Being Church: Thinking Outside of the Box
By Linda Chapman
Through conversations with Rev Linda Chapman, rector of St John’s Anglican Church in Moruya on the NSW south coast, I have become really interested in the vision and life of that community. It seems to me that their commitment to traditional Christian roots while seeking contemporary expression relating to issues of renewal, inclusion and ecology resonates with the Eremos vision. I therefore invited her to write about their journey together because I thought our readers would be interested in their story. Further information about St John’s Moruya and Open Sanctuary Tilba is available at moruyaanglican.org and http://www.opensanctuarytilba.org
Laurence Freeman, Director of the World Community for Christian Meditation, in a short article called ‘The Contemplative Parish’, suggests that ‘parishes fulfil many functions and are a defining sign of Christianity’s witness to the world of its inner life and faith’.
Yet if we are to remain engaged with the world, we need to continue to evolve how we witness to, and live our faith. As Laurence goes on to suggest, the viable and attractive parish of the future will find the middle way between outer activity and the inner life of prayer and contemplation.
My work in the Parish of Moruya on the far south coast of NSW over the last 8 years has been about growing our relationship with the broader community in various ways. This hasn’t been so much an intentional strategy as a natural, somewhat organic outworking of the call and desire to serve the community and to engage with the broader community.
I have never been one for set programs and strategies. And when I came to the parish of Moruya it was out of a background of having declared I would never be the rector of a parish, becauseI dreaded falling into an over-active mode of clericalism fuelled by the belief that all parish life depends on – or must be funnelled through –the clergy person. I had founded Open Sanctuary at Tilba in 2006 and now found myself in a traditional middle-way Anglican Parish not really thinking that I would stay. So, I came to parish life probably relatively unencumbered by big expectations of what might happen and I entered the work in a spirit of ‘let’s see what can happen’.
My orientations (passions?) are contemplation and action for justice. And I found myself in a congregation of people who were open to these whilst remaining very grounded in the traditional expression of church. And so we began a journey together. I drew a dreaming tree, and from that tree seeds have taken root so that we now have a centre of activity, a place of social inclusion and service, and a growing understanding of the contemplative way of Christianity within the established congregation.
I don’t think there is anything particularly special or unique about our parish; however, we have managed to become a place that is known for inclusion. I haven’t followed a strategic direction. I didn’t start out with a plan, but simply held open the space for life to emerge – a bit like those Celtic monks who set out in small boats (coracles) to go where the wind of the Spirit would take them – to find the place of resurrection.
We now have a place where people, for instance those who live in the local caravan park, or in their van, can come and get a feed, sing in our Slightly Bent Choir, take a small role in our theatre company and find themselves accepted. Our community lunch, which is now bursting at the seams, is a place where people from all walks of life, from local councillors to the homeless, sit together to have a feed and a yarn. It is a place where our local refugee action group have found a home; where musicians have a space to play for themselves and others; where our prolific vegie garden is available for all; and where on Sunday mornings we gather for our Eucharistic service as the Church has done for well over 120 years.
My place in this has been to pick up the threads of what emerges organically when we are open to relationships; when we are able to take risks; when we live our faith outside of the box. Some years ago when the issue of refugees on Manus and Nauru was especially potent I had the thought of painting the doors of the hall red as churches had done over the years to signify a place of sanctuary. Something as simple and seemingly insignificant as this means that today the hall is known as the Red Door Hall and has become a centre of compassionate action and inclusion. There was nothing magical about painting those doors red, but it seems to be a symbol of the life that can emerge when we listen and respond to the somewhat surprising lead of the Sprit. I don’t see us offering a service so much as being within the community that already exists and moving into relationship with others within and beyond the Parish.
