What binds us together – The sixth step on my #JourneyOfHope

IT’S BEEN a year since the sixth step on the Journey of Hope pilgrimage of training in

‘Christian peace-building and reconciliation… to inspire and equip Christian leaders to become skilled practitioners of reconciliation in their churches and communities.’

reconcilerstogether.co.uk

The pilgrimage journey included five residential modules from January to June 2019 – I wrote my reflections on each of the previous steps while on the way to, or during, the following residential module at one of the reconciliation centres in the Reconcilers Together partnership. After the final module in June, life became full again, with less space to write, so looking back one year on seems like the next best time to write this.

St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace

On 6th and 7th June 2019 we were with St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace in London for the sixth stage of this journey. St Ethelburga’s describes itself as

‘a maker of peace-makers. We inspire and equip people from all backgrounds to become peace-builders in their own communities and lives.’

stethelburgas.org

Like other centres we visited on the Journey of Hope, St Ethelburga’s has a powerful story behind how it came to this ministry of reconciliation. It centres its modern mission around four themes, which derive from its story:

  1. Faith Into Action
  2. Protecting The Sacred
  3. Opportunity In Crisis
  4. Community Across Difference.

Life of St Ethelburga #FaithIntoAction

Stained glass portraying St Ethelburga

St Ethelburga, who died around 675 CE, was the first leader of a monastic order for women in England. Having refused an arranged marriage to a pagan prince, she was banished to a nunnery by her brother Erkonwald, who later became Bishop of London (Bishopsgate, where St Ethelburga’s Centre now stands, is named after him.)

She became the first Abbess of the Benedictine Abbey at Barking in Essex, one of the first religious houses for women in the country. She is especially noted for heroism in caring for the sick during an outbreak of plague in 664, which eventually killed her and most of her community. During this time, it is reported that she had a vision of a light ‘brighter than the sun at noonday’ which inspired her and her community to carry out works of great compassion in caring for others.

St Ethelburga’s commemorates her life on 11th October each year. She epitomises a strong woman who exemplifies the virtues of leadership and commitment to social action even to the point of self-sacrifice. Looking back on her story one year on, it is poignant that in recent months we are once again noting the heroism and self-sacrifice of so many in this new time of pandemic.

The 17th-century shops at the front of St Ethelburga’s

Long history of consecrated ground amid the chaos of the city #ProtectingTheSacred

St Ethelburga’s is one of the few surviving medieval churches in London. It survived the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the Blitz in the Second World War. The foundation date of the church is unknown, but the first known record of it dates from 1250. In the 17th Century two shops were built in front of the church – an early example of ecclesiastical social enterprise. They were removed in 1932 when Bishopsgate was widened and the original facade of the church restored. In the 1930’s St Ethelburga’s achieved notoriety as one of the few churches in which divorced people could remarry, in defiance of the Bishop’s strictures.

Collateral damage of 1993 Bishopsgate IRA bomb #OpportunityInCrisis

On Saturday 24 April 1993, the Irish Republican Army detonated a bomb in a truck parked right outside St Ethelburga’s. One person was killed, and 44 people were injured. Damage to the surrounding commercial buildings cost £350m to repair, contributing to a near-collapse of the world’s leading insurance market, Lloyd’s of London. 70% of St Ethelburga’s was destroyed and it was not insured. Richard Chartres, then Bishop of London, overcame disagreement about what should happen to the ruins with a vision that it be rebuilt with a new mission. Prince Charles formally re-opened the new Centre for Reconciliation and Peace in 2002.

The Peace Garden and Bedouin tent

Islamic Peace Garden #CommunityAcrossDifference

The church made a connection with other faiths as early as 1861, when Revd John Rodwell, Rector of St Ethelburga’s, made one of the earliest English translations of the Qur’an. In 2006, an Andalusian-style peace garden complete with Bedouin tent was added, in response to the terrorist violence of 7/7 and 9/11. The tent is welcoming to all, bringing Eastern architecture alongside the Western heritage of the church. It is a space without hierarchy where differing perspectives can be explored. The theme of diverse narratives and belief systems not just coexisting fruitfully, but actively collaborating, is central to all the Centre’s projects.

