The NJPN Conference.is always something I look forward to - an opportunity to hear good speakers, attend interesting workshops (my only complaint is usually there are so many that I want to attend and I can only do 2), and meet so many similar-minded people in a lovely setting (the Hayes Centre).
This year, the conference, despite its unwieldy title - Called to Life in All its Fullness-Accepting the Responsibility of Our Baptism - easily exceeded my expectations. The main speakers - Gemma Simmonds, Claire Dixon, Mary Colwell and Sarah Teather- were brilliant and inspiring. An all-female line-up was completed by the quiet, warm chair Rev. Ruth Gee, a Methodist minister.
Sr. Gemma - a sister of the Congregation of Jesus and a theologian - started the first session with a deeply affective and inspiring talk, laced with humour, on the priesthood of the laity. She started with her experiences as a prison chaplain of the impact of baptism on prisoners she had known- the feeling of self-worth it gave them for perhaps the first time. She invited us to start with ourselves as the Body of Christ, to recognise that the body matters and that a sacrament is not a thing, not a commodity, but something to be experienced.
The priesthood of the laity, she suggested, consists in turning our ordinary day-to-day living into signs for the world. In considering what these signs were, she reflected rather wryly on some of the research she had done for her doctorate – for example, some of the 16th century ideas which had suggested married couples could not receive Communion if they had made love the previous evening! Thankfully St. Francis de Salles had sorted that one out. This was one example of the Church's problem in understanding the sacramentality of the body. Sr. Gemma suggested that the signs of priesthood in the community were: incarnation, kenosis, eschatology and koinonia. Just as the ordained priest is called to be a sanctifier, bridge builder and maker of sacred times and spaces, so too are the laity. However we must be transformed before we can transform others. We receive our formation through ordinary life - its crosses and its joys.
Her challenge was that we needed to build stronger links between worship and human society, to ensure that our lex orandi is our lex credendi, and in turn our lex vivendi. We should not split sacred space from daily life. The dreadful examples of recent history - Argentina, Rwanda- where Christians went from church to torture or kill their fellow Christians, were warnings.
Our priesthood should sanctify the world. This is not a new idea but it had become lost with the Roman Empire's acceptance of Christianity and its takeover of the liturgy. Sanctification became something for the ordained priest. Sr. Gemma referred to Blessed John Newman's comments on authority in the church. She also made the point that the Arian heresy had found its support mainly among the ecclesia docta, while the ecclesia docens - the laity- had remained more faithful.
Her challenge to us as laity was - what areas of truth in our time do we want to bring into conversation in the teaching church? She finished her presentation with a series of paintings, the last of which was one of Christ washing his disciples' feet, and her invitation to all was to step out of our authority roles and into one of simple, humble service.
The question and answer session which followed was lively.
Claire Dixon gave the second presentation on Saturday morning, on the theme of prophetic witness, drawing on her experiences in Latin America with the Chile Committee for Human Rights and CAFOD. There was a lot of emotion (not all of it expressed) in her talk as many of those she would identify as prophets for our times in Latin America had suffered and paid the price for their prophetic witness. The music which had been playing as we gathered for this session was from the film The Mission which she had seen with a friend from El Salvador just before the massacre of the Jesuits there, and it always brought back memories.
She began by reminding us that unlike the OT prophets, we don't have wait for visions or angels; we can hear God in his Word. She quoted the words of Archbishop Romero " we have to be the microphones of God". Prophets, said Claire, are defined as inspired, public figures who have to have courage as they will be under threat.
She took us through a frighteningly large selection of figures from Latin America in the second half of the 20th century, commenting that the difficulty had be deciding who to leave out because of time constraints. These prophets ranged from well- known figures such as Dom Helder Camara ( who became a non-person in his own country) and Dom Patrick Joseph Hanrahan ( who described his diocese as the Wild West without the sheriff, to lay members of Human Rights or Pastoral Land Commissions.
There were lighter moments in her talk, for example the story told her by a Mexican bishop of his first Mass as bishop where he invited his congregation, as an introduction to the Confiteor, to reflect on their need for reconciliation before proceeding with the Eucharist. The congregation got up and left, and only returned two hours later when, as they explained, they had achieved reconciliation!
Claire finished her session with a quote from a letter from three bishops emeriti from Brazil calling for a new "pact of the Catacombs" and challenging the clericalism which was making the sacrament of Holy Orders override the sacrament of Baptism. (The original Pact of the Catacombs had been entered into by some 39 Latin American bishops after a Mass in the Catacomb of St. Domitilla on 16 November 1965, and its reported terms explain a great deal about Pope Francis' style of living.)
Mary Colwell, the well-known environmental producer, delivered the afternoon session, intriguingly entitled " looking for a hero ( but time is running out)". Her theme was the failure of the Church to speak out on environmental issues. She used the historical examples of the extermination of the Passenger Pigeon in the US, commented on by the naturalist John Muir as being carried out by good church-going Christians for sport, and the slaughter of bison, as well as the modern example of the shooting of song birds in Malta, without any comment by the local church.
Pope St. John Paul II had spoken out strongly on the environment but she was concerned that Pope Francis had perhaps taken a step back by referring to the Amazon as a garden to be protected, as this had implications of the Amazon being for our use and enjoyment. The Church is failing to connect up its thinking when it suggests going back to eating fish on Fridays - why not be a meat and fish-free day, given the pressure on fish stocks? Mary believed the Church has so much to bring to the environmental movement, and we could do it joyfully! We should all read Job again and its castigation of human arrogance. We cannot wait because we need action now. Perhaps we don’t need a hero, she mused. Action is already being taken in small groups and pockets of care.
