[long read… grab a coffee!]
It’s early Friday morning: I’m sitting on the plane bawling my eyes out to the beautiful story of faith Rwandair have broadcast on their inflight movie. Songs from my ‘first love’ days of faith are the backdrop to the story of Jeremy and Melisa, twenty somethings who fall in love, experience a miracle of healing and then a devastating loss. The movie is called ‘I Still Believe.’ I first saw it on Amazon Prime or Netflix a year ago, but today the ‘Find me in the River’ cover of Deliriou5/Cutting Edge hits me and I’m transported in a grief not my own. A solidarity with loss.
It’s not the first time that has hit me this week. I remember as a child having to train myself to be hard, to survive in this life. Arriving at a secondary school aged 13 where my sensitivity meant I’d still burst in tears was not an asset to early teenage life. I hardened, and found a violent anger burning inside of me instead that came out in swearing, waving my hockey stick around and even occasionally wondering about harming to myself to prove others wrong. If I took my life, I thought one day, that would show them.
Blessedly it never got close to that, but I would lash out, often more on my own than with people, although playing hockey goal keeper gave an outlet to a ‘psycho Rich’ that was growing inside me. I wonder how much I needed a healing at that time, but know only too well how hard it is to receive that in your early teens.
At 17, God broke through the barriers, reconnecting me quite dramatically to my sensitive side, as I wept tears of both repentance and healing on a bunk bed in Romania. But other life wounds were to follow as four years later I went through the pain of parental divorce and the loss, so it seemed, of a father who had been everything to me.
Months later I found myself, Cambridge graduate and all, working in Walsall on a homeless project for older teens. Not one had two parents at home, save for an Irish lad who’s parents both ran a pub and both would take physical and emotional lumps out of each other. Some had felt deserted, others rejected. One had a father in prison for violent murder and an abusive step-dad, another had been kicked out of home my muslim parents for being gay, four had been raised in foster care, one had been brought up by his sister, a working girl, and had by the age of 17 also been on the game.
Among all these beautiful and precious young people were so many wonderful stories of grace. One I visited in prison some time later, but others I saw come out of their personal prisons. The lad with the awful fathers always wanted to start a fight with anyone despite being only about 60kg. He nearly lost his life on a hiking trip near Bala, Wales, when none of us knew he had a medical condition and his heart stopped as he joined a challenge to stand under a freezing waterfall. I think we prayed him back to life in those few dramatic seconds. Soon after he came with us to a Pentecostal church called the WEC / Church at Junction 10 and in a gospel concert there had an encounter with God worshipping alongside Mel his key worker. Mel was a strong black woman who loved him with that sort of tough love many kids need, a love more about actions than words.
Another came with me to the 3:45pm choral service at St Matthew’s Walsall to an almost empty building with a robed children’s choir singing the liturgy. He was musical and said ‘it’s beautiful, it’s so beautiful’ as he had his own encounter with God. Another lad at the centre was much more together than the others who had been through care. He had a Christian foster parents. While we were both living at the residential centre we heard that his foster Dad had died. The lad went to the funeral and there apparently were 60 or more kids there and there was this breakout of appreciation for the start he had given them in life.
The most dramatic of all was the saddest story mentioned above. The lad who had been used and abused for money met an older woman called Sue from South Africa who had been reading the Nicky Cruz story (Cross and the Switchblade). She had come to England wanting to be used by God like David Wilkinson the country preacher in that story. For months she did the admin for the residential project but also took time to show the residents she cared. Eventually she invited the teen down to the sort of Alpha Course we were running. He took it over from the first meeting. It was question and answer. His heart would let out a cry for help as he searched for the Answer. We would attempt to reply. Then it came to him. ‘Do you mean he loves me’. “Yes”. ‘Does that mean he loves me’. “Yes”. ‘Does that mean he loves me’. “Yes”, and he came to faith more easily than any of the over intellectual, privileged ‘spiritual fools’ [bible term!] that I had met at Cambridge. His heart was asking the right question: ‘Will He welcome me home?’ The answer is always: “Yes, Yes, Yes”.
I found out again this week in Rwanda how much He will welcome us home and longs to be there for us.
