Thoughts on the Conversion of St Paul

Carol Backhouse, current senior student at Westcott House and all-around legend, shared some of her meditations today, the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul:

Acts 9.1-22. Matthew 19.27-30

Let’s fast forward seven months. Or nineteen months. Or thirty one months. It’s a Monday morning, and you’re heading for morning prayer at your new shiny parish church, wearing your new shiny dog collar. You come around a bend in the road, and you see a small car ahead of you, complete with boy-racer stripes and souped up alloys. And the car is wrapped around a lamp post.

So you stop, and you go over to help. You go to the quietest victim, and open his airway. You’re relieved to watch his chest rise and fall as he starts breathing again. So you phone for an ambulance, and wait on the side of the road, saying a very different morning prayer to the one in the red book.

Later that day, you visit the local hospital to see how that young lad is getting on. He can’t remember anything that happened, and knows only that he will not be able to walk again. His life has changed beyond anything he could imagine. He’s no idea what the future will hold, and is dreading the moment when he sees his Mum and Dad again. He is scared, and seems to have aged ten years. Yet he’s glad to be alive.

Let’s fast forward a few months. You keep in touch with the young lad, as he makes his way out of hospital, through a rehabilitation unit, and starts a retraining programme that will enable him to work. You get to know his family, his Mum, his Dad, the girlfriend. You listen to all of them, as they chew over their anger and fear, their frustration and their guilt. You hear of the milestones and the miracles, and share in the joy and the regret. The new shiny dog collar becomes worn and scuffed, and you still travel that road wary what you will find on that corner.

I find it difficult to relate to Paul’s dramatic Damascus moment. I have more sympathy for Ananias, the spiritual first responder who brings first aid, prayer and comfort, and who tries to put this life-changing moment into some sort of context. I wonder whether Ananias and Paul stayed friends in later years, whether Ananias continued as Paul’s spiritual director.

It strikes me that we’re more likely to encounter Ananias moments than Damascus moments in our own lives. It strikes me that ministry is having the faith and hope that we too can be Ananias to people like Paul who experience life-changing transformations. Ananias converts the situation into one where Jesus can continue to speak into Paul’s life and work, where Jesus can continue to be present in Paul’s life so that Paul knows him as a friend, a companion; God incarnate.

We can be like Ananias, who responded to God’s call to speak good news to a man who would have killed him for his Christian faith. We can be like Ananias, who calls Paul his brother and makes him welcome despite his misgivings. We can be like Ananias who offers Paul baptism, food, healing and sight. We can be like Ananias who encourages Paul to go out and preach good news.

Ananias’ compassion and courage, those few words and deeds, will continue to transform and nourish Paul for the rest of his life. Without Ananias as the spiritual first responder, would Paul have gone one to such a stellar ministry? Ananias’ words have far-reaching effects: every single day Paul will know the impact which such courageous care and compassion can have on a life, and Paul will seek to repeat this care and compassion as he ministers to the fledgling church.

We may not encounter many Damascus moments. But our constant compassion and care enable us to be Ananias to other Pauls, to enable God’s good news of transformation to be constantly heard in the lives of those we minister to. Amen.

Listen in to Westcott and Cambridge Theological Federation on BBC Radio 4

Students from Westcott House and the wider Cambridge Theological Federation gathered (even earlier than normal!) on Sunday morning the 24th of January for a recording of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Sunday Worship’ Programme.

Marking the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the theme for this service was ‘Salt and Light.’ Music included Howells’ Jubilate, Westcott Principal Chris Chivers led the service and the preacher was Revd Dr Jane Leech, Principal of Wesley House.

You can listen to the entire service (~38 minutes) on the BBC Radio 4 website here.

‘Talent’: Pros & Cons

Michael Fass.jpgAn article by the Revd. Prof. Dr. Michael Fass, Senior Research Fellow at the Westcott Foundation, who will be a seminar for the Westcott Foundation this term:  Responsibility without Authority (Saturday 5th March, 10-4) – a day for SSMs, NSMs, and retired clergy who hold significant responsibility for the ongoing mission of God’s church.

In the last few months there has been discussion about talent in the CofE that has raised hackles.  What is ‘talent’ as an idea and what might its role be in the Church?

In secular language it is used to describe individuals with a ‘special aptitude or faculty’ and of ‘high mental ability’ (OED). Anyone thinking about this definition – and with a modest turn of mind – might feel that they did not meet this standard!

In the life of faith, there is the parable of the talents in which Jesus reprimands the individual who has done nothing with his talent except to bury it in the ground and condemns him to a life in the dark.

A talent group could have its place in both secular and faith organisation – think of Jesus’ selection of the first disciples – but it has come to be associated with the secular rather than the Church until recently.

leaderIn that part of the world called secular – from which a number of the current leaders of the Church are drawn – talent management has been used as way to identify individuals who can be helped to develop themselves into future leaders. To be fair, any human organisation, secular or faith-led, needs leaders in its own generation. I always keep in my mind the words of a wise person who said: ‘If the leader is not leading the organisation forward, then who is?’

However, it is one thing to have this idea of the management of talent – and of developing it – but quite another to identify those who should be included in its activities.

