are Henry Morgan, but if you were Hungarian we would know you as Morgan Henry’. Hungary is one of the few languages that does this apparently, putting the surname before the Christian name. The implication is that Hungarians tend to think of themselves as part of a group[s] first and as individuals second. We talked for a while about why this was so, and then, knowing that she had spent some years away from Hungary, I asked her if this made any difference to the practice of spiritual direction.

‘Oh yes’, she said, ‘it makes quite a big difference. When a Hungarian comes to talk they always start by talking about the bigger picture of which they are a part: the state of the world, or their country and its politics, before slowly narrowing the conversation down through their local community, their family, and their work and so on, only talking about themselves right at the end of the conversation if there is time. In England you are more likely to do it the other way around.’

She’s right of course. That is what usually happens in England: its what I usually do. We start by talking about what’s been happening to ourselves and maybe, if there is time, we might reflect on the corporate implications right at the end. Not always of course, there are people who come to talk to me who tend to start with the bigger picture, but most of us don’t.

I’ve tried ‘thinking Hungarian’ as a spiritual exercise and its interesting, because if I start with the bigger picture, then my own stuff falls into a quite different perspective. If I start by reflecting on the state of the world then it may take me some time before I get anywhere near to what’s happening in my own life: compared with those faced by people in the Ukraine, or Syria or Palestine, my problems seem relatively trivial. They remain my issues and the matters I’m having to deal with, but I am now viewing them in a somewhat different light.

Norwegian wisdom

I’m recently back from a trip to Finland and Norway which was immensely stimulating. Before I set out I was reading some of the poetry of the Norwegian poet Olav H. Hauge, available in an excellent collection ‘Leaf-huts and Snow-houses’ translated by Robin Fulton, published by Anvil.

I was especially taken by one poem which seems to me to have much to say about our spiritual journey. It is entitled ‘You want only to be’, and it goes like this:

“No root groping
in the hard rock,
no sprout, no sapling,
not the strong bole in the storm,
no humble branch,
no bast, no bark
in frost and snow-
no rising sap,
no force to grow,
no fruit, no seed,
not the leaf quietly
building its dome-
you want only to be
the swaggering bloom.”

A disclaimer

I have recently been re-reading Beldon Lane’s fine book ‘The Solace of Fierce Landscapes‘, and was much taken by a quotation from one Barry Lopez who is writing about the difficulties involved in reaching a mysterious desert that symbolised for him what’s most worth finding. He writes:

There is, I should warn you, doubt…about the directions I will give you here, but they are the very best that can be had. They will not be easy to follow. Where it says left you must go right sometimes. Read south for north sometimes. It depends a little on where you are coming from, but not entirely. I am saying you will have doubts. [But] if you do the best you can you will have no trouble. (p.143)

And it struck me that these would be good words for me to put up as ‘A Disclaimer’, for people to read who come to me for spiritual direction.

Praying with loom bands

loombandsA few weeks ago my seven year old grandson Owen came to stay with us for a week during his summer holidays. He brought with him some loom bands, and was eager to show us how to make them. I confess that I was not immediately enthusiastic but I gave it a try.

I was due to lead the communion service in our local church that coming Sunday and my wife, Sylvia, was due to read one of the lessons. We were both committed to be there. I was not sure what Owen would make of our service. He goes to church at home with his mother, my daughter Hannah, but their church is different in style from ours and is much more child friendly. There would be no children at the service in our church, the congregation would be small in number and none of us would be in the first flush of youth. I was not sure Owen would enjoy it much.

I didn’t know what to preach about: the set lessons did not strike a spark, and I struggled with what I might say that might speak to both the regular congregation and seven year old Owen. And then I suddenly saw the potential in the loom bands as a prayer tool.

The next day I went into our local town looking for loom bands. The first shop where I enquired didn’t have any, but the young boy who was minding the shop with his dad told me that I would find lots of loom bands in a stall in the market. The market is only open on certain days of the week and by chance [?] this happened to be one of them. I found the stall and they had more loom bands than anyone would know what to do with. The stall was run by another man who had his young son to help him. It was the school holidays after all! They were keen to explain loom bands to me. On a hunch I explained that I was a priest and I was thinking of teaching the people in my local church how to use them as a way of praying. Rather than thinking me quite mad the man told me what a good idea he thought that was and began to tell me his story of growing up in a Christian community in Scotland with which he had lost touch much to his regret. We shared a deep conversation, and I went away with a box of loom bands and a growing conviction that using them on Sunday was a good idea.

When I got home I explained to Owen and Sylvia what I had in mind, and said that if this was going to work I would need their help which they agreed to give.

On the Sunday morning when I stood up to preach I explained to the congregation that I was going, with Owen and Sylvia’s help, to show them how to make a bracelet of loom bands. I said that there were three reasons for doing this.

The first was that they would look cool and groovy wearing a bracelet made up of loom bands and that their street cred with the young people whom they knew would rise exponentially.

The second was that a loom band bracelet has the potential to be a valued aid to prayer, and that once they had made for themselves I would explain how. The third reason I would explain at the end of the service.

So we set to, to make our loom band bracelets. It is not that difficult. Any small child can show you. Owen showed the congregation that morning, and Sylvia and I helped. I suggested that about twenty loom bands were needed to make a bracelet and that people might like to choose ten each of two different colours; and then make the bracelet with alternating sets of two bands of the same colour: i.e. two red bands followed by two blue ones and so on. Some arthritic fingers didn’t find this too easy, but we had some that Owen had ‘made earlier’ for that eventuality, and soon everybody was wearing a loom band bracelet.

