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.

The Ministry of Cutting Things Out

The Ministry of Cutting Things out, or: Reflections on Mothering Sunday

IMG_20160306_120828I went to church today. Nothing remarkable about that: I am, after all, a trainee vicar. It’s what I am meant to do. However, I can count on one hand the times recently I have been to a main church service on Mothering Sunday. (Last year I was at St Andrew’s, Alresford – guessing it might be my last non-working Mothering Sunday for a while, I popped in to surprise my mum).

I am one of those people for whom Mothering Sunday services can be dreadful. I won’t rehearse the reasons, that’s not what this post is about.

But. Today was a challenge. Today, I was preaching at an all-age service. Twitter friends will know that I struggled a bit preparing the talk… my supervisor sent me encouraging emails during the week as I was unusually tardy in being able to suggest hymns… but finally, I found a thing that would work. I don’t have access to huge amounts of craft supplies, so this was fairly basic.

I thought I would share the idea.

Who cares for us? was my starting point… and I wanted to make this more about community and everyone who cares. I had been thinking about paper chain people, but in reverse. So I cut out a number of paper people – using this template printed as large as I could get on A4 paper. (In the process I discovered that 7 sheets of A4 is the most I can cut at once). As people came into church they were given a couple of paper people and some pens. Of course most of the kids started colouring straight away, which was an added bonus.

During the talk I asked people to draw themselves (or write a their name) on one of the people, and a bit later, we added one or more people that had cared for us. Then, I stapled them together to make a paper chain – ta-da – community!

We ended up with several metres’ worth due to industrious people production by some of the children. Adults who weren’t so much into colouring in could write names instead.

I was quite pleased how this worked, but already have several ideas that could make this a better idea:
– more than one stapler would have been quicker
– different coloured paper and different sizes of people
– I hadn’t thought through what to do with the paper chain once created, it might have been good to have hung it up or taken it to the altar
– music or singing during the stapling process
– if the people were on card, I could punch holes in their arms to join with ribbon / string – it could be a messy church activity with participants decorating (GLITTER!)

There was an opportunity during prayers for people to light a candle which gave space for the difficult things, and I should have flagged this up during the talk.

On the whole, though, I was happy with this activity. And Mothering Sunday was all right, after all.

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.

In which I have an Opinion about theological education.

This week I have mostly been writing assessed essays, which of course means I’ve spent time catching up with Twitter friends, and giving the window a thorough looking out of.

One conversation revolved around the point and purpose of the academic theology I’m studying. I horrified a student here when I shared with him that I do not really mind the class of degree I obtain. Let’s face it, I already have three, including a doctorate, so I don’t need to prove I am an academic. For me, the theology I’m working on this year is about understanding the broad ideas, becoming familiar with the language and learning how to use it myself. It’s like a map. I want to understand the landscape at a relatively detailed scale. I’m learning a new set of symbols and a new terrain. So, when I draw a sketch map for someone else, I know what I am leaving out that is irrelevant for their journey. I’m not selling someone short or dumbing down – I’m just giving a relevant set of directions across a complicated landscape. This is, I believe, the idea that Alister McGrath is suggesting in his Church Times piece this week.

I understand for myself, and then I can pass that understanding on. I cannot draw an accurate map for someone else if I do not understand the landscape we’re on. I want to continue to learn – and I suspect I will want to take another Master’s at some point. But, I don’t see the need to retain the entire map in my head at all times. If I need to check a detail, I will. That’s why I have bookshelves, after all. The map is not the only thing I need. I also need the compass, walking boots, fitness, and ability to weather whatever weather appears. And so as long as I am confident I have got the idea, I’m not going to put all my energies into essay writing in order to raise my grades to the exclusion of other activities. I know, shocking. I might actually want to attend the practical theology or practical vicaring sessions which some seem to see as an optional nuisance. “But the theology is important, Sara,” they say, with shocked faces, as I look forward to a session on poetry, or an intensive course on art & worship. I want to feel this is an integrated path I follow. So I want to learn how to walk, or run, or hop and skip the paths we have set out before us, not just to concentrate on the map. I hope the analogy holds up.

I was asked by a college chaplain last term which theologians we discussed at Westcott. He said he worried for the future of the theological education in the Federation when I answered that I don’t spend my social time talking about academic theology. I also said that I was insulted by his insinuation that I wasn’t committed to learning. He was expecting me to be poring over the latest Landranger, whereas I was interested, in space outside my lectures, in other aspects. I’m not slacking or skiving off – I have 100% attendance at lectures and supervisions  so far, and I enjoy the academic work.

