Keeping it real – a farewell sermon

This is my final sermon at All Saints, High Wycombe, after almost 6 years as Children’s, Youth and Families’ Minister. I am preaching on Mark 7.24-30, Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman. 

For this morning’s visual aid, I did consider bringing some crumbs! But I thought 1. that could get a bit messy, and 2. this isn’t really a story about crumbs, it’s a story about tables. Specifically it’s a story about who gets to sit at the table.

So instead of crumbs, I brought some of the things that might show us we have a place at the table. Place mats, place name cards, folded napkins, cutlery…

The story we heard this morning is a strange one. What’s going on here? Is Jesus trying to catch this woman out? Is he being mean to her? Is she teaching Jesus something he didn’t already know? I don’t think so.

I think – in fact I’m quite sure – that Jesus already knew perfectly well, knew all along, that there was a place for this woman at God’s table, as there is for us all. In saying this provocative thing about “throwing the children’s food to the dogs” – seeming to compare her to a dog (which would have sounded even ruder to Jesus’ contemporaries than it does to us) Jesus is provoking the woman into realising for herself an important truth – that she is worth more than this.

When this woman, whose name we don’t even know, stands up for herself, and demands more of Jesus, he responds. He does not give her only the crumbs she asks for, but the complete healing and freedom she needs, for her child and for herself. In this strange and dramatic encounter, the point has been made far more forcefully than it would have been if Jesus had merely stated it: everyone – even those who are considered, by themselves or others, the lowest of the low – everyone is held within the scope of the extraordinary grace generosity of God. In God’s eyes, we are all worth so much more than the crumbs from somebody else’s table.

We do not earn our place at God’s table because of who we are. We are given it because of who God is. Today we celebrate two great sacraments which remind us of this. In baptism, Lauren takes her rightful place at God’s table, which she has not had to earn, for which she has no need to prove herself, but which has been prepared for her from the foundation of the world by God who created her and loves her infinitely. In communion, we are all called again to take our places at God’s table, because we too are called by the God who loves us.

I read recently that a bishop in the US describes sacraments as “making real what is already true”. It’s an interesting distinction – there can be a great gulf between knowing something to be true, and experiencing it as being real – and that distinction is one which I think speaks into our reading today, as well as the sacraments we celebrate.

In challenging the woman to claim her place at God’s table, and in affirming it through his own healing action, Jesus was not making it true that she was loved and included by God – that was already true, and always had been. But he was making it real. Real for her, real for those who heard and saw what he did, and real for all of us who have read or heard the story.

As Lauren is baptised today, the act of baptism does not make it true that she is known and loved and called by God. That is already true, as true as it could possibly be, and it always has been. What baptism does is make that truth real – real in the symbols of water and oil and fire, real in the love and prayers and support which this congregation offers to Lauren today.

In communion, we refer sometimes to the “real presence” of Jesus in the bread and wine. Sharing this bread and wine together does not make it any more true that Jesus is here – it could not be any more true than it already is – but it does make it more real, differently real, as we physically share in his body and blood in the form of bread and wine.

In communion, an inherently communal act, we also become more real to one another. At God’s table we are gathered with friends and strangers, with those we love and those we cannot bring ourselves to love, those who are close and those who are distant. Even time and space themselves are no barrier to the all-encompassing scope of God’s radical hospitality and we all, wherever and whenever we share in communion, sit together as equal siblings around God’s table.

As we draw near to God, we draw near to one another, and as we draw near to one another, we can no longer view each other in the abstract, as “those people”. We discover the truth that “those people”, whoever they may be, are imperfect, unworthy, God-beloved individuals too – just like us. Out of that nearness, that realness, flows the compassion and love which marks us out as followers of the one who is Love.

If I could leave you with one thought, it would be this: be real. In a world which craves and needs integrity, live your life in ways which make real the truth that God calls us into a life of integrity, wholeness, redemption and renewal. Be real with yourself, be real with one another, be real with God. Take your place at God’s table, take up the space God has prepared for you. Show the world what a real, authentic, God-filled, imperfect, messed-up, honest, honest-to-God, love-infused life looks like. Be really and truly the person God created and called you to be, and in that reality you will find and reveal the real, true, all-consuming love of God.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Tradition – a sermon for BCP Evensong

I wonder how you feel about traditions? Are there traditions you love and cherish? Are there traditions which drive you up the wall, and you could very happily do without? Is it important to you to be part of a particular tradition? Do you think of yourself as a traditional sort of person?

