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LGTBI Mass Reflection

On my penultimate day as a Pastoral Assistant, we hosted our first LGBTI Mass. When I arrived in the Parish a year ago it was something I had been keen to see us explore, combining our catholic tradition with our inclusive theology. Over time, for a variety of reasons, I must admit that I became less excited with the idea. Having originally bullied Fr Iain into agreeing to say one, upon his return from prolonged sick leave he in turn bullied me into following it through after all.

A lot of interest has been shown in the Mass, both positive and negative, and the poster advertising it has been viewed more than 60,000 times on Twitter. In response to this, and to a number of requests for copies of the liturgy, I am publishing this blog post reflecting on the Mass – along with the liturgy we used.

Feel free to use, change and play with it to suit your situation (bearing in mind copyright restrictions others may impose) – if you might consider hosting a similar service. Much of it comes directly from a Common Worship, but a few Collects and prayers come from the Inclusive Church resources on their website. The recent prayer written by Jeffrey John, calling on God to shake up the Church, is also included in the intercessions.

Service Sheet (PDF)
Service Sheet (Publisher)
Readings and Intercessions (PDF)
Readings and Intercessions (Word)
Eucharistic Prayer (PDF)
Eucharistic Prayer (Word)

Some thoughts…

‘LGBTI’ and ‘Mass’ are two words that can barely be imagined together. That’s why I found the idea rather irresistible, a chance to boldly show that being traditional in your outlook doesn’t preclude one from being radical, with a theology firmly rooted in the world around us today. The greatest tradition of mankind is progress towards the Kingdom.

I originally had slight trepidations – having been part of a successful group in Gloucester diocese meeting every other month around an altar, I wanted to emulate some of that companionship without replicating a formula which might not suit our context. It was vitally important to me that we were in no way being patronising to the LGBTI community. Much as I admire a lot of the work done by LGBTI Christian organisations, there can sometimes be an ‘overly-nice’ edge to their work – losing sight of the cross because you’ve completely covered it with rainbow flags and beaming smiles. The Gloucester group handled that extremely well, so the pressure was on.

My response to this was to formulate a liturgy that drew upon what we would be doing anyway. We always have a Vigil Mass at 6:00pm on a Saturday evening, and I began with that service as my starting point. I wanted us to say: “Tonight we’re particularly acknowledging the struggle of LGBTI people, often at the hands of the Church, and reflecting on how we welcome LGBTI people into the Body of Christ. You’d be welcome to join us for that.” In that way, it becomes a safe space for people to perhaps find the doors of Church for the first time, or simply to ‘be themselves’ within a Church environment more than they are usually able – allowing them to explore the amazing diversity of God, reflected within themselves and each other.

The liturgy had to expand in order to reflect the prayers we wanted to offer, and we therefore added a time of ‘physical prayer’, lighting votive candles and placing them in the window sills. At the end of the service these were carried outside and placed at the foot of the cross. It was heavily based around our usual practice for the All Souls Requiem Mass, which last year was quite possibly the most moving service I have ever been involved with, and this allowed us to give the individuals we prayed for the same level of dignity as we do our departed brothers and sisters.

Since watching ‘Beautiful Thing’, in film and on stage, I have had a great desire to use ‘Move in a little closer, Baby’ as a Processional… If that sentence makes you balk, read the words carefully and imagine they are God’s call to us. While, for a few reasons, that idea had started to seem less attractive to me, in the end I knew it was the right thing to do. ‘Let us build a house where love can dwell’ has become a mini-anthem for both Churches in our Parish, so it was essential that we included it. Alongside that, and other musical choices throughout which we would normally be using for the Vigil Mass, Jo Winn-Smith, our Reader, suggested ‘This is It’ (I originally thought she meant the Michael Jackson version, in which he calls himself the ‘light of the world’..!) and ‘We are family’, both of which worked extremely well. They pushed the edge of what felt ‘right’, but by placing them as we did, surrounded by other music and deep, searching prayer – culminating in the Eucharist – I came away feeling very comfortable nonetheless.

We had 15 people in the congregation (compared with a maximum of 5 for our Vigil Mass normally), along with a lot of interest from people who couldn’t make it (August seems a good time to start, as it’s quiet so you can make mistakes..!). We also had a good number of requests for candles to be lit via. Twitter. More than half the congregation were new to our Parish, the majority had found us through Twitter.

