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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.
The small congregation has trebled over the last two years, yet still only two of them are waged. No one was surprised, therefore, when we were approached out of the blue by Youth Justice and Social Services and asked if we would help with finding worthwhile community service for a group of ‘young offenders’ from the Estate. That first approach has led to the development of the St Barnabas Project. The congregation stretched their widow’s mite to buy an old sea-freight container to serve as a club-house and home-base for ‘the lads’. They began to refurbish and renovate gardens and garages of elderly residents and then moved on to a furniture turn-around scheme, renovating throwaway furniture and taking it to addresses, supplied by Social Services, of households whose needs could not be met by their over-spent statutory grants. For some of the lads, who had been in houses to remove peoples’ goods, there was a kind of ritual reversal and redemption in going into a house to fill it full of good things and to be greeted with thanksgiving and blessing instead of a curse. Friends became involved, hidden talents unearthed. A lad on the project who liked to mess around on key-boards learnt to play the church organ and played at services as part of his community service sentence. The sentence is long over but he is still our church organist and, perhaps for the first time, a highly valued member of a community that extends beyond his peer group.

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 and blood.
There is an irony that the body of Christian teaching from pre-enlightenment culture – which is in fact most directly relevant to a post-enlightenment world – is not available in any widely accessible form, but is confined to old libraries and studies or the occasional footnote in more modern books. I wrote my doctoral thesis on The Art of Memory and the Art of Salvation in the sermons of Lancelot Andrewes and John Donne and, far from finding that I had to shelve it as I came to minister on the Estate, I found myself drawing from it – and from the body of material I read to write it – ever more deeply. Of course, I do not make long, scholarly quotations from Andrewes in sermons or teaching at St B’s, but his way of seeing, touching, handling and story-telling informs everything I do. For example, one of the great resurrection sermons is a meditation on the sign of Jonah. During this sermon, he gradually absorbs into the image (of being swallowed alive by the whale) not only the fear of death and the grave but every human sense of being trapped, being over-whelmed and lost in something vast and alien; and his use of the image suddenly made it startlingly relevant to the experiences of addiction and debt which form part of my everyday pastoral encounters. Andrewes showed me how to re-read the story, with and within the experience of my people rather than to pick it over as a post-enlightenment analyst. At St B’s one summer, we made a whale and re-enacted the story as a great piece of fun story-telling with children, but pitched so that the adults caught the pattern that, even after such a swallowing, the power of resurrection can set us at liberty.
Every one of Andrewes’ great festival sermons ends with dramatic, participatory re-enactment, because it finishes by pointing and inviting to the sacrament, to physical connection in a way beyond words with the Word made flesh; the body and blood. And what that sacrament of communion might really mean now, so many worlds away from the old, church controversies about ‘real’ versus ‘symbolic’ presence, was made suddenly clear at one of the half dozen funerals of AIDS victims at which I have so far assisted.
The HIV community here is very close and show tremendous solidarity, especially and very palpably at funerals. I had experienced this twice at funerals I had taken, sharing hopes and fears at the wake afterwards with the same group, gathered in the drug-dealing pub which was at once the focus of their community and its most palpable physical and spiritual enemy. On a third occasion, I was invited to take part at a funeral being held in the Roman Catholic Church, which was celebrated as a funeral mass. Hearing the words ‘this is my blood’ in that context suddenly made abundantly clear Christ’s intimate point of contact with this group for whom He died. In some sense, the shared needle – which was at the heart of their shared wound, and yet also symbolised their shared community – had been for them a kind of home-made communion, able to be touched and redeemed only by a communion as intimate. And it will be redeemed by One who was prepared to share blood that communicates Life and not Death. When they are ready, Christ will meet this community, not through the Church’s calling to individuals to come apart and save their souls, nor by persuading any one member of that community to an intellectual assent to the creed, but Christ will meet them on the day that one of the ‘wakes’ we hold in that pub becomes first an agape and then, God willing, in bread broken and wine poured, there where the drugs are dealt and nowhere else, a communion in his body and blood.

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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