In our first reading today, we heard about the institution of the great Jewish tradition of Passover. It is, many thousands of years later, still a rite of enormous significance to Jews. It is also a rite in which our own practice of Communion has its roots. When we speak of Jesus as the “Lamb of God”, it is this Passover ritual we are recalling.

Passover is among the most long-held traditions in any human culture but, like any tradition, it has not remained unchanged. For example, some people have recently started to include fair-trade chocolate as part of their Passover meal, as a reminder that, though the Jewish people escaped slavery in Egypt, many people around the world still suffer in conditions of slavery or forced labour.

Moses describes the Passover rite as a “perpetual ordinance” – that is, a rite which will endure forever. But what does that mean? And what does it mean for us, as twenty-first century Christian worshippers, to consider the idea that God has given to us as “perpetual ordinance”?

One thing it doesn’t mean is that our worship has to stay the same forever. If Moses were to turn up here this evening, he would see very little that he would recognise as belonging to the same continuum as the worship of his time! And indeed Thomas Cranmer himself, when he wrote the beautiful BCP liturgy which we still use and cherish today, was innovating. Driven by a desire to make worship more accessible to ordinary people, he was taking the best of the tradition he had inherited, and recasting it in new ways to fit the times he lived in.

For every generation, there is a tension between handing on the traditions we have received, and finding ways to “proclaim the gospel afresh” to the generations that come after us. Interestingly, there is plenty of research to suggest that Evensong is growing in popularity among millennials, drawn by stillness, contemplation and the timeless beauty of Cranmer’s language. I sometimes wonder what Cranmer – that great liturgical reformer and advocate of contemporary language – would make of that!

The traditions we have are important, but not for their own sake. They are important because of the ways in which they point people towards God, the ways in which they draw all of us closer to God. “Let your light shine before others”, says Jesus. We need to worship, to inhabit our traditions, in ways which enable us to be salt and light in the world, transforming the world we inhabit more and more into the likeness of God’s kingdom, as we ourselves are transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ.

When Jesus says “I have come not to abolish but to fulfil,” he is making two things very clear. The first is that he is not turning his back on what he has inherited. What he is doing and saying in his earthly ministry is deeply steeped in the tradition he has received. Even when he criticises the religious authorities of his day, as he often does, it is not an attempt to move them away from the traditions they hold dear, but to call them back to the root from which those traditions proceed, the root from which all our traditions, all worship (and indeed all life) proceeds – the living God.

So Jesus does not come to abolish what has gone before. But the second half of the sentence is equally important – “I have come not to abolish, but to fulfil.” And the implication here is that the law and the prophets have not yet been fulfilled. There is more to do. Jesus has come to do a new thing, not in opposition to the tradition he has inherited, but in fulfilment of it. He has come to live out, and to enable others to live out, more fully the faith handed down to them through the generations, from Moses and the other patriarchs and matriarchs onwards.

It would perhaps be tempting to suggest that this fulfilling of the law, this progress towards something closer to the kingdom of God, begins and ends with Jesus. That after Jesus came “not to abolish but to fulfil”, that was that – fulfilment achieved, job done. But the sweep of the Biblical narrative, of human history in the two thousand years since, and of the history of the church, make it fairly clear that is not the case.

Jesus himself speaks of “the Holy Spirit who will lead you into all truth”, and that leading into all truth, that fulfilment of the law, that drawing near to the kingdom of God – on earth as it is in heaven – is very much an ongoing process. Always the church is being called to re-examine ourselves, as a community and as individuals, to see what of our tradition, what of the things we have and the things we do, enables us to shine a light in the dark corners of this world, and what does not. And that continual re-examination will, and should, give us cause to recalibrate, to adjust our course, in ways that draw us ever closer into the way of Christ.

In our own diocese, we are currently in a period of re-examining, re-imagining, what it means to be church in this context. Bishop Steven has led this process by encouraging everyone in the diocese to reconsider the Beatitudes, which we heard tonight. From this very familiar passage, the Bishop along with others has come to a sense that God is calling us to be a church which is compassionate, contemplative and courageous. Contemplative: “blessed are the poor in spirit”, “blessed are the pure in heart”. Compassionate: “blessed are those who mourn”, “blessed are the meek”, “blessed are the merciful”. Courageous: “blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness”, “blessed are the peacemakers”, “blessed are those who are persecuted”.