Beyond that, it has provoked a great deal of conversation and debate around the Parish – in the most healthy sense. The Parish is strong enough to offer a welcome to LGBTI people, without just ticking boxes. Discussions over the theology of marriage as a sacrament, of the rights and wrongs of IVF, and of the very meaning of relationships have taken place in the last few weeks over post Daily Mass coffee.

Woodham Parish, where I have served as Pastoral Assistant (based at St. Michael’s, Sheerwater) is not a place to sit in the congregation and hear nice, bland, warm and fuzzy things. It *is* the sort of place where you are encouraged to open your heart as wide as possible, despite the inevitable fact that this will cause a great deal of pain at times, in order to form a deep connection with others, and with God. That’s why I am delighted to have been part of organising this Mass, why I’m delighted that it looks like there is a real hunger for it, and am delighted that the Parish will continue to offer similar services in the future to feed this need. Christ came to welcome all, even those on the outskirts of society, into the Kingdom of Heaven. That doesn’t mean taking rotten apples out to the peasantry, that means taking risks with prayer, putting the Church on the line, and being honest. We fail at that as a Parish, I fail at it as an individual, but we try..! If you fancy trying it too, why not give a similar service a go?

When Christmas greets Easter on Candlemas Day..

As a place for updates or reflections, I accept my blog has been fairly useless until now. Following one update since taking on the role of Pastoral Assistant I’ve been almost entirely silent.. This short update should bring things back up to date, and if you’re a praying sort of person I hope you might say one or two for me after reading it.

Since September my role has been as varied as it has been exhausting. From being present at all the outreach things St. Michael’s does – Book Swap, Film Club, monthly community lunches, etc.. to getting into the local schools, the community hub, representing the Church on a range of local secular, Eccumenical and Anglican organisations and more.

The most important part of the job has been the best training for priesthood, because it essentially sums up what I think priesthood is all about – ‘being there’. The most important moments of the last six months have been the unexpected, the surprising encounters you have when you put yourself at God’s disposal and make yourself available, and He works through you to help people around you.

To keep everything balanced, and so that the busyness doesn’t send me totally insane (only a little bit), the days are all based in the routing of the Offices (Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Compline) and the Daily Mass. The Daily Mass is usually said at the mother Church, All Saints. Working closely with All Saints – but with my St. Michael’s hat on – has taught me much about how many different Churches can be unique individuals, yet part of a wider family within a parish or benefice.

Meanwhile I’ve continued to plod along the discernment pathway to ordination. I was passed on by the Diocesan Assessors in early December, and the Bishop of Tewkesbury (acting as the Bishop of Gloucester) has since met with me, and agreed to sponsor me to a Bishops’ Advisory Panel. I’ll be heading to Ely from 13th-15th April for that.

And finally a word about the coming few months. This Thursday, 5th February, Fr Iain Forbes – my Vicar – will be going into hospital for a heart operation on the 6th. He has been advised (with a relatively positive prognosis) that he will need to rest for at least three months, before returning to the Vicarage.

We have no other active priests currently attached to the parish, and although we should be able to cover most Sunday services and many weekday ones, for a vibrant parish this will be a real blow. My role will largely be to keep the routine of prayer, which acts as the heartbeat of the parish, continuing over the coming months. I’ll be saying the Offices across both Churches (morning at St. Michael’s, evening at All Saints’), and as often as possible weekday Masses will be covered. Where that is not possible the plan is that I will be leading Holy Communion from the Reserved Sacrament. This is distinctly *not* filling the gap, there is a great difference between that service and a Mass, but where no cover is available it will ensure that there isn’t a gap – and that the Blessed Sacrament continues to exist at the very core of the parish.

With Lent, something both Churches throw themselves into head first, there will be more things than usual happening that need cover – confirmation classes, Lent Lunches, Lent Groups, a Quiet Day, Holy Hours, Stations of the Cross… And a packed Holy Week schedule that ought to carry the tagline ‘If you produce less than two Kleenex boxes worth of tears you get your offering back.’ I hasten to add that I won’t be alone in all this, and many members of the parish are stepping up, filling in, and ensuring that the parish continues to punch above its weight and, above all, provide centres of prayer that touch thousands of lives.

Again, therefore, if you’re a praying person I’d greatly appreciate them for myself, both in this role and my wider vocation, for Fr Iain Forbes and a successful recovery, and for the whole parish. Thank you (and I will try and blog a little more over the coming weeks/months!).

“Now what are we supposed to
do?” – The future of the Church,
as told by Forrest Gump

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[This article contains slight spoilers for Forrest Gump]

Forrest Gump: I had run for three years, two months, fourteen days, and sixteen hours.