We all have our own experience of how this works and I always remember (when I had just failed yet another set of school exams!) my uncle’s salutary warning in his story about his head of class with every prize under their belt, bursting with potential talent and expected to go to the very top, ending up managing BAs landside operations in Singapore!

Does this mean, on the one hand, that those outside the magic circle of talent risk becoming bitter and disillusioned about their talents and, on the other, that those who are selected risk becoming arrogant and demanding?

There is no dispute that in this age of uncertainty when so many alternatives are available and so many different opinions exist, that the role of clergy is complex and that the use of talent development to meet these challenges is important, but should this be of, and for, the many or the few?

jigsawOne should start from the premise that each individual has talent and is talented in their own God-given way and that by Ordination these talents are enhanced, for the common good. We are all different in our ability, personality and motivation but we all share the desire to do something for God and His people. Does this mean that the talents of each and every clergy person should be developed with no special treatment of any individual or should the Church identify those with ‘special’ talent and, if so, what would these talents be and how could they be identified?

Would Jesus have qualified for the talent ‘pool’? He was from a small village (Parish!); He may have had some formal education in the synagogue but not much (no tertiary education then!); He went round with a thoroughly bad lot (no fixed abode or mobile billing address!) and came to a sticky end (no CV!). So, how can talent programmes cope with mavericks, non-conformists and those who do not travel traditional roads?

If talent pools are going to work, those responsible for selecting the individuals who will participate in them, would need to have advanced skills in appreciating the infinite variety of humankind and the ability to recognise those with a strong desire for change and doing things differently; the ability to think and act creatively; a dogged persistency to see things through and pursue their dreams and be hard-working and visionary. A tall order indeed!

In other words, those who might be rather difficult to deal with but who might be counted on to help the Church to find new ways of doing things. Are these the types who sit around the table at the Bishop’s Council?

Finally, is talent a function of age so that talent programmes are inherently ageist as they over-represent the younger age group and neglect the over-50s? We all know about this older group, who we are in danger of leaving too long in their posts so that they are at risk of becoming demotivated and unproductive.

If the resources used in talent programmes were re-directed into the mentoring and support of all front-line clergy would this have a similar effect as a talent programme? There is a sense in which a top-down talent programme suggests displacement activity as in: ‘We know we cannot reach all clergy so we will act on, and with, a few of them and hope that things will improve.’

The pros and cons of talent management are complicated but I always keep in mind the words of Hugh Lister, a radical priest of the East End of London in the 1930s, who said: ‘Here is your life, here are your circumstances & endowments. Now make the most beautiful thing of it you can.’

The Revd. Prof. Dr. Michael Fass is a Senior Research Fellow at Westcott Foundation. This term he will lead a seminar for the Westcott Foundation:
Responsibility without Authority (Saturday 5th March, 10-4) – a day for SSMs, NSMs, and retired clergy who hold significant responsibility for the ongoing mission of God’s church. To book a place for this event, or on any of our other seminars, please contact us or use this booking form.

Nurturing Urban Virtues


An article by Professor Philip Sheldrake, who will be leading a seminar on Nurturing Urban Virtues for the Westcott Foundation (Wednesday 24th February 2016, 11am – 4pm).  To book a place, contact us, and for more information, click here.

Over 80% of the British population now live in urban areas. Since the 1960s British cities have also become more densely populated and radically diverse. A sense of “place” is vital part of human experience. It makes us feel connected to the surroundings and to other people, evokes a sense of belonging and provokes commitment.

Urban contexts have a special capacity to focus a range of physical, intellectual and creative energies precisely because they combine differences of age, ethnicity, culture, gender and religion in unique ways.

Sadly, for a range of reasons including increased mobility, many urban areas also nowadays suffer from a serious breakdown in a sense of community identity, mutual communication and neighbourliness. This has made a number of social commentators reflect on the importance of urban virtues. Can we identify the critical social virtues for our day and how may they be nurtured as a way of reversing an increasing sense of social fragmentation and of redeveloping what might be called a “civic imagination”?skyscraper2

A range of urban virtues have been suggested. These include:

  • the recovery of the value of casual conversation and active neighbourliness;
  • greater attentiveness to and respect for our surroundings (both the physical street or apartment block and the others who live in it);
  • a willingness to participate in a place and to become socially engaged;
  • alleyway2courtesy and mutuality;
  • confronting prejudice and exclusion;
  • mercy in its wider sense of kindness and compassion;
  • inclusivity and hospitality to those who are in any way “other” or different from ourselves;
  • cultivating reconciliation to counter violence or mutual suspicion;
  • passionately committing ourselves to a process of negotiating the “common good”.

If the Church is supposed to be “good at community” what currency do our local faith communities have to offer to the wider urban environment? How can local churches and people in urban ministry actively help to reverse the loss of community identity or neighbourliness? This demands reflection on key Christian values such as the pursuit of the “common good” and how to communicate this to people beyond the Church.
But, equally importantly, cycle2it also demands we take practical action, some of which may be initially uncomfortable to religious “insiders” such as the use of church space for neighbourhood activities or the replacement of vital local facilities (e.g. a Post Office) that are being shut down.

The study day at Westcott House on Wednesday 24 February will offer the opportunity for participants to reflect on how local Christian communities and people in urban ministry can better help to underpin civil society in our cities.
To book a place, please contact us.