The formation criteria are varied, and many. The focus seems to be on applying the theology and history I am learning. They do not exclusively at any point suggest that academic achievement is, in itself, a criterion. It is easy to believe, particularly in this Cambridge-focused place, that academic achievement is the only thing that is prized. Yet the non-academic things will be teaching me as much – working with different age groups; with the vulnerable; the military (just back from a hugely challenging week on an RAF base) or the students in my attachment. If I’m thinking about ‘sustaining relationships,’ then going for a coffee and a chat instead of an extra hour of writing to again an extra 5%  is by far the better choice, as far as I can see. I recognise that study of theology can be a spiritual discipline and not always a deadline-driven chore…

I am immensely privileged being here. I will receive some of the best quality teaching possible, in a place dedicated to intellectual pursuit. They have an awesome map collection, if that isn’t stretching the analogy too far. In term time weekdays my meals are cooked for me and I have few domestic responsibilities. I am not juggling assignments and a family. I know how to read & take notes and how to structure an essay. I do find myself with ‘essay title envy’ as my colleagues following the Common Awards programme have assignments which make clear the need to reflect on the way their knowledge will impact their ministry, but equally, I feel my approach is the right one for me and for my formation.

I have been reading the correspondence in the Church Times with interest. The argument about the quality of theology taught is highly relevant. I don’t want my teaching dumbed-down. But I do want the leaders to understand that the academic pressure can be immense, and distracting. I choose to reject the peer pressure to aim only for high marks, because I believe I have an incredible opportunity here to learn in all sorts of places. Inhabiting the role of ‘trainee vicar’ (explorer) rather than ‘theology student’ (map reader) makes me see the world in a different way. I have felt ‘academically dishonest’ as the time I have available allows me only to dip into extracts or skim the book chapters I need. After sitting with my PhD topic for five years, writing two or three supervision essays in quick succession feels superficial. I am almost looking forward to revision as a time to re-interrogate some of that fast thinking and writing. I want my theology to inform my ministry – not for the academic study to push everything to the sidelines, and for the integration to be an afterthought. I never want to feel that the corporate daily offices are a ‘waste’ of time that could be spent in the library. It seems to me that that is the ultimate distortion of perspective that time spent praying with the community is sacrificed to individual academic achievement.

I wonder, too, what the effect of the emphasis on academic study is on the gender balance of full-time ordinands. At the risk of speaking in clichés, and huge over-generalisations, I wonder if the idea of a pathway with an intense workload puts people off. I’m not for one second suggesting a part-time course has a lesser academic standard. But as I am interested in seeking explanations as to why there are so few women in residential training, in a longer blog post I might perhaps have been able to explore the effect of a male academy on women’s understanding of training options.

However, as it is, this post is 33% of the number of words I needed to write for one of my assessed essays, and it’s taken a lot of thinking time today. So I have no more time to consider any of the gender- or age-related issues around this nor the RME report on which I have Opinions. But, I’m a third of the way through my two years here, and I wanted to think out loud about the debate. None of the foregoing should be taken as any criticism of the Federation, or my current lecturers (they’re all pretty awesome) and I don’t suppose any of this is new to anyone with more than my 6 months experience of residential training. But I think the Church Times piece is right to ask what exactly are the reasons I’m learning this stuff.

Cambridge Half Marathon


There is no photographic evidence of the finish, because I was too tired to lift my arms above my head to take a selfie. Finished Cambridge Half Marathon today in a chip time of 2:21:42 which is Not Exactly Speedy, but Pretty Acceptable. Bearing in mind my all-time PB was 2:04 and that was when I was two and a bit stones lighter and five years younger, and I was running 6-10 miles regularly – I don’t think it is too bad. I have really struggled to find time to run for more than 30 or 40 minutes this term. The downside of being a vicar-in-training is that Sunday mornings are no longer available for a long run… and I now live too far away from my parents to be able to run ten miles and have Sunday lunch with them. Mum’s roast chicken was always a good incentive 8 miles into a 10 miler.

The course around Cambridge has the advantage of taking you past some very scenic parts. However, it’s pretty twisty and narrow in places, making it hard to keep a consistent pace when you are running with the ‘run two abreast and have a chat’ kind of crowd. And it’s two laps. So I’m not sure how much I liked it on the second lap! It was quite fun running part of my normal commute to lectures, though. And the sun was a mixed blessing – it made it cheerful, but much warmer than I had expected. What I really hated was the finish – getting on to Victoria Avenue knowing I still had a mile to go, but being able to see and hear the finish, was tough. I knew there was a lot of zig-zagging, but it was a bit soul destroying.

It was great having Viv here and running with her again, I have missed that a lot. Even if we didn’t stay together after the first three miles… The crowd was encouraging, and the samba band was lovely… And I probably would apply to run this again next year, if I get a better routine of term-time running and energy. It’s hard to say.

I have always found the analogies between running, and ‘running with perseverance the race that is set before us’ as the Christian life. I don’t want to lose the actual running part of running life. It feels like regular long runs and half marathoning belong to a different life now. I want to keep running; I know it keeps me fit and sane in times of stress and runs are going to be a key part of my revision timetable next term. But perhaps I need to think carefully about what is achievable in the long run (pun intended).

Anyway, here are the split times from today. I’m pleased with the first 10k, actually, wasn’t expecting to be as close as all that to 10 minute miles. It is good to know that that is still my general comfortable running pace. But my long standing inability to run negative splits rears its head again…

1 (actually no idea. Had Runkeeper going for ages before the start. It said 15:29, my watch says 11:41)
2 10:23
3 10:02
4 10:07
5 9:59
6 9:50
7 10:25
8 10:42
9 11:12
10 11:34
11 11:38
12 11:27
13 11:34

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.

