What I did on my sabbatical

I remember it as a ritual of primary school life, an acknowledgement that the summer break was over and the new term had begun: the writing of a few sentences, and the drawing of a picture, under the wobbly heading, ’what I did on my holidays’.  So here I am writing ‘what I did on my sabbatical’.

A sabbatical, or study leave – an option offered by the diocese after 10 years’ service – is three months away from much of day to day life, not just for holiday and rest, but for the space and time to reconnect more deeply with God, family and one’s own God-created self and God-given sense of calling.  It is based on the, often neglected, spiritual practice of ‘sabbath’, one day in seven set aside for more or less the same health-giving things.

My application for three months sabbatical leave[1] included a project to study the ‘ecclesiology and missiology[2]’ of contemporary, village-based ministry, such as we have here in the Lordsbridge Team[3].  The Lordsbridge Team is a network of small congregations, both traditional and non-traditional, collaborating and sharing resources to, hopefully, mutual benefit.  This I set out to do, but I was warned also to leave time and space for the unexpected, the serendipitous and, frankly, the work of God’s Spirit.  And like the householder of Jesus’ parable, I discovered both old and new treasures in the storeroom of the kingdom of God[4].  So, for the record, here is a sample of the treasures I found:

Prayer and nurturing the inner life

The Quaker, Thomas Kelly, writes of feeding the inner life that is connected with the Divine, in the midst of the activities and commitments of the work day, rather than apart from them: ‘on one level we may be thinking, discussing… calculating, meeting all the demands of external affairs.  But deep within, behind the scenes, at a profounder level, we may also be in prayer and adoration… and a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings’.[5]  I’m not sure that I can achieve something quite like this, but I have found that a rhythm of prayer and activity enables a prayerful approach to the whole of life. While on sabbatical, I experimented with a twofold pattern of morning prayer, read/prayed/said on my own, followed by writing a page or two in my reflective journal, and evening prayer said with whoever was around, immediately following the evening meal and before we get up from the table. Sometimes evening prayer became Compline (or night prayer) instead, when we were eating very late after Boyd came in from work.  This worked with Boyd and my parents (who were visiting), but whenever we involved our boys it descended into joyful and highly infectious laughter!  (I imagined Jesus finding it very funny).

A rhythm of work, study and rest

I worked to a rough daily rhythm of study, prayer, practical activity and rest, taking the morning for reading and note-making and the afternoon for something creative and practical, although sometimes it worked the other way around depending upon what other family members were up to.  This was all wonderfully grounding and whilst not always possible in these proportions within a full-on work life, the principle of setting aside time to balance different kinds of activities – whether they refresh our energy or demand it – is an old, monastic one that we are rediscovering today as a foundation for mental, spiritual and physical wellbeing.

The joy of ordinary things, and especially the outdoors

As well as lots of reading and the odd trip away, I spent time reconnecting with ordinary but creative things – tending the garden, cooking, preserving, and eating our own and other fresh produce, sewing including mending, repurposing clothing and making new.  And then there was the cathartic effect of a good sort out, of my study amongst other things.  Richard Foster in his seminal book ‘Celebration of Discipline’, writes of living simply as a spiritual practice and it is all the more pertinent as we become more conscious of the impact of human activity on the environment[6].  In an effort to reduce waste, I discovered that you can make soup out of asparagus stalks and pesto from carrot tops and sunflower seeds. Who knew?  And redcurrant cordial solved the problem of what to do with the glut of currants from our bushes still in the freezer from last summer.

It was a lovely time of year to have more daily flexibility and I also reconnected with a love of the outdoors.  Sitting in the garden to read theology or write a journal entry was a delight, as was tramping through the fields, or along the green paths, having a conversation with myself and/or with God.  There were longer walks too: in May, with hawthorn blossom and cow parsley still in the hedgerows, then dog roses, poppies, oxeye daisies, hogweed, and honeysuckle of high summer, to the golden barley fields edged with deep, green trees of late July.  In the garden, there was weeding, deadheading, staking, and summer pruning.  The spiritual writer, Ian Adams, now at Ridley Hall, writes of the practice of Terra Divina, a version of Lectio Divina where an aspect of the natural world is the ‘word of God’ on which the practitioner contemplates.[7]

A refreshed attitude to time and schedule

Turning off the alarm clock was a joy and a relief, as was sitting more lightly to the clock during the day, allowing the day to unfold, rather than driving it forward.  After a while, I stopped writing a to-do list, taking a more playful approach to deciding what to do with the day, within the pattern of prayer, work, study and rest.  Most of the time we are subject to chronos time – linear and scheduled, characterised by project plans, reports and quantitative measures.  Many of us could do with more kairos time – intuitive and playful.  Harder to capture, and somewhat counter-intuitive, a kairos approach to time has an emphasis on preparation for, and discernment of, ‘the right moment’, on agility and an openness to the unexpected.  A kairos approach to time sits alongside the spiritual practice that is represented in metaphor in the Jewish practice of leaving gleanings (fallen ears of corn) at the edge of a harvested field as an act of generosity to others.[8]  Not scheduling every inch of the diary is like not harvesting every inch of the field.  What we might call ‘waste’, God’s Spirit can use for the unexpected and the creative.