As the Irish philosopher, Richard Kearney, suggests, when we become hosts for the Stranger, when we decide for the stranger, our hospitality, our welcoming of the Stranger ‘opens up the promise of life, an epiphany of the Divine’. We become ‘guests to renewed life, precisely in and through the encounter with the Stranger’ (cited in John Burkey's review of Kearney’s Anatheism: Returning to God after God, 2010). In this way we are all both host and guest.
But to be honest I frankly struggle to articulate any of this, because to me it is just what has happened without seeking to manufacture it. People turn up from all walks of life, including those out of jail, from mental health institutions and so on, and we try to give welcome and hospitality. Recently a local renewable energy community group that I helped to start raised funds to provide 3.5 kw of solar panels on our roof. It wasn’t something we sought but it arrived because of our engagement with what we believe matters.
At St John’s we have welcomed the Stranger through the Red Door and by way of establishing a Peace Park. We have held vigils and rung the church bell for refugees and climate action. Activists within our broader community trust that they can come for a ritual as simple as lighting candles and giving voice to lament and solidarity with the suffering of the world without having to sign up to a belief system.
At the same time as all of this activity has been going on we have slowly introduced the contemplative aspects of Christianity into the parish. As Laurence Freeman says:
The contemplative parish is a place where a deeper and broader knowledge of Christ can be allowed to flourish. The fruits of this will benefit all within it and in contact with it. If contemplation, as Aquinas said, is only the ‘simple enjoyment of the truth’, what is to prevent this ideal from being realized in every parish?(op.cit.)
I am convinced of the need for a spiritual practice that grounds and stabilises our action in and for the world. Christian Meditation and Centring Prayer are practices of the church that find their roots in ancient times and yet are entirely relevant, even essential, for our context. I was asked recently ‘What do you think the world needs now?’ and I replied, ‘to reconnect with nature – other than human and our own – through the practice of silence’. People today don’t want to be told what to believe. Silence is trustworthy and to sit in silence, in prayer, with others may be one of the pre-eminent ways of being the community of church. In the parish we have encountered some difficult situations with those who are deeply wounded and traumatised. A contemplative practice or orientation helps us remain in the tension of the competing fears and anxieties and aspirations within ourselves and others and to somehow pull threads together. We are more able to hear our own and others’ anxiety without allowing that anxiety to derail life, the life that is emerging in our midst – including life that can seem very messy, and at times chaotic. And that really is what I see being contemplative in action is about. Remaining present to the messiness in some equilibrium, holding it and allowing Love/God to loosen the knots so that healing and redemption might come about.
In the parish we nurture the Christian contemplative way for both adults and children through our Christian Meditation group, Growing Still and Still Waters groups for children and adults. Presently we are making our way through ‘The Roots of Christian Mysticism’ course.
So, St John’s Moruya is a place where our feet are planted firmly in tradition; yet from that tradition we are open to what, perhaps, could be one way of resurrection for the church. I don’t know because we’re not there yet! And it may be a very bold claim! But I do think that unless we have ‘courage running thick through our veins’, unless we are prepared to risk and to trust, then the church will fall further into demise. The old is falling away –and not only in the church. But if we can seek the wisdom to know what to bring with us into a potentially resurrected way and allow our little boat to be propelled by the Spirit then we needn’t fret.
I have retained my commitment to Open Sanctuary another community with a contemplative focus. This little place of simplicity and poverty, housed in a small timber church at the foot of the sacred Gulaga mountain at TilbaTilba, offers an alternative to more conventional ways of being church. Itis a place where silence is our first language. Those who gather come from various spiritual paths or none. What we have in common is a love for the place and for the earth-community as a whole – and a desire to explore the spiritual dimension of life in a non-dogmatic, non-hierarchical space. At Open Sanctuary we engage in conversation from a place of deep respect for difference. This allows us to hold the space and to let the space hold us.
Linda is Rector of St John's Moruya, founder of Open Sanctuary at Tilba, a retreat leader and advocate for care of creation. She also received an OAM this year for her contribution to the Anglican Church of Australia. (Her nominators thought it should have been service to the community!)