Young Man: Quiet. Quiet… He’s going to say something….

The crowd of followers stops and waits with baited breath

Forrest Gump: I’m pretty tired. I think I’ll go home now.

Forrest begins to walk back along the road, the crowd slowly parting – stunned – to let him through

Young Man: Now what are we supposed to do?

I recently watched Forrest Gump for the first time. I’m assuming that most people have seen it, and will already be aware that it’s an excellent film. There are many deep messages hidden within it, and many poignant theological reflections to be found within the words of the archetypal wise fool.

But the moment that struck me the most was the exchange above, which takes place around two thirds of the way into the film. Forrest takes off one day, jumping up from his chair at the family home and begins running back and forth across America. Gradually gaining media coverage, he picks up followers as he goes. Looking back at this period of his life, in his customary understated way, he comments: “Somebody later told me it gave people hope.”

Following three years of this enigmatic leadership, spreading a message of hope in a way no one quite understood, as he turns to face his followers for a final time there is something deeply Christlike about the man with long hair and a beard. And, in the small exchange above, we instantly find ourselves in the middle of Holy Week.

Expecting great words of wisdom, perhaps a call to action, an explanation of why he’s done all this journeying, a reveal of the great social issue they have been been tackling all along… He instead reveals that his time has come to an end, and he’s returning home. Perhaps understandably his disciples are confused – even devastated. Is this the end? Is this the great victory of the Messiah – to go home? Have they been following a fraud, not the Lord? This doesn’t fit in with the plan at all!

“Now what are we supposed to do?”

The natural human instinct is to seek an answer. But whatever end of the Church spectrum we find ourselves on – whether we find a solid answer in the words of the Bible, or a more complex history of revelations as outlined in the historical doctrines of the Church, do we leave space for God to surprise us?

One of my favourite things Pope Francis has said is the following:

“[The New Testament Doctors of Law] did not understand that God is the God of surprises, that God is always new; He never denies himself, never says that what He said was wrong, never, but He always surprises us. They did not understand this and they closed themselves within that system that was created with the best of intentions and asked Jesus: ‘But, give us a sign’. And they did not understand the many signs that Jesus did give them and which indicated that the time was ripe. Second, they had forgotten that they were a people on a journey. On a path! And when we set out on a journey, when we are on our path, we always encounter new things, things we did not know.”

Do we leave ourselves open to be surprised be God? Or do we find too much comfort and security in our ‘way of doing things’ that we miss the deeper message and the call to do something different? We get into the habit of using words like ‘love’ and ‘grace’.. But do we continue to contemplate their meaning, within a wider and altogether more complicated story of redemption?

Perhaps, 2,000 years on, we’re still ashamed of the fact that we don’t actually understand, completely, why He ended His ministry on earth in the way He did, at the time He did. It’s a poignant thought that the climactic ‘Superstar’ number from ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ asks that question more clearly than almost any liturgy or well-known prayer. Does even the most enigmatic and mysterious liturgy give us space to ponder what His Passion means? Doctrine and theology hint at answers, and give us enough to find faith, but to claim we understand the Passion would be to claim an understanding of God Himself. We should be bolder and braver in admitting that Church doesn’t provide the answers to life’s big questions. What it does provide is a means of finding those answers, through prayer. A lifetime’s work, but the best use of a lifetime imaginable.

As the Church of England this week reveals yet more reports and plans for the future, part of a neverending process of rejuvenation and reform, whereabouts is God in all of this? Has the Church become so comfortable at what it’s doing that we’re not listening to the surprises God has in store for us now? While we bicker amongst ourselves on this issue or that issue have we closed our minds to the possibility that He will do something surprising and unexpected, something that doesn’t fit in with the plans we’ve prepared, as He did 2,000 years ago? We know where we’ve been – we have libraries full of Church history all over the world – and we make plans for where we’re going – with exciting talk of 2020, 2025, even 2050 and beyond. But we forget to live in the now, we forget to let God into our conversations, and we forget to listen out for Him to surprise us.

As He takes the Church in new and exciting directions, we haven’t even noticed. We’re still debating and deliberating while He’s already opening new avenues of ministry, healing, and ways to find Him. The Church should be the ultimate support for Him in this work, but too often it seems to be a hinderance – because it has stopped watching and praying as He continues to speak.