A Celtic approach to spirituality and two retreats

The Northumbria Community is a ‘new monastic community’[9] based in Northumberland (of course) but with ‘companions’ dispersed across the UK and beyond.  Their motherhouse is in a farmhouse in Felton, near Alnmouth, and there a small permanent community gathers to pray 4 times a day using a pattern of prayers and reflections from the ancient Celtic saints, as well as spiritual writers of poetry, song and prose, right up to the present day.  I took two fruitful and restful four-day retreats at the farmhouse, where the community offers hospitality, prayer, a library, a chapel and the peace of the beautiful landscape.  Personally, I resonate with Celtic spirituality because it connects with the nuts and bolts of everyday home and community life, and with the natural world.  More subversively, because its roots are in the earliest forms of Christianity on these islands, its sits outside or on the edges of the institutions that we know today[10].  This quality of outsider-ness, and the dialogue that it stimulates, both helps us to understand what is of value ‘inside’ our inherited, Anglican, church life, and challenges us to necessary re-imagining.

Worshipping with God’s people wherever we were

Boyd and I decided to take this opportunity to worship with God’s people wherever we found ourselves at the weekend.  We noticed, with some surprise, how hard it was going into an unknown place, even though we are deeply committed to the practice of Sunday worship.  This was in addition to the practical challenge of finding out what services there were and when, and where to park, and so on. But we were surprised too by the joy of connecting with other followers of Christ who were otherwise strangers, as well as, on several occasions, unexpectedly bumping into people we knew who just happened to be there!  It was good too to worship together as a couple, and sometimes with our boys, across the rich diversity of Christian worship and community.  We visited the pioneering church in King’s Hill, the huge new town just outside West Malling. We went to the cathedral to hear Professor David Wilkinson with Ben, and to HTC in Cambridge with Jacob.  And there was a tiny, village church in Rutland, where we celebrated an afternoon eucharist, with a handful of others, on Pentecost Sunday.

Nurturing family relationships

My parents and my sister and her family came to stay at different times.  For the first time ever I did a solo ‘uni run’ to Durham and back at the end of the summer term to move second son from one flat to another, support him in dealing with landlords and bring him, and quantities of washing, home.  (For one time only, I had more time than my husband for this particular ritual of parenting young adults).  We had a couple of weekends away, and on Pentecost Sunday we found ourselves, on a perfect summer’s day, in the nature reserve at Rutland Water watching the nesting ospreys.

Study and flexing the intellectual muscles

It took a while before I had enough headspace to think rather than just turn pages, and to begin to synthesise ideas again.  It has been a gift to have the time to read more widely and playfully rather than to a specific task.  And as a practical theologian, I mined both literature and the experience of others for ideas to enrich the dialogue between ecclesial and missiological theory and the actual practice of ministry and mission in our context.  I narrowed this a little to focus on the blended church[11] in conversation with Andrew Dunlop, at Ridley Hall, and on the kingdom of God as a narrative for blended, multi-village, multi-congregation ministry and mission.  In reading and in conversation, I realised that what we are experimenting with in Lordsbridge[12] is at the forefront of re-imagining rural ministry, a blended, networked approach that is written about largely in PhD theses and articles, rather than books as yet.  The following are three particular resources that are part of the treasures that I discovered.

Reading and thinking about ‘blended’ church and the kingdom of God

Some of what I was reading considered the questions around what makes a ‘proper’ church – there is more heat than light in some quarters of this debate, but there is also some interesting research emerging from experience on the ground.  Some included ideas, now in the church literature – around emergence, chaos theory, and organisations as organisms – that I first worked with 15 years ago before ordination[13].  Some involved pondering the kingdom of God in the Biblical text and as a narrative in our church context – this may yet yield an informal paper and some congregational resources.  A little was on leadership, particularly shared leadership, in the church.  The best bits reminded me of an edginess, and a creativity that is sometimes lost amongst the necessities of day to day ministry and the management of church communities or diocesan responsibilities.  (If you are interested in seeing the full list of books, and chapters of books that I read, you can find it here: Books I read.)

Pioneering in rural team ministry in Somerset

There were two other sources of ideas.  Revd Selina Garner has held two rural pioneer posts in the West Country and is currently in Bath and Wells diocese, in a village-based team of churches. I visited her in June to find out more and presented a paper on the narratives of inculturation[14] to a small, reflective community of rural ministers that she hosts – the ‘Bright Field’ community.  In her previous role, she introduced a simple opt in ‘rule of life’ for members of congregations of the Team/benefice, and here she is building on that by developing a ‘learning community’ across the benefice complementing Sunday morning church, recruiting into official community chaplain roles (both paid and voluntary), and hosting the Bright Field community. More details of this project are in a separate paper.