Right, I said, now with the bracelet on one wrist, use the other hand to hold the first set of coloured bands between your first finger and thumb and name to yourself and God someone whom you love and whom you hold on your heart; and then continue around the bracelet naming someone different until you have named them all. You might need to travel around the bracelet more than once! It’s as simple as that.

What we are doing here is both simple and quite profound. We name these people whom we love before God in prayer; but these are people who are always on our hearts, we are just bringing them into conscious mind when we pray in this way. So wearing our loom band reminds us when we are not consciously praying, that these people are always on our hearts and because God knows the secrets of our hearts, in reality we are always praying for these people whether we are consciously aware of it or not.

There is more. There are certainly, known to us and not known, people out there who carry us on their hearts. They may or they may not pray for us with loom bands, but because they carry us on their hearts, they are in fact always praying for us and God will hear their prayer. My loom band reminds me that I am never alone: I am always being prayed for by someone.

There is more. There were sixteen of us in church that morning: not a large number. But we were each of us connected in prayer with a large number of other people in a network not unlike a spider’s web, and each spider’s web would have interconnections with other ‘spiders webs’. In reality the whole world is held by a series of interconnecting webs of prayer of which each of us is inevitably a part, whether we are aware of it or not. And the whole thing is upheld by the prayer of God who of course holds everyone in His/Her heart.

The loom band bracelet symbolises all this and can remind us of it.

At the end of the service, before the blessing, I told the congregation the third reason for making the bracelets. If you wear your bracelet someone, sometime is bound to ask you why you are doing so. And you can explain to them why you do. In a small, but not insignificant way, you will be engaged in what the church rather pompously calls ‘mission and evangelism’. Many of us feel awkward and shy about ‘mission and evangelism’ but this is a painless and natural way of doing it if the opportunity arises and possibly the more effective for that.

Newsletter No.1

Paul Booth

flowerThis year (2014) marks the 10th anniversary of my involvement with the Annunciation Trust.  It is also the year when I reach the age when I will receive my state pension! A couple of landmarks on my journey both of which seem significant to me. It is impossible now to imagine my life without spiritual direction, though up to 17 years ago I barely knew of its existence. This year I have reduced the number of people I see for SD to 25, and I see them each three times a year. I also lead occasional quiet days, retreats and training events. I have ‘retired’ from the Bradford Diocesan Spirituality Group after 15 years, and from my involvement with courses facilitation for new spiritual directors. I will miss this especially. Being part of the Annunciation Trust for the past 10 years has been both formative and supportive.

Julian Maddock

clockI most value the Annunciation Trust for the friendship and support in a ministry much of which is spend alone. It is (we are) a loving community and a form of church.

Since completing my work as Hospital Chaplain in 2011, I have been offering spiritual direction and supervision, mostly at home and at the London Spirituality Centre, and I lead the 3rd year of the Ignatian Spirituality Course.

This year has seen the start of two new initiatives, (re)Connecting with God and Open Soul Space, both at the London Spirituality Centre.

I have been growing into my environs in Stockwell, attempting prayerfully and mindfully to walk the streets close to my flat and the local park. Beauty and terror live cheek by jowl. In this context I have been writing some thoughts on the body and prayer at this body.

Henry Morgan

treeThe basic rhythm of my life remains constant and deeply satisfying. I see people for spiritual direction at home in Pershore, and travel to London eight times a year, Lincolnshire three times, and Harrogate three times, to see people there. I keep three separate ‘sabbatical’ months each year which gives me times to ‘explore’. Last year I travelled twice to Finland and will return there this autumn and go on to visit Norway. I have led the occasional Quiet Day locally. Life feels rich and I count myself a lucky man.

We moved to Pershore three years ago on my ‘retirement’ and it felt than as if God was sending us here. I’m no wiser why but no doubt that will become clear in time. It might simply be so that we can enjoy and be nourished by the beauty of the local countryside : that would be reason enough!

Sylvia Morgan

treesMuch of my time since we moved to Birlingham has been spent creating a garden here which continually brings me into a deeper awareness of “nature is never spent; there lives the dearest freshness deep down things;”(G M Hopkins). Michael Main encouraged us never to lose our sense of wonder and I find mine grows with the passing years in spite of so much happening in the world which could destroy it. Perhaps having a brush with breast cancer and turning 70 has helped me.

I see a few people for spiritual direction and am happy for the number to increase.

The Franciscan Third Order flourishes in this area and is always a source of challenge and blessing to me. Times of solitude whether spent in zazen, reading, walking or gardening continue to nourish the inner woman and allow me to be present to my family and growing friendships.

I am grateful to my fellow members of the Trust for their love and support.

Sr Rachel Overton

Harp and Singing BowlI have been a part of the Annunciation Trust for just three years. The friendship, love and support of my colleagues has made possible the continual work within a ministry that by its very nature is isolating and on the edge of the institutional Church.

These last three years have been very rich and varied as I have become more established in my lifestyle as a solitary and beginning to explore something of the nature of the silence and stillness that we carry within us, rather than simply experiencing silence as something that we enter into outside of ourselves or ‘over there’.

Work has evolved into a mixture of one to one work in spiritual direction and group work and this year I have been co-leading and teaching on the spiritual direction course for Peterborough and Leicester dioceses. All of these carry their different challenges and all are a privilege to engage with others in.

Music continues to provide both inspiration and relaxation for me: playing the harp and recently experimenting with sounding a singing bowl has recently provided food for thought around the idea of ‘resonance’.

This year sees the silver jubilee of my original profession as a religious and after joining me for a service of thanksgiving at Peterborough Cathedral in late October, we will be celebrating our various anniversaries and landmarks of life, together at our next meeting in November.

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