franciscan - September 1996
© The Society of Saint Francis, 1996
This is my blood: Sacrament and community on an outer estate
by Malcolm Guite TSSF
I serve as a priest on a large ‘over-spill’ estate outside an ex-county town; a place where there is a great deal of human misery, poverty and oppression but also many hidden joys, unlooked-for solidarities, and increasingly abundant points of presence; a place where suddenly, one catches at the hem of the incarnation.
When I first arrived I asked the tiny congregation, drawn almost entirely from the estate itself, what it was they felt God had given them from the whole treasury of the Gospel, to show forth and share with their neighbours. They replied: “That something is still sacred, that there is a candle still burning.” And indeed, a sense of the sacred in our midst, of both a literal and a spiritual flame in darkness, of, as it were, suddenly coming across the holy where we least expect it, has been a key to the life, discernment and mission of the church. The theological key to our identity was put into my hands as I meditated on that text in Galatians about Christ being made a curse for our sakes: “ . . . having become a curse for us – for it is written ‘cursed be everyone who hangs upon a tree’ – that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith”. Golgotha is the place of rejection, of exclusion from covenant and involvement in society. I suddenly came to realise that the Estate was the town’s Golgotha, a place where people feel dumped, a place where the righteous dump their judgements and project their sins. Indeed, the very degrading use of the term ‘over-spill’ shows us that the outer or over-spill estates are always Golgothas to the Jerusalems of suburban respectability. But it is on Golgotha that we find the cross and on the cross Christ as the absolute and immediate point of God’s presence on earth. So I felt that I would find Christ more easily and obviously present on the Estate’s Golgotha than in the town’s Jerusalem.
The first practical outworking of this insight was to make links between the church and the unemployed. We worked together with a body which was providing work experience and further training to middle- and long-term unemployed people, together with the help of retired artisans, on a project to refurbish the Church’s decaying sixties fabric. These were a group of often highly-skilled people whose talents the rest of society had forgotten or neglected. Amongst them was a carpenter whom I asked to carve a cross to place high on the outer wall of the church looking out over the Estate. He was the oldest man in the group and told me with tears in his eyes that he had once made crosses before, as a young soldier, to mark the graves of fallen friends at the end of the war. His country had found little use for his skills since then, but now his last cross lifts up the memory of his wounded saviour above the Estate that had never till now asked him to remember his story.
The work was dedicated on St Barnabas’ Day and mass flowed naturally into a party given in thanksgiving and appreciation
for all that had been done. One man said it was the first time in ten years he had been made to feel proud of anything
he had done. The two characteristics of the cross were wounds and condemnation, and we discovered from the day
we raised the cross that we were to be a community of walking wounded and the easily condemned. Almost all those
whom Christ has drawn through his sacramental presence to touch him at St B’s have suffered or are suffering some
form of illness, handicap, grief or rejection.
In all this, the key has been the sense of the sacramental: at every stage, the communication of the gospel has been through image and sacrament, hands-on in every sense. And here we have rediscovered the resources of our past. In a post-modern world, we have started to draw more and more on pre-literate traditions. The cool, Cartesian rationalism, the ‘I think therefore I am’ that defines a literate man in his study, says nothing on the Estate. For us, as for our ancestors before the Enlightenment (and indeed before the Reformation), the real founding truth is not ‘I think, therefore I am’ or even its dwindling suburban derivative ‘I shop, therefore I am’, but rather ‘We belong, therefore we are’.
A few examples will show how this re-discovery of a pre-modern way of being church has worked out in practice.
I had been searching in modern accounts of church life for way of communicating a catholic Gospel on an estate
like ours, in vain. All the models of evangelism were from a suburban, wordy evangelical culture. The best way
forward came instead from a work of history. In Eamon Duffy’s wonderful book The Stripping of the Altars (Yale
University Press, 1992), there is a powerful account of the celebration of Candlemass in pre-Reformation (and,
for many, pre-literate) England. His thesis is that far from being alienated by a clerical elite, there was massive
lay participation in, and ownership of, the great liturgical moments of the church. Every guild and group had its
own point of contact, its own lights to keep burning, its own altar to maintain, its corpor-ate place in what happened,
physically manifested, in movement, procession, the carrying and dedicating of candles, and the physical re-enactment
in the drama of liturgy of key Gospel stories, in this case the Presentation of Christ in the Temple,
His pre-modern Candlemass came naturally to St B’s. At a special evening mass, folk came from the old people’s
home to represent Simeon and Anna, children came to play the parts of Mary and Joseph, the different groups that
had begun to connect and cohere with the church came bearing their own lights and candles to a Gospel procession
which re-enacted the presentation and spoke vividly and without words of the unquenchable light of Christ shining
out through the poor in the darkness of the Estate. Events like that cannot be replicated week by week, and they
do not suddenly create the habit of church-going on a largely unchurched estate; but they are points of presence,
moments for a community to glimpse what community is. And now, at St B’s, these folk gatherings of our fringe groups,
to mark a great feast, happen about once a quarter and always draw lapsed communicants back to the nourishing body
These have been anecdotes, hints and guesses but, as they accumulate and as the connected stories of the walking wounded of St B’s begin to unfold, I get the sense that we are being shown not a new theology but a very old one, not a new ism but an ancient way of unbroken incarnation, physical presence and the wordless touch of a wounded healer. f
Revd Dr Malcolm Guite is a Member of the Third Order of SSF and a priest working in the Ely Diocese.
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