February 2016


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The best conversations are often the most unexpected

Sarum College is now almost empty with our third-year students from our Ministry programme having returned back to their homes and families. I have to say a rather wonderful silence has fallen over the building! This has been a busy and demanding weekend for all of us – but I’m glad of some space to think and reflect on what has emerged as we have engaged with formation and learning.

MA students have had some research seminars and are beginning to explore the shape of their dissertation. Ethics, ethical thinking and practice as shaped by Christian doctrine has been the framework within which we have connected with each other and reflected on a very wide range of questions and challenges that living and loving present to us.

We began the weekend with Evensong in Salisbury Cathedral. After a busy week it was good to pause and immerse ourselves into the prayer of the church – I was struck as we sat in the choir of the Cathedral how our own individual lives are properly placed within a tradition and a life that stretches back centuries. Formation in ministry means, in part, to open up ourselves to the Christian tradition and be shaped and reshaped by it. The music, the glory of this particular building, the prayers and attention to scripture remind us of the importance of nurturing humility and openness to the divine.

After 2 1/2 years here this third-year group have a strong sense of friendship and collegiality. There is a great deal of catching up to do over supper before we move into some facilitated theological reflection. I have the privilege of leading this and ask the students to consider the nature of prayer across faith and cultural traditions; how we are present in situations of distress and trauma and to reflect upon how we put our theology to use. The students listen carefully. Together we  unpick the elements of this particular experience and ask how we might be channels of God’s loving presence – how, quite simply, we might ensure that we do not get in the way of faithful, authentic and compassionate presence. In this session and in all that follows it’s good to see the energy that flows from asking how we might express and communicate our theology.

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A light to shine in the darkness

 

We are glad to relax a little as the session ends with a drink in the bar. It gives us all an opportunity to see how preparations continue for ordination this summer. The danger of too much activity, learning and teaching, is that we overlook the personal.

Saturday starts early for some of us with morning prayer in the Cathedral before moving into sessions on study skills, the nature of ethics, and we are joined by Nick Spencer, the director of research at Theos who reminds us quite properly of the context within which the church does its ethical thinking. In particular students are challenged by the thought that much of our theological language is alien and strange to the increasing number of people who have little or no contact with the Church. I am also conscious of the need for Sarum College always to look outwards and to resist the temptation of narrowing the lens through which we look and interpret and learn what it might mean to nourish the human spirit.

I am tasked to explore the nature of war and peace in the Christian tradition and together we look at the decision by the UK Parliament in December 2015 to support airstrikes on Syria. In the light of modern warfare how do we view the long and honourable just war tradition shaped as it is by Christian thinking and practice. After coffee we move into an ever increasing voice that demands we have more choice over how and when we die. The assisted suicide debate is a complicated one to grasp the students do so with versatility and reflectiveness. In the afternoon – if that wasn’t enough controversy and contestation – one of my colleagues Barnabas Palfrey looks at same-sex marriage and I listen carefully to the debates and respond theologically. Above all I am keen to make a passionate plea, whatever our position be it revisionist or conservative ( and the many shades of opinion and conviction in between)  to think through how our disagreement and conflict shapes the kind of community we are. Above all how do we embody respect and a radical love for all – meaning everybody?

Worship, Bible study, and joining a local congregation here in Salisbury form the substantial part of Sunday morning before lunch and departure. I am guessing as I write we are all glad that the returned back into our places of rest and work give us some much needed space to ask ourselves what we have discovered – and indeed perhaps – to make some connections with where our resistances might be to learning and change.

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We are joined by a Diocesan Director of Ordinands who will continue to support the students training and spiritual formation  after ordination

 

 

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‘Middle age starts much later than previously thought – at the age of 55, research suggests’ – this is the rather helpful advice sent to me by a friend on this my 55th birthday. Born on 23 February 1961 is no arguing any more with the realities of time and age and numbers. For the record I didn’t really see the point of some of the other milestones that I have (obviously) passed : 30 and 40 and even 50 seemed okay but somehow this feels to be more significant. Some of you will know that I have a particular interest in age and gerontology and 55 certainly is a key figure in all of the writing about the meaning and shape of middle-age and old age. So at one level what’s in a figure and does age really matter at all – probably not and anyway who cares?!

