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AN INTERWOVEN PATH – SUE CSF

page 3 Sue as MethodistAn interwoven path

Sue CSF

An active participant in the Methodist Church from childhood, I was 37 when confirmed in the Church of England, so now aged 65 I have lived a similar length of time in each tradition, but in reality the two have been interwoven throughout my life’s journey.

I was baptised as a baby in the parish church where my parents had been married. My father had Communist leanings and was quite anti-church, but my mother, though not a regular church-goer, insisted on baptism. I understand now that, entirely by God’s grace, within a few years I had experienced very powerfully the reality of that sacrament. As a pre-school child away from home I was sexually abused and exposed to serious evil, yet through all that I knew with the mysterious immediacy of a young child that Jesus was suffering with me in the awfulness and that I was somehow held and protected in him.

Back home I was taken to the Anglican Sunday School, but inexplicably took fright becoming very distressed, an odd reaction which prompted my introduction to the Methodist Church! There I flourished, absorbing prayerful loving care, biblical teaching and something of the mystery and wonder of God’s love. Hymns resonating with the reality of lived Christian experience and theologically rich, were a major part of the liturgy week by week. All this affected me very deeply, connecting, I now believe, with my buried memories from early childhood.

At secondary school and living in a different town I was welcomed at the local Methodist church and youth club, where one of the youth leaders mentored me as a teenager with love and wisdom, offering crucial support through turbulent periods in family life, and as I tried to discern God’s will for my life. Having responded at the age of 13 to a call to choose a life of Christian discipleship I asked to become a Full Member of the Church, so that I could receive communion, and this was agreed although I was below the normal age. At the Church Membership class about Holy Communion, bewildered by an emphasis on ‘what we don’t believe’, I found myself vehemently protesting that the Lord was really present in a more specific way than was being suggested. I now think that particular class probably presented the Eucharist as symbolic memorial, in a way not very representative of mainstream Methodist doctrine.

As an undergraduate I discovered the glories of the Anglican sung Eucharist. I was part of the Association of Christian Societies which was ecumenical and fairly liberal in outlook, so it was quite natural regularly to worship at the Anglican chaplaincy church on Sunday mornings, while taking an active part in the Methodist evening services and student activities where we were exposed to quite a wide range of theology, political and social issues, and various opportunities for action, within a regular diet of thoughtful biblically based preaching, and those hymns. We felt like one church and despite knowing about the controversies, I somehow naively assumed that Anglican-Methodist unity was just around the corner, so was acutely disappointed when in 1969 the scheme failed.

While a theology student, excited and stimulated by the range of ideas, at times I found myself confused and unsure about large swathes of Christian doctrine, and unable to say the Creed, so that being in church felt painfully hypocritical. Yet still with a deep sense of connection with Christ for which I had no words, I was unable to leave. These conflicts resolved themselves gradually over the ensuing years, helped hugely by the loving support and inspiring example of the Methodist deaconess who was my neighbour during five years teaching in rural Sierra Leone.

In 1977 I returned to UK to train for the Wesley Deaconess Order, by then part of the newly ecumenical Queen’s College, Birmingham. Thus I had two years in a mainly Methodist and liberal catholic Anglican environment, but also in a more widely ecumenical context. There I also first encountered charismatic renewal, a significant and deeply healing influence.   After my time abroad all this was wonderfully nurturing.

After college I was appointed to a joint Anglican Methodist Local Ecumenical Project. I was the Methodist on the parish staff team, and also part of the Methodist Circuit staff. This dual role had its tensions, especially for a person in her first appointment! Early on I became aware that I needed the Eucharist to be more central and more frequently celebrated than it is in Methodism. I also found that the parish system enabled more flexibility for local churches to engage with their diverse communities in mission and ministry, than the more centralised Methodist structures appeared to do. However I was working with congregations in new housing areas which really needed stability, and my Anglican colleagues were caught up in an intractable pastoral crisis, so it was clearly not the right moment to leave. When after six years I did move on I knew I must resign from the Methodist Deaconess Order and become an Anglican. The timing was interesting. We had just lived through a prolonged and intensely traumatic period in which Anglican authorities had singularly failed to respond at all adequately to a serious situation, so I was under no illusions about shortcomings in the Church of England!

My transition took about a year and was handled wisely and graciously by both churches. In 1986 I was accepted for Anglican ministry and made deaconess, then in 1987 was one of the first women ordained deacon in the Church of England. As a Methodist in the mid-1970s I had resisted persuasion to offer for the ordained ministry, believing that I was being called to the Deaconess Order. With the luxury of hindsight I realised that my reasons for not seeking ordination back then related to my perception of the effect of Methodist structures on ministry, rather than to the nature of priesthood. I later also recognised that it was aspects of Religious Life which drew me to the Deaconess Order. For several years I was a chaplain with two lay communities running conference and retreat centres, and then while a full-time carer assisted in my local parish, where in 1994 I was ordained priest, joining CSF in 1995.

In my years as an Anglican priest and Franciscan sister there has been a deep sense of homecoming. However within that experience I have come to recognise more clearly treasures of the Methodist heritage which were so significant in my earlier Christian formation, and which continue to nourish me. When God called me into CSF I knew almost nothing about the Franciscan tradition. Yet as a postulant and novice I kept discovering Franciscan emphases that seemed to express what had been important to me all my life, much of it springing, I believe, from the Methodist ethos I had absorbed from childhood. There is a holistic approach to faith which naturally encompasses justice issues, a real sense of belonging to the Church world-wide, joyful response to God’s radical generosity, passion and compassion tempering each other, and a lively expectation of finding Christ in actual human experience, in all of life, the ordinary, the appalling, and the wonderful.

The interweaving continues! f