Refreshed. Thanks, Ethel.

This week, quite a lot of clergy, licensed lay ministers, ordinands and staff from the Diocese of Chelmsford met at the University of Essex for the first Diocesan conference in a long time.

Thanks, Ethel: the unknown person who left a legacy that enabled this to happen.

What did we do? We worshipped together using both the C of E’s liturgy and that shared by our Kenyan partners. We prayed. We talked. We talked to strangers and to old friends. I ran, as did three intrepid people, because it was too good a chance to miss to run along my favourite path. There was silent worship and there was noisy worship. I might have had a couple of beers. People watched films, heard poetry, tasted wine. We listened; and we asked questions of ourselves and our speakers. And some people tweeted.

So what now?

A few – those who perhaps struggle with the idea of lifelong learning, or the idea that being busy isn’t necessarily a badge of honour – will have gone home grumbling about the emails unanswered and phone calls to be made. That’s a shame.

I think that one after-effect will be an increase in the number of people using Malcolm Guite’s sonnets in sermons. Others will be continuing conversations begun in queues for lunch or coffee. Some will be reflecting on what impact the space and time given to the conference might have on their ministry and sense of self (that might just be me, but I hope it isn’t). Coming almost immediately after our priesting retreat with the theme of “on fire without burning out” there were many reinforcements of the message that it’s not a good idea for the priest to be the fuel for the fire…and that it’s imperative that we take care of ourselves and our spirituality.

In my previous life when I either organised or attended major conferences, I used to love the sense of temporary community. You get it at Greenbelt and other festivals – the common purpose bringing people together briefly before we disappear into our own lives again. Conferences and festivals act as an immunisation against losing ourselves in the routine…the time out resets, recharges, refreshes our souls. They remind us there are other ideas, people and ways of being than the one we’re in. They re-orient us to the God whom we are called to serve. They prod us to review, and move to forward. Or sideways. They strengthen weak friendship links and create new networks. Refresh did all these and I, for one, am grateful.

Thanks, Ethel.

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Bathers at Asnieres, and a bit of noticing.

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This is a picture I have known for a long time. There was a copy of it in the hall at my primary school. I’ve had a postcard of it in the ‘box of nice postcards’ for more years than I’d like to remember.

I hadn’t seen it for real, though, until a few weeks ago. I’d gone to the National Gallery on a cold and miserable day to see if the Australia’s Impressionists exhibition could lift my spirits a bit (it did).

The first thing was that I was surprised by its size. A picture I’d known in print and postcard is, in reality, BIG. And the second thing I noticed was that on the horizon wasn’t just the sky, as the reproductions seemed to show, but a factory.

This picture, that I had held up in my mind as painting of an idyllic spot, is actually part of the industrial landscape. It shows people relaxing and taking a break along the river from chimneys and smoke and less-than-idyllic workplaces.

And I was stopped in my tracks.

I’ve not found it easy living in Chingford. The traffic, the Edmonton incinerator chimney, and the unfriendliness of the landscape around the reservoirs have been hard to get used to. I have been frustrated that there is no easy (read: pleasant) path to the Lea Navigation, which is only about a mile from my house. I have nearly cried at seeing beautiful little wagtails hopping across bleak pavements, pecking at cigarette ends. Something about the way nature persists even in urban landscape sits uneasily with my soul.

Seeing the Bathers at Asnieres in all its detail had something of an effect on me.

At its simplest, it was the recognition that people and nature and relaxation have happened in industrial areas for a lot longer than I’ve lived in E4.

Yet there was also something a bit deeper – first steps, I think, in reconciling me to the environment. To be able to, for the first time, think about what it means to live in a place….to be incarnational in a place… because the struggle with the place has lessened.

A bit.

I don’t think I will ever stop wondering why people are so incapable of using bins, or public transport.

Chingford

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This is Chingford Mount. It is the shopping centre, the town centre if you like, of my parish. It’s where people meet; it’s where several bus routes terminate and originate. You can just about see the open space of Albert Crescent, overlooked by Aroma café.

There is also quite a lot of road. This is a busy junction. It is at the metaphorical – if not geographical – heart of the parish. And it is a place of anger, impatience and aggression. Almost every time I cross here, I see signs of this. I see the lights being jumped. I see cars aggressively overtaking. I hear horns blared at pedestrians who take longer to cross than their alloted moments allow. I hear unparliamentary language. I see unsavoury hand gestures. And I fairly often see litter jettisoned through car windows.

We have heard much lately about the absolute crisis of air pollution in London.

But what about the pollution of our souls, our psyche, as well as our lungs? What does it do to a community when this is what lies at its heart?

What is the effect of the daily diet of this negativity, this selfishness and this dominance of car over pedestrian?

The insidious, daily drip-drip-drip of the worst side of people. Dripping into the toddlers that wait patiently for the green man. Dripping into the schoolchildren who dash for buses. Dripping into the elderly and infirm whose right to walk at their pace is negated by the countdown beeps hurrying them out of the way of the cars.