When we start to live life by prayer – not letting our prayers end as we leave the church building, but letting them feed into all we do and think and say – the most extraordinary and unlikely coincidences open themselves up. Life seems less random. Things make sense, the dots begin to join up, and we can begin to find our place in the constantly surprising ways God interacts with His creation. These opportunities and coincidences are all around us – prayer is about opening our eyes to see them, and having the guts to do something with them.

We may not see Christ in person literally running ahead of us, leading the way, any more. But as they hymn says: “Shall our hearts forget His promise, ‘I am with you evermore’?”. Perhaps we cannot sit around a campfire and ask the questions burning in our hearts, as we could any other friend, but through prayer we can still ask direct questions, and get just as clear an answer as He would have given us face to face – in just as real a sense. Until the Church rejuvenates her attitude to prayer, which in so many ways has become stale and unimaginative, it will never fully find God’s plan for rejuvenation.

If the liturgy of the Church which has lasted for 2,000 years – especially the Eucharist – is ‘boring’ and doesn’t connect us with God any more, if we don’t want it to be at the very heart of our lives, is this not a problem with us, and not with the liturgy itself? Whatever your opinion on the presence of Christ within the Eucharist, how can joining ourselves with the last meal the Word Made Flesh shared on earth with His friends, an action which allows us to become one body with all our brothers and sisters in Christ, possibly be boring?! If Church is dull then no amount of flashing lights or funky music will rectify that – God is not boring, so if Church is boring it’s obviously not truly reflecting God.

Being a member of a Church should be the most exciting thing imaginable – supporting and listening to each other as we seek to understand God, and to find our place within His plan. But we’ve let it become a club in which members are judged on whether they are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. We put ourselves in the ‘right’ camp (or spend our lives worrying that we’re not ‘right’) – and never allow God to correct our misunderstandings.

If we allow our minds and hearts to be opened in prayer, if we trust in God enough to let Him surprise us, maybe we’ll find more unity with our brothers and sisters, maybe we’ll see what God is already doing in the world, maybe we’ll find our place within that plan, and maybe there will be a future for the Church after all.

“Now what are we supposed to do?”


Why don’t we ask?

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Finding Feet

So it’s now been (checks calendar) – blimey – only three weeks since I moved. It feels like a lot longer, in a good way.

I’ve been extremely touched by the welcome I’ve received here from both Churches. Two communities, Woodham and Sheerwater, but one parish with two Churches – All Saints in Woodham and St. Michael’s in Sheerwater.

As you can imagine, much of my time has been spent finding my feet and getting to know people. I imagine that will remain an important part of my ‘job’. I summed up a long answer on my forms for the Diocesan Director of Ordinands (entitled ‘What is priestly ministry?’ – or something like that..) with the answer that it’s about ‘being there’. That’s a very general term to describe the wide variety of ways in which a priest can ‘be there’, and it’s about finding your own role in each community and setting. It’s a privilege I constantly pinch myself about that I’ve got the chance to do that already.

Most days begin with Morning Prayer at St. Michael’s, and at some point during the day there will be a Mass – Wednesday at St. Michaels, the others are at All Saints. These come at different times in different forms, using different liturgy and each being slightly unique. Yet there is a fundamental pattern to the course of a week. It’s very much made me reflect on the way in which sacraments reflect the world around us back into our eyes through God’s light – there’s a regularity and order to the way in which Mass is celebrated, and yet within that regularity there is an abundance of diversity.

Each evening we say Evening Prayer at All Saints. I was recently asked “will Mass and Morning/Evening prayer every day distract you from getting out into the community?”. Far from it. It’s only through that prayer, generally two hours liturgical prayer each day and an abundance of non-liturgical prayer in between, that I have the strength to get out and about in the community. I’m a fairly quiet, dull, chap who would prefer to sit back in the countryside and do very little really. But I open myself up to be ‘transformed in the fire of God’s love for us, and used in His service’.. And here I am. Somewhere totally different, doing totally different things. A couple of times I’ve done a double take and thought “hang on a minute – what am I doing here?!”, but that’s very rare. It feels so natural, it feels so right, and I feel so ‘at home’ here already that I can virtually say I don’t have a doubt God’s here with me.

The aforementioned ‘getting out into the community’ takes place mainly in Sheerwater, and outside of personal formation that’s really what I’m here for. There’s a huge amount to learn about the community, and I’ve observed that it’s outsiders coming in and making assumptions that has caused some troubles of the past. I’m therefore taking it slowly, getting to know people, and finding my place. That ranges from ‘being there’ at the various ‘open events’ (BookSwap, drop in for coffee, Film Club, etc..) to running a course on how to use iPads at the local community hub. My DBS clearance has come through, so that opens new possibilities and doors as well.