Drawing on these four key principles, St Ethelburga’s now:

  • Works for the integration of refugees and asylum seekers by building relationships across differences and by training young people to become allies to displaced people
  • Empowers young adults to lead and collaborate across faiths and culture, working particularly with sacred activism and spiritual ecology
  • Supports Christian leaders to turn churches into hubs of reconciliation expertise for their local communities
  • Speaks out about the need for cooperation and living true to our deepest human values.

Which of these themes speaks most to my context?

As coordinator of the Open Table Network of ecumenical worship communities for LGBT+ Christians and all who seek an inclusive church, I can see elements of each of these principles in my ministry, though perhaps the greatest is Community Across Difference. We are not currently involved in interfaith work, though in Liverpool we did co-facilitate a group called Spectrum of Spirituality which hosted an interfaith celebration as part of the city’s annual Pride festival. We are, however, crossing boundaries between Christian traditions – Open Table communities are hosted in churches from four different traditions: Anglican, Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed churches. We are also seeking reconciliation between, and integration for, LGBT+ Christians and the churches which can sometimes be inhospitable places for those who present a minority report on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Our journey with St Ethelburga’s

The Royal Foundation of St Katherine’s courtyard

As St Ethelburga’s is not a residential centre, we stayed at The Royal Foundation of St Katherine in Limehouse, voted one of London’s top ten most peaceful places.

It was a 20-minute bus journey from there to St Ethelburga’s but some of us took the opportunity to do a prayer walk guided by fellow pilgrim Ish Lennox. Highlights included seeing the faded façade of Wilton’s, one of the few surviving music hall venues, and the impressive mural depicting the Battle of Cable Street. This was a clash between the police officers sent to protect a march by members of the British Union of Fascists led by Oswald Mosley, and anti-fascist counter-demonstrators.

Dr Justine Huxley, the Chief Executive of the Centre, led us in reflection on the first day, sharing how she felt called, following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in the US and 7/7 in the UK, to build bridges and move towards acknowledging our interdependence across differences. She invited us to imagine a world where:

  • Conflict is an opportunity to change and grow
  • People collaborate across differences of all kinds
  • Justice focusses on healing and restoration, not punishment
  • Resources are shared
  • Everyone has a voice
  • All religions are honoured as different paths to meaning
  • The earth and all life are treated as sacred.

She described how peace-making may mean being ‘confronted with enormous need’ and ‘meeting need with something authentic within myself’. She believes this is based in the knowledge that self-change can only be done with God’s help. She invited us to commit to a shared vision of peace, as a vital call for the survival and flourishing of all of us:

‘The 21st Century will be the century of peace – or humanity will cease to be’

Dalai Lama

We were invited to reflect on how our own areas of conflict related to climate justice. I found this challenging – when faced with the urgency of action to protect the environment and life on our planet, where does activism for the LGBT+ community fit in? However, I take inspiration from the work of Peterson Toscano, a gay performance artist and activist for equality and environment issues. He cites many examples of how those who are less privileged and more marginalised have the most to lose in times of crisis. Here too we may see evidence of this: In 2018-19 police forces in England and Wales recorded a 25% increase in homophobic hate crime and an even more shocking 37% increase in transphobic hate crime. Peterson advocates solidarity with other causes which seek equality and justice for all, such as the #BlackLivesMatter movement and #ExtinctionRebellion.

We were also invited in groups to co-create a question to start a dialogue around climate and conflict

We also heard from colleagues working on Archbishop Justin Welby’s Reconciliation Ministry, who gave us a taster of Difference, a 5-session course exploring ‘what it means to follow Jesus in the face of conflict and see transformation through everyday encounters.’ One element of the course encourages three habits:

  • Be curious: See how the world looks through others’ eyes
  • Be present: Bring your whole self with authenticity and confidence
  • Reimagine: Hope and opportunity where we long for change.