At one point I had the privilege of praying for very special 13 year old girl a year or so younger than my daughter. With her mum and the team in the room praying as well, I suddenly felt an overawing sense of the Heavenly Father’s love for this girl carrying a father’s wound around with her in her precious young soul. The sense was of God saying, ‘I’d love to walk her down the aisle’, and for about 15 precious minutes I felt I was commissioned by God to pray for her, anoint her, and then simply cry for her, as she cried and sobbed on her mum. Then there was a clear release. It was like God said, ‘enough now, you’ve done what I called you to, and I will always provide for her when she needs it in the future.’ I had the tremendous sense that God is looking for people who can from time to time step in to pass on the overwhelming love he has for his precious ones, and then get out of the way again quickly, so that the only dependency and attachment created is to God the Father, who can provide parenting across time, space and continents. I know she is in his safe hands going forward for all those precious times of life.
Symmetrically her Mum had prayed for me earlier that day. In that prayer I’d had an overwhelming reminder of the 1998 confirmation of my call into the Church of England. Lambeth 1998 was going on and I was a restorationist at Stoneleigh Bible Camp. I’d prayed that God would destroy the Church and start again that early August, but by 20 September 1998 God had redirected my path. After a series of events I found myself with Sandy Millar at HTB one Sunday night. Though I was a visiting stranger he led me gently into a restoring and envisioning experience of God’s love and renewal as I ended up lying on the floor near the old pulpit at Brompton Road in an ‘HTB ministry time’. His follow up was exemplary. He wrote to me for a year, linked me to a retired Bishop friend in Cambridge and to an Ordinand. But as I was prayed for in Rwanda, separated by 25 years and a 9 hour flight away from London’s Kensington, it was like I was back in the room again. I was free of stresses and anxieties I’d been carrying for the past four years or more, and released into His loving arms again. Echoes of a wonderful, powerful but gentle experience of the ‘Father’s heart’ that many in the mid 1990s associated with the Toronto Blessing.
Strengthened by this as I type on the plane heading back to the UK I find myself steeled to face the troubles we have in the C of E without carrying the anxiety or sense of necessity to solve it. It is all coming to a head and prophetic people suggest an Ichabod moment by November [Ichabod: when the glory of the Lord departed from his temple in the Hebrew Scriptures]. But God is on his throne and redeems all things – even through exile.
Two prophets have been important to me this week. Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Jeremiah in our Chapter 1 is reminded that he was called in the womb, as I know I was, which most likely affected my sensitivity to the Spirit and to sorrow from infancy despite my later hardening. He was to be a prophet to the nations, but is often called the weeping prophet as well. A Rwandan sister reminded me of this verse when I was the practice person for their ‘prophetic activation exercise’ (think Ignatian spirituality exercise if those words make more sense to you). Others reminded me of angels watching over me, an oil drum of anointing oil to use, and that one of those angels would take over the driving when I needed to cross a bridge I was coming to.
This relates to the Ezekiel call. Not long after the 1998 experience at HTB I was in the Divinity Faculty (Div Fac) at Cambridge having a lecture on the major prophets alongside ordinands from Ridley and Westcott House. I was a 20 year old undergraduate. When we got to Ezekiel 2-3 I sensed my calling clarifying. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel was a prophet of the exile time, but he didn’t just get to weep over those who didn’t realise they were heading into exile, he got to sense God’s plan for the future. God’s provision was that his glory could move from the religious centre they were used to worshipping in. It could go in any and every direction that the Spirit of God chose to move. The people didn’t need their old temple while in exile. It was about to be destroyed anyway. God’s throne was on the move. But he, Ezekiel, was given a key charge: ‘Set your forehead like flint, because I am not sending you to a people of strange language and tongues but to your own people. A people who are ignorant and stubborn and ultimately would not listen.’
25 years later I am coming up to my 19th anniversary as a CoE clergyman. I have spent all 25 of those years serving in the Church, from cleaning toilets as an intern/ordinand to being on the standing committee of the house of clergy in my 20s. I’ve been a trustee, regional and national director for mission agencies, an editor for a book series, an assistant diocesan director of ordinands, a diocesan fresh expressions advisor, a curate, a pioneer and most wonderfully of all a parish priest. I’ve spoken around the world in Cathedrals, parishes and in the open air. I’ve done missions, slept on floors, written two further degrees and trained scores of people. Sometimes I’ve burnt out. Sometimes I’ve done it in my own strength. Sometimes I’ve failed deeply. Once or twice I’ve said to God that ‘if I was Him I’d fire me’. Often I’ve felt like a failure. But I’ve seen many people come to faith and be deepened in their own walk with God in that CoE. And so it feels so much like I’m flying back into a tragedy as I come home now, and yet a tragedy that God foresaw long ago. A repeated pattern of a tragedy that we once warned ourselves of daily in our morning prayer: ‘Today if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts as your ancestors did in Meribah.’