As Mary's presentation came towards its end, we had been aware of thunder and heavy rain outside the building, and now with perfect timing, as she said her final words, there was another loud peal of thunder and the lights went out! Once they came back on and the laughter stopped, there was time for questions and discussion. A suggestion by one member of the audience that the bishops were too busy with spiritual matters to get involved in environmental issues got short shrift - this is a spiritual issue!
The final presentation was given on Sunday by MP Sarah Teather, on her personal experience as a Christian in politics. She was clear that she found it difficult to separate out her identity in faith from the rest of her identity. Her faith was part of the weft and weave of who she was. She had joined the Liberal Democratic Party at university because she believed the party had a generosity of spirit, a belief in people, a care for the environment and human rights and an international sense.
She acknowledged that people probably viewed political parties as profoundly flawed organisations but she invited those present to recognise that people involved in politics have an ache in their hearts which she described as a longing for the Kingdom. Politicians have many roles, some of them contradictory, and including the roles of prophet, priest and king. Politics can be an enormous force for good. We should recognise and celebrate successes, and also recognise that we can make a difference.
Sarah explained that she is standing down at the next election after 12 years because the political system is flawed and its flaws can affect your character. The need to seek election leads to short-termism and to a need for self-promotion. There is a premium on loyalty to the party. The public dislikes disunity. The recent scandals have caused mutual mistrust between politicians and the public.
The anxiety to be seen as relevant and active results in politicians chasing up issues from opinion polls. As a result they act on areas of fear and in doing so increase the fears of the public. It is a vicious circle. Much legislation is based on poorly definition of problems and little data. As a result it has unintended consequences and affects the most vulnerable. Action is often taken because of the perceived need to be seen to be "strong".
Sarah invited us to recognise that politicians are like everyone else. She asked that we start from the point of believing that they too are able to hear the voice of God, and that we should speak to that part of them, and give them the courage to lead. She invited us also to see and accept the prophet and priest in the persons opposite us, and not to forget to stop and wonder at the Master Gardener who plants seeds we don't always see.
The NJPN Conference is not, of course, just about keynote speakers. There are also numerous workshops and the whole weekend is framed within liturgies and inset with reflections and the witness of active J & P members. My usual complaint about the workshops is that there are too many and I cannot attend all the ones I would like – only two are possible. This year was no different and my choices for this time were workshops on water and the safety net of the welfare state.
The water workshop – on water as a human right – was run by Ellen Teague, well-known to many of us as a Columban lay missionary and member of the NJPN Environment Group, and Ashley Ralston, Chair of the Group and a member of the Christian Ecology Link Steering Group. It was a challenging, interactive and informative session which tested our knowledge and understanding of the issues surrounding the availability and use of water. The challenge to us was to recognise the Christian response as changing our own lifestyles to conserve water, described by St. Francis as “our sister”, to look after it as a gift and to lead by example.
There was a certain irony in having attended this workshop in view of the subsequent downpour we experienced in the afternoon – you can get too much of a good thing!
The second workshop, called “Defending the Safety Net”, was led by Liam Purcell of Church Action against Poverty and Alistair Murray of Housing Justice. For me this was an opportunity to get the latest data on what was happening in the UK. The opening figures we were given were:-
1 in 5 living in poverty (the Government’s own figures)
74,500 people facing eviction due to the changes in benefits and the “bedroom tax”
36% more people in England & Wales sleeping rough since 2010
NO change in the number of people in work as a result of the benefits cap
60% of people of Bangladeshi or Pakistani origin living in poverty
By contrast £70bn is lost in tax evasion by those who can afford to pay, compared with the estimated £1.5bn in benefits fraud.
The benefits changes are many. The cost of housing is the biggest issue. There is less social housing. The cap is hitting people. Under 35 year-olds are being forced into shared accommodation. Others are being forced by the bedroom tax to move to other cities. Benefit delays are resulting from any change in circumstances or benefits, and there are no longer crisis loans to cover the gap. There have been 1milllion sanctions applied since 2012 – 36% of those affected are young people and 20% are people on disability benefits. A totally depressing situation.
The witness inputs were as ever very affecting. The first was Chris Fitzgerald who works in youth ministry in Hallam Diocese and who spoke of the joy he got from his ministry. The next was James Trewby who has just started his “dream job” as the Justice & Peace Education Worker with the Columbans, after having been in the Xaverian novitiate for a time.
> However the most impressive and challenging for me were husband and wife Michael & Patricia Pulham who quite chattily and naturally spoke of their involvement in anti-nuclear protests. It was only when I read the information given about them that I realised that when Patricia talked about her husband getting on with looking after their 7 children to allow her to do what she felt she was called to do, that this involved getting arrested many times and imprisoned for civil disobedience 13 times! A quite humbling couple.
One very noticeable thing about NJPN conferences is that they are about people as much as ideas. This year there was a special celebration for the Golden Wedding Anniversary of one couple who were attending despite this being a notable date for them. Accordingly a lovely cake was provided (decorated with bees in recognition of their beekeeping activities!) and shared out with everyone at the conference.
>Another great thing about the conference is the separate activities provided for children which are not a way of keeping them busy and out of the way but getting them involved in their own way. This year the children fundraised money to provide a latrine through CAFOD.