In encouraging us to be more contemplative, compassionate and courageous, Bishop Steven is not, of course, suggesting that we should abandon all that has gone before, or that we need to let go of the traditions we hold dear. What he is encouraging is that we should look at what we do and what we value through this particular lens, and consider how those things enable us to be a more compassionate, contemplative courageous – in short, a more Christ-like – presence, letting our light shine in ways that enable the world to see the glory of God.

As we grow in Christ-likeness, in compassion and courage rooted in the contemplation of who God is and who God calls us to be, we too will be playing our part in Christ’s work of fulfilling the law and the prophets. As we seek to be salt and light, to make known the glory of God, we will discover and go on discovering our purpose in Christ. This is the true “perpetual ordinance” – not a set of immutable words or actions, but a faithful commitment to worship which enables us to know more of God, and to live in ways which make God known.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

Gathering around God’s table

A sermon on 1 Kings 19.4-8 and John 6.35,41-51.

I want us to think this morning about family meals. Perhaps you have particular memories of a family meal, of gathering around a table? It could be your own family, another family who welcomed you in, or friends you think of as family. It could be an everyday meal, or a special occasion.

When I was a child, family meals were quite something. We would gather around my Granny’s big round dining table, cousins and aunts and uncles, all squidged in on every available chair, and yet somehow there was always room for one more. They were noisy occasions, everyone talking at once, laughing, arguing, teasing each other, and telling the same old family stories and following the same old family traditions that join us together.

Today we are gathered as a family around a table. But we are family not because we are related to each other, but because we are, as we will say shortly, “children of the same heavenly father”. Today we welcome Rupert into the family of the church. He already had a wonderful, loving family who have brought him here today. Now he gains an extended family, and as part of the baptism liturgy we will all promise to support him on his journey of faith, and to help him to live and grow within God’s family.

Those promises apply to all our relationships with each other. We are called as a church to live interdependently. We are dependent first and foremost on the grace and love of God, but we also depend on each other, and we are called to love and care for each other.

As we gather at this table, for the particular family meal that is the Eucharist, we must look not only inwards to the family of the church, but also outwards. God’s family is a family without limits, unbounded by convention or space or time. At God’s table there is always “room for another one”, room for all the “other” ones, room for all who choose to come.

And the communion we share is more than a meal. We are fed for a purpose. “Get up and eat,” the angel tells Elijah, “otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” We too are on a journey with God, and like Elijah we must eat what God provides for us, in order to be ready for the journey on which God calls us. We are fed for a purpose, to give us what we need in order to live as the body of Christ, to be Christ’s hands and feet and voice in the world.

As we draw near to Jesus, as we gather around the table, we also draw near to each other. And as we draw near to each other, to all the “others” we might rather keep at arms length, we realise that we really do have more in common than we thought, certainly far more in common than divides us. Like any family, we are not the same. We are marvellously and beautifully different, each created and loved by God, displaying the glorious diversity of the body of Christ. But we are created for the common purpose of living a life rooted in God, following Jesus, transformed by the Holy Spirit.

The communion we share is very much more than a meal. It is the means by which we are transformed. Transformed by the grace of God from a mixed-up bunch of ordinary people, into the body of Christ in the world. Transformed in order to transform the world, in order to share with everyone the absolute, transforming, redemptive, healing, restoring love of God, by every word and action and prayer.

That transformation which we find in Jesus the Bread of Life, as we receive him in the bread and wine of communion, is an ongoing process, a lifelong journey of transformation. In baptism, Rupert begins that journey today. But all of us are invited to join in the promises, to renew our own commitment to living a transformed and transforming life in Christ.

May God give to each of us grace to live fully as the people God calls us to be, to recognise the face of Christ in all with whom we gather around the table, and to be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit working within us. Amen.

 

 

Lord Carey, IICSA, and safeguarding in the Diocese of Oxford – a letter to Bishop Steven

I wrote this letter in response to the statement relating to ++George Carey’s PTO (Permission To Officiate) issued by +Steven Croft, Bishop of Oxford, who is my diocesan bishop. You can read the statement in full on the diocesan website here

Dear +Steven,

I read with considerable concern your statement issued on the diocesan website on Friday, regarding Lord Carey’s PTO.

No doubt you will be aware that many, including survivors of abuse, are unhappy with the wording of the statement. However, whilst I share many of those criticisms, the wording is not my primary concern. My primary concern is with the substance of the statement – namely that in the light of this week’s IICSA proceedings Lord Carey is to retain his PTO. In particular I am worried about how this decision, and the way it has been communicated, will impact safeguarding practice within the diocese.

