Today has been a full and rich day, and I need to get some reflections down ‘on paper’ before it is quite done. I spent most of the day with 4/5 of my family and some 120+ others at the Diocesan Prayer Conference 2018 (PC18), hosted by St George’s Gateshead; followed by afternoon tea with 5/5 of my family and some 50 others at Sunderland Minster, in (a deferred) celebration of St George’s Day.
A mix of sung worship, plenary sessions, seminar streams, downtime over food and coffee, and even a little prayer, the Prayer Conference provided plenty of food for thought on developing our practices of personal and corporate prayer. It wasn’t about providing ‘how to’ answers as much as opening-up the gift of time; and in that spirit I found myself contemplating a curiosity of the prayer life of the Minster community. The Minster is open throughout the day, every day. Every day, throughout the day, people who are not members of our regular congregation, many of whom are not regular members of any congregation, come into the building to pray. They sit awhile. They light a candle as a physical act to remember someone before God. They leave a prayer request pinned to the prayer board.
Members of our congregation rarely pin a prayer request on the board. They are almost entirely left by visitors, asking us to pray with them. And the requests reveal the burdens on their hearts they are hoping someone will come alongside and help to carry. Patterns emerge. The requests are to do with seeking God’s protection (as in the Aaronic blessing, the Lord bless you and keep you…), for family members, for the people of Syria, for refugees, for the dead (Christians from an evangelical background find praying for the dead a strange impulse; but we need to be attentive to the cry of people’s hearts). And the requests are to do with fear of the loss of identity: family members who have lost their job, or who are struggling with mental health issues, or are estranged from their family; and, again, the dead, in fear that if they are not held by God, if they are forgotten, then—at that point, not at their death—they will cease to exist. These are prayers for ‘the lost’—not in the fundamentalist sense of those heading towards an eternity in hell, but in the sense of the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son: those who need to find themselves, found by God.
To put it bluntly, though I suspect that members of our congregation pray, I see more evidence that those who are not part of our congregation—the Minster community at its farthest fringes—pray than I do of our ‘core’ praying. And I found myself wondering how we might build connection, in both directions, between that fringe and core?
From St George’s, we came back to the Minster, and to a wonderful afternoon tea. This is a primarily social event, primarily aimed at older people—though, as is important for older people, it was not only for older people, but a gathering of young and old, with, on this occasion, the older generation being centre-stage. It was a wonderful event, wonderfully hosted by a fabulous team. They laid on bunting and pretty table-cloths, cut sandwiches and dainty cakes, an endless supply of refreshed teapots and cafetieres, and a quiz. Those who were there stretched far beyond members of our congregation.
This is not about trying to keep living in the past, but it is about visiting the past. Talking to one older man, he told me about wanting to revisit a sea loch where convoys had gathered during the war, but that when he did so, he didn’t recognise it. He’d put it down to seeing the loch from the shore, and not, as back in the day, the shore from a ship in the loch. It wasn’t what he was expecting, but neither was it a disappointment. The image felt relevant.
Afternoon tea at the Minster is a very practical response to the fear of the loss of identity, especially for those who find themselves multiply-bereaved of those with whom they share common memory (both personal history and social history, such as film and music and world events), and unable to keep up with the ever-increasing pace of technological change. In this act of hospitality, we discover ourselves loved by God, children at the table in our Father’s house. Here, we experience ourselves as found, not lost—and find ourselves again, having perhaps lost sight of ourselves in the winter of the world, or the autumn of our lives.
Our vision as Durham Diocese is a call to ‘blessing our communities in Jesus’ name, for the transformation of us all’. It felt to me that the two events I attended today went hand in hand in this. Thank you to everyone who made both possible.