Facebook is clever in reminding its followers about landmarks and this image has kept popping up in recent days

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it’s sort of amusing and affirming though I have found this last decade an amazing period of restoration and rebuilding and maturing. Some of this has been through adversity – what better place for stronger learning about self and others? Some of it comes with a clearer sense of both the possibilities and limitations of living. Above all and glad to be a bit more relaxed about what I really want to do and what choices might face this next bit of the journey!

I think that there are a couple of things at this point – before I begin to eat cake to mark the day – that I’d like to highlight and celebrate. I might come back to one or two further themes as I reflect further and who knows what advice birthday cards might bring?

First – when I look back over my working life I’m conscious that I have worked with some pretty demanding and even difficult people. I have not always handled myself with the kind of emotional intelligence that has emerged in recent years. Age has given me some ability in learning how to deal with social conflicts more effectively.  I think I have grown in wisdom as one attempts to imagine different points of view and living with the inevitable compromises that come from a commitment to resolution. And in this – sensibly to acknowledge and accept one’s own limitations is key to maintaining humanity and a commitment to kindness and goodness.

Second. Scientists used to think that we lose a significant number of our brain cells as we age, but other researchers have debunked that theory. We now know that we hit our cognitive peak between the ages of 40 and 68. Through the years, our brains build up connections and recognize patterns—meaning we’re better problem-solvers and can more quickly get the gist of an argument. This matches my experience and reminds me why it’s often better to draw upon the experience of an older person as reservoirs of wisdom. I think therefore it’s not unrealistic to hope that the next decade might be one of creativity, integration and a deepening apprehension of truth.

Third. I’m pretty determined not to give way to grumpy old man syndrome – to be more myself – to be shaped by what I believe to be true and how I might work with others to make a difference.

“For older people,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote , “beauty doesn’t come free with the hormones, the way it does for the young… It has to do with who the person is.” But who is the person staring back at us from the mirror as the decades roll by? The mystery of what makes you and your childhood self the same person despite a lifetime of changes is, after all one of the most interesting questions of both philosophy and theology.

Perhaps the greatest perplexity of ageing is how to fill with gentleness the void between who we feel we are on the inside and who our culture tells us is staring back from that mirror.

So – happy birthday – happy 55th birthday and let’s see what happens. Expect anything and thanks to all those who shape, reshape and love me.

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REMEMBERING JIM BIRREN

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One of the towering figures in gerontology has died : James E. Birren, founding

Director of the Andrus Gerontology Center, at the University of Southern California,

died at the age of 97.  His achievements were extraordinary   Foremost among these,

is creation of the Andrus Gerontology Center at USC, as well as the Leonard Davis

School of Gerontology.  His books and other publications are extensive, and many

distinguished gerontologists have been  nurtured by Jim Birren.  To get just a glimpse of

these, visit:

http://gero.usc.edu/2016/01/15/remembering-james-e-birren/

 

Jim Birren, then in his late sixties, was only getting started. His 30-year

retirement would witness pioneering work in areas far removed from the behavioral

psychology in which he began his own academic work in the 1940s.  Like a small

number of distinguished psychologists (e.g., Jerome Bruner and Leon Festinger),

Birren would “go boldly where no one has gone before” toward the in-depth

exploration of wisdom, autobiography, and the search for meaning.  His generativity

didn’t stop with his retirement nor will it stop now that he has left our world.  Instead,

we are all inheritors of the vision of “positive aging” that he has left behind.

This is the book that has been hugely influential in my own thinking about old age

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For more on guided autobiography, visit:

http://www.guidedautobiography.com/

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Chaplaincy Ministry and the Mission of the Church

Victoria Slater, SCM Press 2015, 160 pages, pbk, no price marked, ISBN 978 0 334 05315 6

 

There are three distinctive and attractive characteristics of this book. The first is the authors’ skilful ability to open up her research in an accessible and stimulating way. The second is the quality of theological reflection based, thirdly, in the reflective practice of her experience as a healthcare chaplain.

 

Six chapters work together towards a conclusion in responding two questions: ‘What is chaplaincy?’ and ‘What is the significance of chaplaincy within the ministry and mission of the church?’ These questions are discussed within the context of the extensive social reach of chaplaincy and in its ability to connect with a range of people beyond the traditional reach of the church. We are reminded of the growth and development of chaplaincy in recent years but also of the need for ongoing theological reflection on practice. Slater shows how critical theological reflection is for the illuminating of our wisdom about mission, the nature of God’s involvement in the world and how discipleship and vocation might be nurtured. This narrative takes seriously the significant and seemingly irreversible decline in numbers across church congregations but also challenges some of the marginalisation of chaplaincy present within church structures and discourse.

