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franciscan - September 1999

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1999

Spirituality in the congregation

by Graham Piper

I moved to Haywards Heath, West Sussex, over five years ago to take up the post of Team Vicar of the Church of the Ascension. The church had been built about thirty years before: it was a pre-fabricated building and was by then in a very poor state of repair. After a fair amount of consultation with architects and other professionals in the field, it became apparent that a bold approach was needed if the worshipping community was to continue its participation in God’s mission to the part of the town it resided in.

I am pleased to say that last year we moved into our new building after four years of hard slog. It just so happened that the rather arduous task of rebuilding the external walls coincided with a desire to rebuild the life of faith in the worshipping community. We held a variety of meetings to determine the best way forward, the most productive of these being a ‘Share the Vision’ Sunday. Study groups were formed for the day, a shared lunch provided, and some searching questions to which to find answers. This was the start of a journey in faith and trust.

To start the ‘Share the Vision’ day, I used an illustration of an incident I had witnessed in church soon after coming to Haywards Heath. The congregation had a habit of arriving at church just seconds before the start of the service. Some regularly arrived late for the service. The old building had a side entrance and most of the people arriving late would sit in the seats directly opposite the door. In reality this meant the majority of the congregation! On one Sunday morning a woman with her baby in a pram arrived ten minutes late for the service. When the door opened everybody turned to see who had arrived so late. There was a look of fright on the woman’s face as she discovered that the majority of people were seated on the chairs opposite the door and consequently there were no seats available into which she could discreetly sidle. So she started a journey which took her round the back of the church to the other side – the side very few ever reached. What made matters worse was that one of the wheels on the pram the woman was pushing developed an ear-piercing squeak as she made the journey to the other side! After the service, the woman left fairly promptly. I’m pleased to say that the new building has its entrance at the back and all the seating on both sides of the church is reasonably full on a Sunday; very rarely do people sit on their own.

The purpose of telling this story to the community was to highlight the fact that many members of the church journey alone. We seldom share our journey; and those who have a wish to do so never seem to be given the opportunity. We often leave new people to journey alone, like the woman in the story, and then we wonder why they don’t stay. So much of life is private, so much of faith seems to be private, too. There is still a common belief that a relationship with God is purely a private matter, not a thing to be discussed or shared. If the early Christians had taken this view we may never have heard of Jesus Christ!

As a result of our ‘Share the Vision’ Sunday, we decided to adopt the Emmaus programme of evangelism. This programme is based on the road to Emmaus narrative in the Gospel according to Luke, where Jesus draws alongside two of his disciples and accompanies them on their journey and helps them make sense of all the events they had witnessed. The model of evangelism used in the Emmaus material is that of accompanying. This vision for evangelism, nurture and growth has brought people together. Each new member of the church is accompanied on their journey so that dialogue takes place and no one journeys alone. There are ongoing growth groups, so that every member of the congregation takes part in discovering more about the Christian faith.
This has had a very positive effect on the spirituality of the parish. Dialogue, I believe, is at the heart of Christian spirituality – dialogue with God, with the world and with one another. Each and every person reflects theologically whether they be religious or not. We all search for meaning in the areas of our life where there is pain and joy, where there is hunger and thirst. It is in the depth of our being that we can recognise that God is in fact present in all that we encounter and experience.

Sometimes we need help to recognise this and to enter into dialogue with others can aid our understanding of a God who is present. Whatever the case, we need an environment which encourages our theological reflection. The Emmaus course has allowed people to enter into dialogue with the teachings of the Church, resulting in individuals being enabled to talk openly about their faith and spiritual life with one another. Many have shared their sense of the divine presence and have found help and encouragement to live in the light of a God who communicates himself to us in Jesus Christ.

When I reflect on my own journey, I recognise that there have been many times when – through dialogue with others – I have come to know more about living in the light of God’s presence. This was certainly true when, in my early twenties I joined SSF and, although I stayed a few years only, I discovered the value of community, prayer and silence. All three feature now in my life as a parish priest and, to be honest, I could not survive without them. The community of faith helps us interpret our encounter with God and sustains us on our pilgrimage. Prayer and silence allow us to be fed and nurtured by God. In prayer we become more aware of God’s presence and the light that that brings. Spiritual direction has also played a significant part in my spiritual journey, both as a directee and as a director. Being offered, and offering the opportunity to reflect at a deeper level, has allowed growth to take place in the areas of life where I and others had given up hope.

In my experience, spirituality in the parish has been deepened and fed by encouraging an environment of openness and trust. We all need to be able to share doubts and express ourselves, knowing that we will be received in love and understanding. Over the past five years, people in the parish have discovered the value of meeting together, praying together and sharing in the richness of other people’s faith stories. There has been an increase in parishioners seeking spiritual direction or the sacrament of reconciliation or in expressing a general desire to discover more about the Christian faith. As the parish priest, I too have been encouraged and fed by this growth. I have felt supported and prayed for. I would be the first to admit that we clergy need help in our endeavour to spread the good news of God’s kingdom. A disciplined prayer life has been essential in my ministry, but my help has come through being accompanied by my spiritual director, other clergy friends and family, but also and significantly, by the very people I am here to serve. §

Graham Piper, Annette his wife, and their three children recently moved to Bamber Bridge in the Blackburn Diocese, where Graham is now the Vicar.

 

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