We tried some exercises from week 4, on the theme of practising forgiveness, and were invited to consider:

  • What stops me saying sorry?
  • What stopes people from saying sorry to me?
  • How can I become someone who is approachable when pain or disagreement arise?
  • What small, everyday steps make it more possible to forgive others?

We ended the day with a meal together at a classic East London institution – Tayyabs Pakistani Restaurant. It was a test of the Reconcilers Together commitment to environmental sustainability by providing vegetarian food for everyone. The restaurant refused to believe we were all vegetarian – so much so that as plate after plate of meat arrived, I began to wonder whether I, one of the few vegetarians in our number, would actually get a meal at all!

We began our last day together in the chapel in St Katherine’s for morning prayer then travelled together by bus to St Ethelburga’s. We shared our progress with our Actions at Home, reflected on the pilgrimage as a whole, and looked ahead to the future. I wrote last year about my attempt at an Action At Home, which was much simpler than I had originally planned. At St Ethelburga’s we were asked what we did, what was our biggest learning, and what we expect the impact of our action to be. My responses then were limited – since then I am pleased to say that in February this year, I did achieve something closer to my original Action At Home idea – a reconciliation meal with 12 members of the Anglican Diocese of Liverpool who hold diverse views on sexual orientation and gender identity. However, due to the unforeseen arrival of lockdown soon afterwards, the ability to follow this up with further action has been limited. At the time of writing I am preparing to review the feedback on this event with the Canon of Reconciliation in the Diocese of Liverpool and will share a summary in a future blog.

After lunch we took a trip to the Sky Garden at the top of the Walkie Talkie tower, aka 20 Fenchurch Street. During our time there, we were invited to reflect on these questions:

  1. What do you notice about the city?
  2. What does it mean to you to find your hope on the ground under your feet? To be reconciled to the very earth?
  3. If you could look down on your own situation/conflict from 35 floors up, what new perspective might you have?
    1. What new / different conflicts do you see?
    1. What’s on the horizon or around you that you haven’t even had the time or energy to notice yet?

My reflection was around the relationship between LGBT+ activism and climate justice, which I have referred to above.

As some of our number with the furthest to travel had to leave early, our last time together was in the Peace Garden Bedouin tent, which was a warm, intimate, peaceful place for us to share our hopes, fears and love for one another and all we had shared on this journey.

Journey of Hope group photo at St Ethelburga’s, 7th June 2019

We ended the day with a celebratory vegetarian meal in the nave at St Ethelburga’s, and each of us received a framed photo of the group along with messages of affirmation from our peers.

Many of the Journey of Hope pilgrims were able to attend the Gathering in Glasgow on Conflict and Faith between 31st October and 2nd November, at which we were formally commissioned as reconcilers.

Commissioning as reconcilers at the Gathering In Glasgow on Conflict and Faith

Last week we had planned to gather for a reunion on the anniversary of the end of the course. We would have been in Malvern to celebrate the launch of the Ascension Centre for Contemplation and Reconciliation, led by another course participant, Phillip Johnson.

When we planned that reunion, we could not have foreseen that within a month of setting the date, the UK Government would call for a lockdown banning non-essential travel and advising us to Stay At Home and Save Lives. We adapted by learning the art of reconciliation and reunion via Zoom online meetings. Then on the day we would have arrived at Malvern last week, we learned of the sudden death of one of the members of the Reconcilers Together partnership: Glenn Jordan, Public Theology Programme Manager at Corrymeela. He began mentoring me after the Journey of Hope finished last summer – we were due to catch up again this month. He was a fine human and a compassionate, creative theologian. Within hours of learning the news, those who were free to meet for mutual support and prayer gathered for a video call.

Reflecting on the last year, and especially the last few days, I realise now that a quotation Justine Huxley shared at St Ethelburga’s now seems even more relevant and prophetic:

‘When things fall apart, we find out what binds us together.’

Rebecca Solnit

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