But the bigger reality is I am coming home to a nation filled with people who need to hear God’s divine, fatherly words, ‘Welcome Home’. Just like broken me, or my broken friends in Walsall or the young person I was privileged to pray with on this mission there are scores of people on every street who need to hear a Father’s affirmation over their life.
In our team times in Rwanda a beautiful thing happened to confirm this. One team member was a widower in his mid-80s. He’d travelled from Australia to join in, but hadn’t quite found his place or groove until the team ministry time. There he laid hands on the shoulder of team member after team member, men and women drawn from five nations and three continents. He pronounced the Father’s love into their life, as I later did with the teenager. Men in their 60s received the blessing with one saying, ‘I never heard those words from my own father.’ In a matter of minutes he mediated a divine Counsellor to them who set them free from generations of pain. All of these were people who seconds before had looked like they hadn’t got a need in the world, and yet these wonderful ‘do-gooders’ who had travelled the earth to help others, found that the Father was already there and using the opportunity to meet with them. It was healing in the purest form.
Just before he retired Bishop Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, took me for breakfast and said, ‘Richard, remember your words’. He said that kingdoms and cultures rise and wane in history and our current one had less than half a decade left. Stay true to the old old story and eventually they’ll come running back to the Father to receive that love everyone is really fundamentally and absolutely desperate for. Don’t change your words to make church fit to the culture. Stay married to Christ and He will set you free.
“I could count at least 20 people I know in the CoE college of bishops who would have felt far more at home there than in most CoE gatherings, and I hope I am underestimating that number by a multiple of three. “
The Church of England, of course, is famously married to the State (and we could now add culture/media), and as Joshua Penduck has convincingly argues, the State has turned his eyes towards a mistress of secular, liberalism dressed occasionally in a reluctant dose of watered down pluralism (as we’ll see at the King’s Coronation in a few days). The mistress is more alluring than the church, so the church as the forsaken wife has tried to mimic the mistress to win back the State/media alliance. This has not worked. She needs to break the unhealthy alliance with the State and return to her New Testament call to be the bride of Christ and Him alone. Such is the message now being sounded out to the CoE. By my count she has about 6 months or so to turn around before an Ichabod moment descends.
There is another way. In Kigali, Anglicans from the Global South came together for Spirit-filled worship like the best of New Wine or FOCUS, but with 50 tongues and tribes and nations on display. They heard bible preaching that warmed the heart and challenged the mind. They heard testimonies of miracles, that would have amazed the most charismatic of our churches and engaged in liturgy of repentance each day. I could count at least 20 people I know in the CoE college of bishops who would have felt far more at home there than in most CoE gatherings, and I hope I am underestimating that number by a multiple of three.
Kigali was not perfect. Although they moved by the end of the week to affirm women in leadership in churches that was not spelt out to guarantee and provide space for the growing number of egalitarians around the world who cannot deny that God has called women to all levels of leadership but all is certainly not lost there. The Global South contain many archbishops who are affirming of women in ministry and as I travel I have met superb ordained and other Anglican women who are key church leaders in Africa, Asia and the Middle-East. That work is not finished but there is more momentum than I thought. A space for orthodox, egalitarian, charismatic, evangelical, global Anglicans exists even if no-one has created it yet.
God has not forgotten his people. In 2021 – 2022 as a church in London we found ourselves drawn again and again to Luke 15 – especially the story of the prodigal sons – the wayward sinner and the hard hearted sinner who both needed to come home to their Father. In the story we only know that the wayward one definitely made it spiritually home. While he was still a long way off his Father ran to meet him. Those of us who ‘have hardened our hearts like our ancestors in the wilderness’ sometimes need taking a long way from our comfort zone before those hearts melt. God calls that exile. It is not the worst thing that could happen to a church for the Lord to come near ‘in judgement to save us’ [Ps 76].
I tried to leave comment.. but got in a techie muddle !
Just wanted to say thankyou for trusting shared space and sharing, your heart, your truth and your REALness … Thankyou for holding the Light in celebration and appreciation of ‘truth’ …
Hi Richard – having discovered your blog recently, I’ve been finding yet really helpful, thank you for your honesty, wisdom and insight.
This line particularly though prompted me to comment because it captures and helped me recognise some of the ‘outside’ness I often feel:
A space for orthodox, egalitarian, charismatic, evangelical, global Anglicans exists even if no-one has created it yet.
That’s a space I would love to inhabit. Thank you!