You say in the statement that “there has never been any suggestions that [Lord Carey] is himself a risk to children, young people and vulnerable adults.” Whilst it is true that there is no suggestion that he has perpetrated abuse, I would say that the evidence heard by IICSA this week (which I have been following closely) made it abundantly clear that through his negligence in dealing with Peter Ball, Lord Carey caused significant harm to a number of young people and vulnerable adults.

In terms of safeguarding within the diocese, I worry that by granting Lord Carey PTO, you are setting an unhelpful precedent. By this decision, you seem to be suggesting that a priest or bishop who fails to deal adequately with abuse perpetrated by someone under his or her authority need not expect any serious consequences for that failure. In a church culture where we know many clergy are already reluctant to deal robustly with safeguarding concerns, especially when they involve people in positions of power and responsibility, this seems like a dangerous and damaging message to give out.

At a time when many of us are working hard to rapidly improve the safeguarding culture within our parishes, your statement on this matter feels very undermining. Whilst we are repeatedly saying “you must report everything, you must act on every disclosure”, it would be very easy for those who are reluctant to comply to point to this statement and say “but the Archbishop of Canterbury didn’t, and the Bishop thinks that’s ok (otherwise he wouldn’t be giving him PTO) so why should I?”

It is vital, especially at this pivotal time for the church in terms of safeguarding, that we are presenting a clear and united message that not only is abuse unacceptable, but any failure in safeguarding practice which (intentionally or otherwise) colludes with the perpetrators of abuse is also unacceptable, and will be treated as such by the church.

In any other organisation (and my own experience is primarily in the education sector), anyone suspected of the sort of safeguarding failures in which Lord Carey has been implicated during this week’s inquiry would be suspended from all duties until all relevant investigations had run their course. You mention in your statement “a process of review and support”, but I cannot see why Lord Carey is allowed to retain PTO while that, and the IICSA process, are still ongoing.

I do hope that you will urgently reconsider your position regarding Lord Carey’s PTO, and consider withdrawing it, at least until the findings of the IICSA inquiry, the outcome of the internal “process of review”, and any other investigations pending, are known. That would send a strong signal to all those responsible for safeguarding within the diocese, and beyond, that negligence in the way we deal with cases of abuse is not acceptable, and will have serious consequences. It would also, I am sure, be welcomed by those abused by Peter Ball who suffered further as a result of Lord Carey’s mismanagement of the case.

Yours in Christ,

Ruth Harley
Children’s, Youth and Families’ Minister
All Saints Church, High Wycombe

What’s in a name?

I wonder if you know what your name means? I do, because I’ve got it on a keyring – a keyring which my brother brought back from his Year 6 school trip because he knew how fed up I was that named things – pens, badges, etc – never seemed to have *my* name, but always had his.

Names matter. They are an important part of who we are. When we are baptised, we are baptised by name, as Vince will be this morning. Names matter because who we are matters – matters to us, and to our families and friends, and matters to God.

When you arrived this morning, you were given a card which says “God says _____ I have called you by name” with a space for you to write your name. I invite you to do that now and, if you want, to decorate that card, perhaps with things that reflect who you are.

“God says _______ I have called you by name.”

Today we celebrate Mary Magdalen, and our gospel reading today includes my favourite story about her. When she meets with the risen Jesus, she doesn’t recognise him… until he calls her by her name. And then – straight away – she knows who this is who knows her name, knows who she really is, and she knows who he really is too – “Rabbouni”, teacher.

Because God knows more than just our names. God knows who we really are, and when we say that God calls us by name, we mean that God calls us as our true, God-created selves, whoever we are. We have been thinking about this at Ark lately, as you can see in our new display.

“Whoever you are, you are loved by God and you are welcome here.”

Who we are can be a complex thing. Our identity may be composed of many layers of meaning. For me, nobody captures this better than TS Eliot in his poem “The Naming of Cats”:

The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey–
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter–
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum-
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover–
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Effanineffable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

Sometimes the names we are called are not who we really are. When we are called names on the playground, or on social media, when we are given labels which don’t fit, when we are called by cruel, unpleasant, untrue names, it hurts. Many trans people are deeply hurt and damaged by being called by names and pronouns which aren’t right for them, which don’t fit the gender they really are, don’t reflect their true self – and the church is very far from blameless in this.