The heart of the parish is given over to the car. Everyone else’s mode of transport and way of being is secondary.

Yes, I drive when I have to, and I no longer have a stressful commute to work, like some of the drivers I encounter. Cars themselves are a useful tool. And I am sure that those people driving aggressively across my patch pay their taxes, call their Mums regularly, parent their children well. But it saddens me to see so much anger, aggression and self-centredness on a daily basis.

Love your neighbour, says Jesus. Perhaps this might be a place to start.

I don’t have an answer to this. Well, not a practical one, since turfing over the junction and planting trees wouldn’t work. I think I just want people to think about what it is that might be at the heart of the parish, and the effect that has on us all whether we are conscious of it or not.

Trains. (Quite delayed).

I found this post in an old Evernote folder, written in July 2015. It marked a moment, and it amused me, so I thought I would share it… even if it is over a year late.

It is strange to sit in Ipswich station looking at the train that was the 17:50 from Liverpool Street and to think how familiar I was with that service and its regulars. To see City people in smart suits and dresses and to think of the dress in my wardrobe that hasn’t been worn for nearly two years. Or to recall the bustle and fuss of Liv St, the dashes into Tesco or M&S for dinner or traingin… the quieter platforms after nights out…the busy platforms during delays and the scary evenings of wondering if I will ever get home.

(this isn’t the actual train, but one very like it…)

That was my life, the routine of season tickets Platform 3 for the 0810 platform 10 for the 1750 running along the river or in the Barbican at lunch; city pubs and pizza expresses for drinks and dinner. The frustrations of a late night at work missing out on things at home… being home in the dark – not seeing the first flowers on my window boxes until the weekend – the bliss of a sunny Saturday in a flat I only see in the dark during the week. All the knowledge of trains and train times.

Feels funny now. How can I be too busy to do stuff, when I used to do Stuff and fit in 45 hours of commuting and office time?

I don’t miss that life; for all the stresses of Westcott it feels like it is right for where I am. I think I miss having nicer clothes – perhaps it is time to spend a while checking what I have and what I wear. Shoes, as ever, being the problem.

I feel more disconnected from that than I have done previously. A good thing. It would be hard to always be grieving for what has been left behind. I still do miss the flat sometimes but I don’t wake up at Westcott wondering where I am; my rooms feel like Home; the daylight bulbs have dispelled the gloom. Just seeing the space with afternoon sun has helped change how it feels. St Leonards is a place I will be welcome, but it is no longer the place I long to be for comfort and for familiarity.

Perhaps Westcott has done the job of being that place of transition… growing me from the person in the pews to the potential leader; the painful part of last year was in feeling adrift and friendless in the place – rootless – and now I am preparing to leave there. Last (ish) term of responsibilities. After Christmas it’s head down, write stuff. Plan exit. Focus on the end. I am a leaver not a newcomer. It’s interesting that I’m called that right from the start of the year – it helps, I think, because I really am.

General end of term news.

It’s a long time since my last blog post. Sorry about that. Life just seems to get in the way. I’m writing this one racing a 10pm deadline as it is…

So, my first year is over. I have laughed, cried, prayed, sung, bicycled, read, studied, examinated, sneezed, slept, rejoiced and despaired, drunk gin, fed a tortoise, served, preached, been exasperated, argued, won an election, lost two others, welcomed, remembered, played with kids, half marathoned and acolyted and now I am two days in to my long summer placement in Manchester. No wonder I am tired…

Exam results were good, and I was pleased. Overall I got a 2.1; with two papers graded as firsts. Including, and you’ll have to excuse me for being excited about this four days after results were released, 75% in Greek. I am truly astounded and rather pleased at that. And just to clarify, no, I have no intention of continuing… I’m happy with what I know.

I did get really rather stressed during the exams (embarrassingly so, with hindsight) but I am quietly confident that next year I will be more prepared, in that I won’t be doing everything for the first time. Not a fan of the unknown unknowns, myself.

Here in Manchester I am contending mostly with the known unknowns. What is the area really like? How do I go about understanding this inner-city place? Who are the important people? What is the church community like? Where is God in this? Will it ever stop raining? (that latter might be a known known, to be fair).

I’m going to be preaching and praying, of course…and singing – but also deaconing (doing stuff for the priest at the Eucharist), putting together my first all-age talk; going into a school, plus other bits and pieces. It all sounds really exciting and I am looking forward to meeting the challenges. Reflecting too, how easily I seem to be able to embrace new ideas and things – I have lost a lot of fear of making mistakes, which is a good thing.

Manchester also allows enough of a shift of the pace to find time for some decent running – I really missed this last year. I have to commit to getting fit and finding time to go. I have been very much out of the habit, and I can tell. Not just because my clothes don’t fit, but because I have less energy overall. I miss that endorphin rush! Hence the 10pm deadline. I want to be able to get to bed in time to get up and run before the day really starts tomorrow.