Perspectives on the rural church in Northern Europe

In May I visited Bredstedt in north Germany at the invitation of the Nordkirche with whom Ely Diocese is linked.  Participants from four countries – Sweden, Denmark, Germany and the UK – and a range of protestant denominations attended this small, niche conference to hear papers delivered largely by academics, and (thankfully) in English. These included a theology of rural church development, an analysis of rural narratives from a social geographer, a view from a governmental organisation on the development rural civic structure in Denmark, a presentation of a church response from Salisbury diocese’s Rural Project and some innovative thinking about future trends in rural life.  Some of this fascinating material will be posted later.

Some final thoughts

Sometime during the middle month, having slept and rested a fair amount, having given up alarm clocks and to-do lists, having become more detached from the tasks and concerns that had previously filled my days, I found that the things that usually defined the shape of time and gave me a sense of purpose and usefulness were stripped away.  Though this was not a serious crisis, it was uncomfortable to find questions of identity and calling – who am I and what am I for? – bubbling up.  The catholic theologian and philosopher, Josef Pieper, argues that leisure – and this applies to sabbath and sabbatical too – most properly enables an ‘openness of the soul’ giving space for new insight, that it reminds us of an attitude that celebrates the little things of the life we are given for their own sake; and that in its truest sense, it roots us in our worship of, and response to, God our Creator.  Sabbatical, including most of its study elements, has, I have found, given me the gift of this true leisure.

In the final month or so, continuing to live a pattern of prayer, study and creativity, reading playfully, and enjoying the little moments, a number of things came together, and some of my reflections on them are woven into the above.  I have lots of notes and fragments of writing which may or may not become something more formal, but even if not, the ideas will, I know, be part of preaching, informal articles and conversation in their own (kairos) time.  Nothing will be wasted.  And I will continue, as far as possible, with some of the practices that I have relearned or have rebooted.

Would I do it again?  Absolutely… one day.  But in the meantime, there is much to be getting on with.

End Notes

[1] From 29 April to 29 July 2019.
[2] Ecclesiology is the theology (or theory derived from the Bible or from the history of the church) of all things to do with churches – their purpose, how they are set up and operate, how worship and other activities take place etc.  Missiology is the theology or theory of mission, the outward face of church life.  They are often considered to be two separate and sometimes competing areas of theology and practice however, I have argued (unpublished MA dissertation) that missiology should be part of ecclesiology, ie mission is fully part of the church’s life of worship of God.
[3] Www.lordsbridge.org
[4] Matthew 13:25
[5] Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion, first published in 1941, was one of the books that I was slightly surprised to find myself reading.  Kelly was a Quaker elder and businessman who lived in the US.  is quote is from his essay ‘The Light Within’, section II.
[6] Foster, R; Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth; chapter 6
[7] Adams, I; Running Over Rocks: Spiritual Practices to Transform Tough Times; chapter 3.
[8] See Ruth 2 and Matthew 12:1; and drawing on ideas presented by Pete Greig at a seminar heard at the New Wine conference, August 2019.
[9] www.moot.uk.net/about/what-is-new-monasticism/
[10] I recognise that the forms of Celtic spirituality that I use, eg, from Iona, the Northumbria Community and David Adams’ writing, are contemporary reworkings of something much older.  However, these writers and communities have done the work of recontextualization necessary for this spirituality not to be merely a historical re-enactment of an ancient form but so that it can connect with the lives of contemporary people and open a rich seam of resources.
[11] ‘Blended church’ is a recent term to describe traditional or inherited style congregations thriving alongside non-traditional congregations such as Messy Church or Campfire Church.  These latter non-traditional congregations or churches are often referred to with the umbrella term Fresh Expressions of Church.  ‘Blended church’ builds on the concept of a ‘mixed economy of church’ introduced by ++Rowan Williams in the 2004 publication ‘Mission Shaped Church’.
[12] www.lordsbridge.org
[13] Part of my pre-ordination work life involved consulting, researching and writing about organisations that could be termed ‘adaptive’, ‘innovative’ or ‘relational’ or all three.  Some of this work is published in The Relational Lens: Understanding, managing and measuring stakeholder relationships; Ashcroft et al.; CUP 2017
[14] Inculturation or contextualisation is a technical term for the process by which the teaching and the practices of the church are adapted or not in the prevailing culture.  There is a considerable body of theory based on the practices and experience of missionaries taking the gospel beyond the West in previous decades.  Interestingly this theory is now being applied to the mission of the church in the UK and Europe.  (Unpublished material in MA dissertation).

About Alison Myers

I am Team Rector for the Lordsbridge Team of Churches, a cluster of 11 villages west of Cambridge. Within the Team, I am Vicar of Hardwick and Dry Drayton, and Lead Minister for Pioneering Projects.
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