That’s really an introduction to what I’m doing here. But that’s really been what the last few weeks have been about. This Sunday is my ‘official’ welcome, with a Community Lunch at which we’re expecting 48 attendants. In a way that’s when I’ll stop being so much the ‘newbie’ and hopefully others will start being able to ask me questions, rather than it always being the other way around.

I feel like I should sign off with something a little more lighthearted, or on another topic, but I’m writing from my sickbed with a sore throat that has virtually made me lose my voice and I can’t think of anything. This is the first opportunity I’ve had all week to write this, so that gives some idea of how busy things are..!

Instead I’ll sign off with the prayer at the end of Psalm 143 in some of Common Worship:

Jesus our companion,

when we are driven to despair,

help us, through the friends and strangers

we encounter on our path,

to know you as our refuge,

our way, our truth and our life.

To every person I meet on the journey, and for every prayer said for me, thank you.

Remembering to Breathe…

So this is a blog post I should have written ages ago… But the last month has held so much. This is an ‘update post’ with all the latest that God’s been doing in my life…

The big news is that I have finalised my Pastoral Assistant placement. I was kindly offered quite a number of interviews, and eventually got them down to two – both of which I was, to my surprise, offered. After much deliberation and prayer I finally made my choice while sat in the Lady Chapel at Guildford Cathedral (a place, incidentally, well – well – worth a visit).

From September I will be the Pastoral Assistant in the parish of St. Michael’s and All Angels, Sheerwater – near to Woking and Guildford. This is currently a combined parish with All Saints, Woodham – but with some extensive redevelopment planned in Sheerwater the Diocese have made moves to create a single parish.

I’ll be living on the estate, getting stuck in and hopefully becoming a part of the fantastic community there. It’s going to be a huge change from the sort of parish I’ve always lived in, with many new challenges to face, but it’s a true privilege to be invited into the area and to have a role to play.

Meanwhile I will still be continuing to explore vocation to ordained ministry through Gloucester Diocese. It will give me a good excuse to return home from time to time, it seemed a needless shame to split from Gloucester, and the people in the Diocese – both those within Church House and the clergy and laypeople around – are simply wonderful. As well as that, if I were to be ordained anywhere in the world I could only chose Gloucester Cathedral. As the scene of so many life changing moments, and a pretty constant friend, it could only be there.

Meetings with the DDO continue, and I’m extremely grateful for all the prayers offered for me in the lead up to them, and at any other time. It’s helpful far beyond any words I could express on a blog. To my surprise my last meeting felt particularly positive, and the process has been sped up by three months. I’m therefore, if the current plans work out, seeing the Diocesan Assesors in October, the Bishop (the Bishop of Tewkesbury, who will be acting Bishop of Gloucester by then) in January and attending BAP in March. There are some huge ifs and buts in that – as always I let God set the pace – but that’s the ‘pencilled in’ plan!

And so my day to day life now includes the very occasional bit of paid website design work, but mostly winding down my old commitments in the community here, meeting people and visiting places, reading an inordinate amount of books, and trying to fit in a sometimes dizzying amount of prayer. It’s also a privilege to ‘shadow’ my parish priest a few times a month, distributing the Chalice at the local residential and nursing homes, I was able to lead the Mothers’ Union Quarterly Service, and the deeply moving experience of deaconing at the Parish Eucharist on a few Sundays, which felt appropriate for a number of reasons. To simply pour the wine into the chalice and lay out the wafers, and be behind the rail during the Eucharistic Prayer.. It brings home just what an honour this role would be.

Since my last blog post I was also fortunate enough to spend a week with Trinity, Cheltenham – a fascinating experience at a completely different Church to my own. It was a challenging experience in many ways, but extremely helpful and I’m grateful to everyone there for the time they so willingly gave to explain what they do and answer my questions. I also spent a fascinating weekend in York, at the Inclusive Church Annual Lecture and getting to meet quite a number of people at Synod over the following two days. Again, a deeply challenging weekend at times – learning what being an Ambassador for a broken Church really entails – but a chance to meet and spend time with absolutely fantastic people dedicated to God, and to moving His Church ever closer to Him.

That’s enough for now anyway… Thank you so very much again for the continued messages of support and prayer, if you want to get in touch with me please feel free to drop me an email or prod me on Twitter!

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