Chapter 1 offers some historical perspective in the context of our pluralistic and ever-changing culture. Chapter 2 models a practical theological approach with a careful use of experience through three case studies. It deals with role, relationship, self understanding and practice within a theological framework. Chapter 3 looks at the relationship between chaplaincy and mission opening up some of the tensions that are present in the ways in which we value some ministry above others. Chapter 4 deals with the identity of chaplaincy, necessary Slater makes clear for an understanding of good practice. Throughout there is an articulation of the distinctiveness of chaplaincy. With this in mind chapter 5 offers some challenges to the institutional church and the range of ecclesiologies always present when we explore the nature of mission. Chapter 6 keeps an eye on the future as it offers some guidance and frameworks within which to develop practice. It aspires to wanting to support further chaplaincy research and indeed encourage innovation through the setting up of new chaplaincy roles. Dialogue, presence, openness, reflection, faithfulness and transformation are key words fleshed out in and through the shape of the six chapters.

This reviewer shares the authors conviction that part of the future of church will lie in its moving beyond traditional models and boundaries into an engagement that meets and connects with people where they are and through what they are experiencing. This book, therefore, deserves to be used by all those who might want to explore ways in which we might be faithful to the gospel and share its grace. Our structures need this voice to inform this urgent task of reflection on the future shape of being church.

JWW Sarum College

http://www.sarum.ac.uk

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I have  had somewhat of a break from WordPress and decided on this first day of Lent to reconnect with this medium by way of re-engaging and reflecting on what had been very demanding but stimulating past few months.

During the early part of 2015 I engaged in a discernment process which led to my appointment as Principal of Sarum College in Salisbury. You will see above an aerial view of the College. Saying farewell to Windsor was difficult and especially to a community and place that I had got to know so well. I carry with me many of the rich experiences of that place but especially the shaping and deepening of my spiritual life through the work of prayer, worship and service that characterise St George’s Chapel and much of the work in the College of St George. Although, as the months pass by, different  perspectives emerge from those years there it is fascinating  interesting to note how vivid, immediate and sometimes complex human memory can be. Put simply – some days it feels as if I’ve been here in Salisbury for ever and other days for a very short period of time. In this particular learning community there is a great deal to learn about transitions and change.

I’m grateful to my new colleagues in Sarum College for extending such a warm welcome. This is a good team of committed people giving of their best in so many different ways. The work of the College is very diverse and this places particular demands upon leadership. For a flavour of some of what we do have a look at our website.

http://www.sarum.ac.uk

I hope to be able to offer more reflections on particular aspects of our work but for the purposes of breaking myself back into the task of blogging I want here simply to offer a picture of the diversity of the community that I describe as enriching and enlarging. The core group of visitors this week are over 30 people gathered for a week’s intensive Bible study on the book of Ruth led by my colleague Anne Claar Thomasson-Rosingh. Her skill in reading the Hebrew Scripture and enthusiasm for digging deeply into its shape and meaning for us has led to some fascinating conversations in the refectory. Yesterday I had the privilege of meeting two new bishops from the Anglican Communion who are spending a week in the Diocese of Salisbury who are partners with the church in South Sudan and Sudan. They represent the global reality of Anglicanism and offer us all an opportunity to listen carefully to a very different context and experience of Christian discipleship.

Last night as I left the building a number of excited participants were coming for a session on our Theology Quest and Questions led by David Catchpole. This long-standing course offers participants an opportunity to reflect in some depth on the shape of Christianity and  the subject matter to hand yesterday was the pondering of the parables.

So the week goes on with a lecture on the parish churches of Wessex, a book launch from a travel writer Harry Bucknell who will talk about his journey from Venice to Istanbul. The college on Friday will play its part in the launch of a major exhibition of sculpture by Sophie Ryder – well worth a visit to see these monumental pieces scattered in and across Salisbury Cathedral Close.

There are also all the hidden elements that make up the days here in the college. Visitors to the library, bookshop or those simply wanting some time out to think and to be refreshed. Clergy coming for support and supervision. Groups from the wider community who simply want to be here to connect with one another and relax.

I hope that gives a little flavour of what might begin to form a small part of this blog in the coming months. Please bear with me as I update one or two things and I look forward to renewing my connection with you. Here is a word cloud picture from one of my lectures with the Sarum Ministry Programme last weekend! I wonder if you can guess what the title of the lecture might have been?

 

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