LAST AUTUMN I saw an advert for a fully-funded six-month training programme in ‘Christian peace-building and reconciliation… to inspire and equip Christian leaders to become skilled practitioners of reconciliation in their churches and communities.’
It seemed too good to be true – an opportunity for fully-funded personal and professional development at a time when I was about to step out into a new phase of leadership of the Open Table network across the UK, and developing chaplaincy for the YMCA across the Liverpool City Region.
I considered taking on further study over the last few years, in sociology of religion, practical theology, or chaplaincy, to help me deepen my understanding and practice, but I struggled to find the time or money to make it happen.
This programme – the Journey of Hope – is different. Reflective and practical, not academic, largely free, and in manageable chunks: five blocks of two days plus a practical project in my home community. What were the odds of getting a place? 20 available – how many applicants would fit the bill? I made time to give it a go.
I got a telephone interview! But I thought I’d fallen at the first hurdle when I felt I’d misunderstood a couple of questions, plus they said they were looking for church leaders to make their churches into ‘Reconciliation Hubs’, but I don’t have that role in a church. I have found myself unexpectedly steering a network of multiple Open Table congregations (17 at the last count). Could the course leaders see what I saw as my need to become more resilient in engaging with conflict as I step out in both fear and faith into the wider church and YMCA movement and an LGBTI+ Christian leader? I felt bereft about apparently losing a place… Perhaps I wanted or needed this more than I first realised?
To my amazement I got a second telephone interview with another member of the team from Reconcilers Together, the ecumenical network of Christian organisations across the UK and Ireland which are hosting the Journey of Hope, as she had been unavailable to take part in the first interview. This felt more hopeful – with my initial nerves dissipated, perhaps I would do myself and my community more justice?
It worked! I was one of 21 people who secured a place – they found it so hard to choose, they created an extra place. (I later learned there were almost 90 applicants, so they could have filled the course more than four times over).
Our first module in January was based at Coventry Cathedral, whose international ministry of reconciliation began when the old cathedral went up in flames following the bombing of the city in World War II. The Provost of the cathedral at the time, Richard Howard, immediately vowed that it would rise again, as a symbol of hope and forgiveness in the face of war and destruction. A local priest made a cross from three of the fifteenth-century nails from the old cathedral’s oak beams. The Cross of Nails was set upon a stone altar created from the rubble, so services could continue in the ruined church, and the words ‘Father Forgive’ were inscribed on the surviving stonework of the sanctuary.
Note that the inscription did not say ‘Father forgive them’ – it is deliberately neutral and inclusive in recognition that we all fall short and contribute, actively or passively, to the culture of conflict that makes such violence and destruction possible. It inspired the Coventry Litany of Reconciliation, which is prayed daily at the new Coventry Cathedral, and weekly on Fridays in the Cathedral ruins. It is also shared by more than 200 other churches and communities worldwide who have joined the Community of the Cross of Nails, which grew out of informal relationships between Coventry, Kiel, Dresden and Berlin after World War II.
As part of our pilgrimage in Coventry we shared a tour and heard the story of the old cathedral, and took part in the Litany of Reconciliation. As I walked into the open space, surrounded by the encircling outer wall of the old church, I immediately saw the similarity to the Bombed Out Church in Liverpool, aka St Luke In The City, the church after which the parish where I am from is named. It was destroyed by bombing in May 1941.
This set me thinking about how we in Liverpool might mark the 80th anniversary of the Liverpool May Blitz in 2021, and how our parish might join the Community of the Cross of Nails. On my return, I began the conversation with colleagues about how we might make this happen.
The following evening in Coventry we had exclusive access to the new cathedral lit mainly by candle-light for an hour of reflection on all we had shared in those days. As I sat in the Chapel of Unity I reflected on the extraordinary growth of Open Table from one to 17 communities in little more than three years, I felt overwhelmed by the scale of the task before me to develop and sustain this network. I recalled the reflection I wrote on the growth of Open Table in comparison to the improbable and abundant growth in the parable of the mustard seed,
Its growth has been both wild and, we hope, beneficial – it has provided shelter for those on the edges of our Christian traditions, like those Jesus was criticized for associating with by the religious authorities of his day. Some see it as subversive and scandalous, and would want to root it out – as we reflect on our growth as a diverse and dispersed community today, let’s pray for the courage, the creativity and the clarity to see it grow into something large and firmly rooted – a true image of the kingdom of God here among us.
I also recalled that we have often said to people about Open Table that it is not our kingdom we’re building – if it were, it would not be nearly as abundant and far-reaching! So I prayed simply, ‘Thy kingdom come’.
Then I sat in the Gethsemene Chapel, named after the garden where Jesus prayed before his arrest and crucifixion. Still feeling overwhelmed by the task before me, and knowing I could not achieve it by my own strength and will, I prayed, ‘Thy will be done’.
Considering these two reflections, I realised that I need to be more intentional about asking the Open Table community for their prayerful and generous support, in whatever way they can show how they value the community – after all, Open Table now reaches more than 300 people a month across all the communities – what potential could be released if all those people showed how much they value Open Table. So, I felt inspired to create an Open Table prayer based on those two phrases:
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.
Most of our communities meet around 6.30pm on Sunday evening – perhaps if those who were not meeting lit a candle around that time in solidarity with those that are, it might heigthen the sense of connection and belonging to something bigger. I will seek to introduce this at a special event to mark my re-commissioning as a Missional Leader for the Open Table community next month.
As homework after the first module in Coventry, we were asked to go back to our communities and carry out an audit to help us map the areas of potential or actual conflict, alongside resources and opportunities for change and growth. The audit involves inviting key people in the community to complete a questionnaire or take part in an interview to offer their perspectives on the dynamics within the community.
Today we begin the second module of the Journey of Hope pilgrimage, which the organising group Reconcilers Together call ‘an experiential and dynamic learning journey across the UK and Ireland over six months from January 2019 to June 2019.’ I will continue to reflect on this journey as it progresses. In the meantime, I share this poem which speaks to me of my hopes for this journey:
Turning to One Another
There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about.
Ask: ‘What’s possible?’ not ‘What’s wrong?’ Keep asking.
Notice what you care about.
Assume that many others share your dreams.
Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.
Talk to people you know.
Talk to people you don’t know.
Talk to people you never talk to.
Be intrigued by the differences you hear. Expect to be surprised.
Treasure curiosity more than certainty.
Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible.
Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something.
Know that creative solutions come from new connections.
Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know.
Real listening always brings people closer together.
Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world.
Rely on human goodness.