Names matter. Identity matters. Our deepest, truest identity is found in who we are in Christ. That is what we celebrate in baptism. Today as he is baptised, we celebrate Vince’s identity, both as a unique individual, created and loved by God, and as a member of the Body of Christ. All of us are invited to join in the responses during the baptism liturgy as a reminder that this is our identity too – fellow members of the Body of Christ, each of our individual selves, our gifts and calling, contributing something vital to the true identity of the Body of Christ.

So I invite you to take away your name card, put it either in a bag or pocket, or somewhere you will see it often at home, and consider it further. Go deeper than your “everyday name” to ponder, like the cats in the poem, who you truly are, your own “deep and inscrutable singular name”, known perhaps only to you and to God. Reflect not only on what it means for God to know your name and call you by it, but also on what it means for you that God knows who you truly are, God knows your whole being, and loves you, loves you immeasurably, exactly who you are.

“It’s what’s inside that counts” – a sermon

Readings: 2 Corinthians 4.13-5.1, Mark 3.20-35

I have two parcels here – one huge and beautifully wrapped, one small and a bit scruffy, wrapped in newspaper. I wonder what’s inside them? I wonder how they will help us think about today’s Bible readings?

In today’s Gospel passage, we have this intriguing image of Jesus’ family trying to get to him, to stop him doing what he’s doing. Essentially, it’s his Mum coming to tell him to come home and stop making such a fool of himself. We are told “they went out to restrain him, for people were saying: “He has gone out of his mind.”” People were saying – what we see here is Jesus’ family’s concern for his (and probably their own) reputation.

But Jesus is not concerned about what people are saying about him. He is concerned with doing the will of God. And that is what he calls his followers to as well: “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus is not concerned with external appearances, he is concerned with what’s going on inside – with the orientation of the heart towards God, and with the actions that spring from that.

It’s a theme we see picked up by Paul in his letter to the church at Corinth. “We look not at what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen.” Again, it’s about caring more about what’s inside – the unseen – than the outside things we can see.

Speaking of what’s inside – let’s open these presents. [Large, beautifully wrapped box contains single sweet, small scruffy newspaper parcel contains packet of sweets.]

We know that what someone, or something, looks like on the outside doesn’t necessarily tell us what it’s really like on the inside. Jesus knew that. God, who knows us inside and out, knows that there is more to any of us than the world sees.

And Jesus demonstrates that in his own life and teaching. In this passage, as so often, it is clear that Jesus doesn’t care what people think of him, even when those people include his own family. It’s a theme we see recurring again and again through the gospels. Jesus doesn’t care what people look like, whether they’re part of the ‘in crowd’ or what other people think of who he hangs around with.

When we turn from the pressure of external concerns, and turn towards God’s will, we are freed, liberated, to be fully the people God calls us to be, living to God’s glory. We do God’s will when we are more concerned for building God’s kingdom than we are for our own reputation. We do God’s will when we care more about serving others than about what others think of us. We do God’s will when we speak out against injustice even if we know it’s going to make us unpopular.

“We also believe and so we speak,” says Paul in our reading. But how often do we believe and not speak? How often do we know something needs to change, but not want to speak up because we’re worried about what others think, or we don’t want to be the ones to stick our necks out and say something.

The church has very often been far too concerned with what people think, focussing more on the seen than the unseen. At it’s most extreme, that is what we see in the terrible cases of child abuse, covered up to protect the reputation of the church, and with it the perpetrators. The process of repentance and change which has been a very necessary response to that is still ongoing. It is out of that process that we have developed our current commitment to safeguarding, including the formation or our Safeguarding Team, and a commitment to regular and thorough training for all volunteers.

But at its less extreme, the church’s concern with external appearances results in  new, perhaps God-given ideas never getting off the ground because “what will people think?” or “it’s just not how we do things?” And of course that’s not limited to the church – it’s a situation which I’m sure most of us can recognise from any workplace, school or organisation.

We live in a world which is very concerned with external appearances. I wonder if you ever worry about what people think of you? Whether you’re cool? How many likes you’re getting on snapchat or twitter? I think most of us do at some level.

But we are called by Jesus to live a different way, freed from the tyranny of “people are saying”, to do the will of God, to live in ways which reveal the glory of God and draw others to Jesus.

This week on Twitter, the brilliant American Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber said: “Let us not confuse the wrapping with the gift.” That is the message I want us to take away from these readings. Let us see beyond the ‘wrappings’ to the gift of God within each person – ourselves included.

