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TRUST AND OBEY – JOHN SSF

page 2 John in Paris airbrushedTrust and obey

John SSF

Growing up in my family, the most frequent and faithful visitor to our house was my Nan’s turf accountant, not a minister or priest. I cannot recall a time when I did not believe in God. Church on the other hand was for posh people, and we definitely weren’t posh, nor did we aspire to be.

Through friendship with a Baptist at university I had an unsolicited conversion when I realized that I, like everybody else, needed God’s forgiveness, and that true faith affected lifestyle. There followed a quarter-century of Baptist church membership, half of it as an ordained minister. Its abiding legacy is a personal relationship with the risen Christ, and a love of scripture, expository preaching, congregational authority, collaborative leadership, freedom of conscience and social justice. Precious, too, is the ethnic mixture of friends I gathered who will remain until death.

To the Baptist Union Retreat Group I owe my initial discovery of silence and contemplative prayer which engendered a hunger in me that the services I was myself devising could not satisfy. Impending divorce was the catalyst for an identity crisis of terrifying proportions, and a period of intense prayer. From this rather desperate search emerged a summons to follow Jesus wherever he led. In conversation with my spiritual director I spontaneously expressed a wish to live in community. This disturbing inner voice – my own – resounded from depths within me I had long since lost touch with in my eagerness to fulfil the roles I and others had imposed. A book about Franciscan spirituality mirrored my own soul and prompted an unannounced visit to Alnmouth friary. Despite its unconscionable catholic devotions, I felt a paradoxical sense of belonging. Further investigation was imperative. Could this possibly be the way?

I began to pray the Daily Office and this liturgy proved to be a lifeline not a straitjacket, connecting me to the Brothers and, as one of them pointed out to my astonishment, to monastic communities who had been offering it, or something very similar, for centuries. The communion of saints took on new meaning. The Virgin Mary appeared not in a vision but, unnervingly enough all the same, in the Angelus. Unsure what else to do with her except call her blessed, I conceded that I might indeed be grateful for her prayers now and at the hour of my death, so the two of us settled on that as an interim arrangement. Later, when I dared to experiment with the rosary and found in it an aid to mindfulness in prayer, we became slightly more familiar

On holiday and therefore cloaked in anonymity, I secretly attended Solemn High Mass at a famous Anglo-Catholic church. A vague sense of guilt and a slew of theological objections could not detract from the beautiful sensuality of the worship and the aura of transcendent mystery. The sermon defied my prejudices. It was quite long, and very good.

When the time was right, I resigned my pastorate and went to live alongside the sisters of the Society of the Sacred Cross at Tymawr in Monmouthshire for several weeks as a way of dipping my toe into the water of religious life. From there I was received into the Anglican Communion by the local bishop, Rowan Williams, who offered the helpful reassurance that nobody was asking me to deny anything of my Baptist experience, and suggested I just bring it all with me. On reflection, I suppose I could have done no other. Occasionally these days I gaze out past the altar at Alnmouth to the beach beyond and ponder what a wonderful setting it is for the powerful rite of baptism by full immersion. This does not seem to have occurred to anybody else yet.

The transition was not easy. My emotional investment in the Baptist tradition was incalculable. Thankfully, my home church in Edmonton, which had funded my ministerial training, was supportive, with the one sensible proviso that nobody, including me, tried to turn me into somebody I wasn’t. Doctrinal questions, particularly surrounding infant baptism and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, troubled me. They were not resolved so much by intellectual debate as by prayerful wrestling. A favourite Gospel passage had always been John 17, Jesus’ prayer for the unity of his disciples. Meditating on this, I came to the acceptance that our divisions were anything but sacred. This liberated me to do what I had sung about as an 18 year-old at my baptism: trust and obey. Ultimately this is what the journey was about for me: doing the will of God insofar as I could grasp it despite my misgivings. It still is. It is something of a surprise for me to realize that I do actually believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church. I do not believe in any denomination.

My expectations of the Church of England were easily low enough to save me from disappointment. The fact that my frustration and anger at some official pronouncements are widely shared is a great encouragement. Conversely, the reality of my life as an Anglican Franciscan friar has surpassed my wildest dreams. Community life repeatedly opens up for me ministries and relationships at home and overseas that would otherwise be impossible, with the result that my vision and mind have been broadened and my heart enlarged. If, as I reckon, I have grown in love of God and neighbour thanks in no small measure to the transplant, then surely in my case the change, though strange and uncomfortable at times, was worth it, even necessary. The inner compass for my particular journey of faith has been the peace of Christ. It appears to be both the guide and, I hope, by the grace and gift of God, our common destination. F

John SSF lives at Alnmouth Friary where he is currently the Guardian.