Michaelmas Term 2014

So… regular blogging is not, it seems, going to necessarily be a feature of life at theological college. I shall add it back to my to-do list for January and see what happens. This will be a bit of a roundup of what happened in my first term, or at least, that which I can remember – September seems an awfully long time ago.

Once I moved out of Batty Towers I spent a fortnight in Haslemere with friends. Lots of sleep, walks, fresh air, and peacefulness helped recovery from a slightly fraught couple of weeks. There was a side trip to Austria, which was much fun. Being with friends who had been through the transition to college meant there were many useful conversations and a fair few silly ones too. Eventually 27 September rolled around and it was time to pack everything into Jan’s car and take it, and the bicycle, to Cambridge. There was also a camper van full of bed and Kenyan Archdeacon as a side issue… and then I’d arrived. As had a horrendous cold. So the first week was harder work than it needed to be, because as I was trying to get to know new people and new surroundings I really rather wanted to be in bed… but I survived, and routine started to happen. Morning Prayer at 0740; Evening Prayer at 1800; remember the differences for Wednesdays and Thursdays… get the hang of the chapel at my attachment (I’m at Pembroke College chapel).

The BTh course I’m on lasts two years, and teaching is mostly over at the Divinity Faculty on the Sidgwick site. That means bicycle has been used nearly every day nipping over there and back. There are about a dozen of us, from Westcott and Ridley in the first year of the BTh. It’s a good mix and it’s great to have a chance to form friendships across the Cambridge Theological Federation.

A few people over Christmas asked me what a typical day was like, so I thought I’d blog briefly about it. There are a few variations on the basic theme, but this is more or less what life is like. I’m still mostly sticking to my early mornings although I am not running before chapel – morning prayer starts at 0740, and I have a few times gone for the silent meditation at 0715. The 0735 bell figures large in my mornings. After MP the holy people stay for a Eucharist, whereas I am hungry and go for breakfast… Lectures last term were nearly all in the mornings, so on several days a week as soon as breakfast is over it’s off to the bike shed to retrieve bicycle for the ride over to the Divinity Faculty. (Love the library there, by the way…). This coming term I’ve got more lectures in the afternoons so there’ll be a bit more to- and fro. A chance to work off a bit more of the college catering – which I am so far enjoying. After living alone for the best part of 12 years there will be a long time before I get tired of having meals cooked for me. Now if I could just get early morning tea delivery sorted…

Afternoons are a mix of preparation for supervisions (reading and essay writing) or the supervision meetings themselves, or lectures or sometimes other meetings – I’ve been part of the silent prayer group, and the rosary group so far. Then at 6pm we have Evening Prayer, followed by supper. After supper, more work, or more meetings. Choir practice is on Wednesdays, and in the Lent term there will be rehearsals for the Cambridge Passion. And a few nights out working with the winter homeless project. At 2130 there’s Compline, which I try to go to at least once a week, and usually after that it’s bedtime at the Towers for me, at any rate.

Thursdays are a bit different, as we have our community night – there’s a college Eucharist at 6pm which the ordinands’ partners and families go to. It feels much more like a ‘normal’ church service, with children’s work and a church full of people. Last term, although I enjoyed these evenings, it was the point in the week where I noticeably missed St Leonard’s and Colchester life. Soup supper and House notices follows the Eucharist (some people have been known to head to the bar in between), then either a meeting or two or a return to the bar before Compline at 2100. This is the only normative (compulsory) Compline of the week. In All Saints, candlelit, it is a beautiful reflective and calm moment in the week. Then you take a choice: home to the Greater Silence, which lasts until 0845 on Friday, or out to a local pub for the Lesser Silence. I think I was 50:50 last term on either Greater or Lesser Silence, both have their own benefits. Silent breakfast on a Friday is another little oasis of calm.

There you have it – that’s what takes my time up. Of course there’s also the weekly meeting at my attachment college, plus two services and two meals there each Sunday. And Saturdays, where I try to take a good day off (plans are afoot for many of them in Lent term…) And trying to find time to waste with people over a cup of tea or a glass of wine, finding the balance between solitary time that recharges me, solitary time that causes anxiety and being around people. Mealtimes are an interesting conundrum, it is wonderful to be able to sit and eat with other Westcottians but I do miss the ability to just quietly eat – and tweet, or read, or listen to the radio, or any of the things one does by oneself. In addition, now that Morning Prayer is no longer #trainprayer and a solitary activity, but corporate, with corporate prayer intentions, I’m still working out what my own personal pattern of prayer might look and feel like.

In Lent term, I have two new lecture series, Passion Play rehearsals, more choir practice as I will be singing with the choir and not just going to Wednesday practice (except on the days I am part of the children’s work); plus learning how to cantor as well as officiate at Compline; plus a half marathon in March to train for; a role as one of the college reps for AOCM and part, therefore, of the Common Room committee. I think it’s going to be busy…