Looking forward to Lent Term 2015

You wait ages for a blog post, and then three arrive all at once… This time, having reflected back on the first term at college, I am thinking forward to the term that starts on Monday. Partly to help marshall my thoughts and partly so you, dear reader, can remind me of my good intentions and keep me accountable for my actions.

The timetable looks more or less the same, with a few more lectures in – two courses have teaching this term, so I am looking forward to getting stuck into a couple of new subjects. We switch focus from the OT to the NT too in our ‘Reading the Christian Bible’ course, so not everything is picked up from where we left off.

There’s a few new responsibilities to add in, too – I’ve joined the children’s work team, I’m also now a member of the common room committee and one of the college’s reps for AOCM . I think I mentioned I also have to train for the Cambridge Half Marathon in March.

It became clear after term finished that I had fallen into the trap of not noticing how hot around me the water had become (think boiling frogs…) and so a resolution, if you like, for 2015 is to get away more. I didn’t really spend many nights away from college last term, partly because I didn’t want to leave a place I barely knew for sanctuary of the familiar elsewhere. Now college is the familiar, Fridays away will become useful time to breathe. In the same way, I didn’t miss any college meals because I was concerned about the impact of buying food on my budget – why pay again for a meal already provided…? However, a term’s budgeting shows I can afford to not be completely tied to the meal schedule and that is going to help when trying to fit in a long run as half marathon preparation. Sunday mornings are no longer an option…!

Something else I hadn’t noticed until the end of last term was how exhausting worrying about friendships was. I knew there was no real need to worry if I hadn’t found an Everlasting Best Friend within the first two weeks, nor, in fact, by the end of term at all – but that niggling doubt never went away, and sapped so much of my energy. I don’t super-spiritualize everything that I do, but if I were inclined to ponder the influence of the negative in life, I might conjecture that this is a weak spot where I am vulnerable. And so I fully intend just to leave that one to time, and to prayer, and to be aware of when I am leaking useful energy on a worry that is not worth it. The flip side of this is that remembering how to live alone, a skill I will need again in 18 months’ time, is important, and that being comfortable in my own company is definitely a good place to be. Incidentally @DigitalNun just published a very useful iBenedictines post on friendships which reminds me to go back to the House rule of life, and to revisit what Bonhoeffer had to say in ‘Life Together.’

That’s it, really – I’m looking forward to going back, renewing friendships, finding new ones; learning a bit more; beginning to plan for the summer; starting on assessed work; gaining confidence singing; running more, and generally Getting On With It.

Letting Go: My last SLA Europe event

ECCA; Division; Chapter; Outlook; Click U; Open House; Leadership; Dance Party; Board meeting; SLA HQ…just some of the vocabulary that I’ve learned since winning an ECCA (Early Career Conference Award) that sent me to SLA (Special Libraries Association) Conference in Washington, D.C. in 2009. Until that point, I knew very little about the organisation. Then I was one of four award recipients that year and I discovered exactly what SLA was all about. I’ve been to four conferences and one Leadership Summit, meeting a truly amazing bunch of people along the way. I’ve served on chapter and division boards, mentored a new ECCA at his first conference, written for publications, followed Twitter chats and generally had my professional life changed by that one award application.

Last night was SLA Europe’s summer party, held at Barber Surgeon’s Hall. It was a splendid venue, with great company, tasty food and chilled wine – thank you to the sponsors (Dow Jones and Integreon) and those who organised the evening.

I think everyone now knows that in September I will be moving to Westcott House in Cambridge. Hence SLA Europe’s party yesterday was a lovely way to be able to lay a marker in the transition from librarian to ordinand. The discernment process – the time taken for me and the Church to decide if I really am called to ‘this vicar thing’ – has been the reason I haven’t returned to SLA Europe’s Board as I expected I would this year. Which means that I don’t have any real responsibilities to hand over – just enthusiasm for an organisation that has given me so many opportunities in the past few years, and a good number of friends too. I was amused – and touched – by the number of people who corrected me last night. “No,” they said, “you’re not training to be a vicar – you’ll be training to be a bishop!” I heard a lot of positive comments about the Synod vote this week – colleagues had noticed what had been going on.

Just to really make it a collision of emotions, an email with lots of new joiner information arrived from Westcott as I was on my way to the event. The City world is already starting to feel a bit alien – I thought for quite a long time about what to wear yesterday now the smart uniform is no longer default (and I went with comfortable-in-hot-weather rather than super-smart in the end). The library gang I leave behind will carry on with the same issues – the need for professional recognition; threats of job cuts and outsourcing; changing technology; budgets, training, development. They’ll need support, a peer community and development opportunities: the kind of thing that SLA Europe does well.
So, thank you, SLA, for what you have given me and the ways I’ve been privileged to serve my colleagues.