Amen.

“And a little child shall lead them…” – reflecting on children’s participation at On Fire Mission

A few weeks ago, I went, as I do every year, to On Fire Mission Conference. There was the usual superb blend of the catholic and the charismatic, the spirit-filled and the sacramental, inspiring teaching and life-giving worship. I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone, and booking is now open for next year’s conference…

But this year there was something else: children! I brought a box of resources, several parents brought their pre-school children (aged 10 months to 3 years), and God did something rather extraordinary. There were more fabulous, breath-taking, very-obviously-of-God moments than I can mention individually, but here are my reflections on the experience as a whole: 

 

When one of the speakers at Conference asked us to consider “where have you seen God’s glory alive and active this week?” my answer was obvious: here, on this rug on the floor at the front of the hall. The presence of children at Conference has revealed something more of God’s glory, something more of what it is to be fully alive in Christ, which could not have been revealed in an all-adult gathering.

Five years ago at Conference, I very clearly heard a word from God: “renewal, starting with children.” Just that. At the time, it didn’t make much sense. It has since been hugely significant in my own vocational journey, but now I realise that it could be important for On Fire as a whole as well. At the time I had a sense that the next wave of renewal (in a sacramental context, at least) would come from children – not from children’s work, or from adults ministering among children, but from children themselves, and the Holy Spirit working through them. At the time, it seemed too far-fetched even to talk about, except to a few. After experiencing this year’s Conference, it doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.

One of the greatest joys of this year’s Conference was the spontaneity with which the children engaged  with worship, and the way in which that drew in adults (including some of the more unlikely ones) to play and worship alongside them.

Play, as an aspect of worship and of spiritual life, seemed to me to be one of the gifts the children brought. I wonder how God might be calling us to develop our playfulness, and how that connects with what it means for us to be a sacramental and charismatic community? There is lots more that could be said about play as a gift of the Spirit, and about the sacramental dimension of play. Playing with God could certainly be an aspect of what it means to be “Called to Holiness” (next year’s conference theme).

Another dimension which I felt that the children brought to our worship was a greater freedom and spontaneity. They were, by and large, engaged with almost every aspect of worship but engaged very much on their own terms, which is exactly as it should be. Whether that was searching for sheep-themed stories and toys during the sermon, blowing bubbles for the intercessions, or lying on the floor to wait on the Spirit, it was apparent that they were participating in a shared encounter with God. More importantly, they were doing so as their authentic selves, not constrained by adult ideas of what worship should be like.

It seemed that children and adults together created a sort of ‘virtuous circle’. Because of the sense of openness already present in our worship at Conference – including the relaxed attitude of those presiding, preaching and otherwise leading worship – the children felt able to be fully themselves before God. Because of the freedom, spontaneity and playfulness demonstrated by the children, the adults (some of them at least) felt able to worship more freely themselves.

This was expressed most noticeably by adults ‘borrowing’ bubbles, ribbons, shakers, toys, etc and using them not ‘for the children’ but for their own worship. It was also evident in those adults who chose to join the children on the floor and/or to join in with their play and worship. These tendencies among the adults definitely increased as the week progressed, and they became less inhibited. It would be interesting to see what effect it would have if it were explicitly made clear at the start of Conference that things like bubbles and ribbons can be used by all ages, and that all are welcome to stand/sit/lie on the floor/dance/move around as they choose. I wonder what sort of holy chaos might ensue?!

Tied in with this freedom and authenticity in worship, I sense that God was showing us something important about what it means to be “Anointed for Action” (this year’s conference theme). It was evident in the children – and is equally true for all of us – that their vocation and anointing does not lie primarily in a particular action or ministry, but in being fully and truly their God-created selves. That is something which many of us adults find it hard to grasp about ourselves, and the lived example of the children among us could perhaps help us to understand it beyond any verbal, adult-led teaching on the subject. This might lead us to reflect on the balance between didactic and experiential elements to what we offer at Conference, and in the church more widely?

I feel that the presence of children at Conference this year has been an important turning point for On Fire (and perhaps the church more broadly). Again, as so often before, the phrase “renewal, starting with children” came back to me, but this time with the conviction that this is what it looks like, or at least the first steps of it, and that this is the direction in which God is calling us to travel.

I hope and pray that we can be brave enough to follow this call (in ways which will almost certainly require us to give up some of our adult illusions of being in control), trusting in the Holy Spirit and in what she is doing through the children in our midst.