It was as I was beginning to sing the praises of Professor Ann Loades my fabulous Ph.D supervisor the other day that I learned she had just died - having been such an extraordinary person and ground-breaking pioneer in theology and in the life of the Church of England, and wider Church, not least in Durham.
Meeting with Ann was always an occasion for me - whether in a coffee shop (and ideal set for Vera) in Newcastle upon Tyne on a Saturday morning, togged up as she was to teach ballet: or in a County Durham village when, out of her fierce compassion she told me firmly to take a term off combining research with social justice advocacy and church development (I sometimes hear her voice on that today!) as ‘too many women and children are left bereft by over-working spouses and parents having heart-attacks’.
Maybe above all I remember her cutting through the academic nonsense on so many things with keen telling intelligence - as when once I began to stress about maybe needing to write a substantial section in my Ph.D on definitions of feminism (though it was mainly a work of history): ‘rubbish’ she said (though she was eminently capable of writing several books hersrlf on the subject) ‘just put ’justice for women’’ ‘Of course’ I said ‘just like Josephine Butler!’ She laughed in her gorgeous full of life way and we both rejoiced. For, though she was an amazing, creative and accomplished pioneer, Ann always knew she too stood in a long line of Christian feminists (not least our fellow north east foremother Josephine Butler). Ann helped pass on the torch of judicious thought, justice and joy to so many of us - and we continue to honour her by keeping it bright and passing it on to others.
For a wonderful woman, a great mentor and inspiration, thanks be to God!
As I come, this Saturday, to give my final lecture as a St Francis College Brisbane staff member, it is poignant to do so on the subject of ‘The Vocation of Anglicanism’. In that light, it is such a delight to find today an Ad Clerum from Bishop David Jenkins - written in 1993, in the white heat of conflict, as the final legal steps for the ordination of women went through Parliament. It is a typical +David description of the Anglican (Church of England) spirit in which I was raised - so far from so much that passes as Anglican in some places today - not least these key points which also sit so happily with the UCA ‘Basis of Union’ ...
As we are clearing out accumulated possessions for our impending move, we are finding some wonderful memory treasures. Here is one beautiful reminder of creative Durham days (and there were many) - this from a wonderful ecumenical/community event in Crook (geographical centre of County Durham). I still love this liturgy (and the people who went with it ), and I suspect yours truly must have had a hand in it (not least with those readings from Red Letter Theatre and Josephine Butler - that’s a give away!). I’d forgotten that Jan Berry song (‘Song for a Journey), but it (and the final prayer ‘What can one person do?’) seem pretty much on the ball right now:
Shake me out of dull religion
Leaving forms and fears behind:
Give me trust to travel freely,
Spirit-searching not confined.
In these times of coronavirus induced 'social isolation', it is salutary to reflect on those who have been leaders in practicing what we might call 'sacred isolation'. Indeed, I was happy recently to meet a request to write about St. Cuthbert, whose feast day falls this week. As a child of Northumbria, and the haliwerfolc (people of the saint) of Durham, it was a labour of love (there are certainly reasons his famous cross hangs, as in the photo above, in the window of my living room). My piece for Anglican Focus is entitled 'St Cuthbert - opening the door to the heart of heaven' (with homage to Malcolm Guite's fine sonnet), and can be found here. Sadly, in the Australian Anglican Lectionary, Cuthbert is remembered primarily as 'bishop and missionary'. His true significance however is much more than that: above all, as monk and hermit, in exploring life and God in silence, solitude, and intimate relationship with the 'word' of God in people, places, scripture and the 'book' of all Creation. Perhaps his commitment to 'sacred isolation' at the heart of his being is a particular gift to us today - not cutting us off from others, but enabling us to find deeper meaning, healing and solidarity in the midst of whatever life's circumstances throw our way?
Occasionally I have a palpable sense of the communion of saints. This week it began in a second-hand bookshop in Sydney's Newtown. Looking up, a book seemed to spring out at me like a blessed shaft of light opening from above. It bore the author's name of Alan Webster, a beloved but sadly departed mentor on my life's journey. Reaching for Reality was a book written late in Alan's life and one of which I was not aware. Sketching people and events which have broken free from deadening routine and oppression, it speaks of vision and change, of the critical need and cost of risk-taking, and of the best of the Anglican spirit Alan embodied - warm, inviting, large hearted, open, culturally and intellectually intelligent, responsive and creative, down-to-earth, intimately concerned with every person and aspect of life, grounded in Julian of Norwich-like 'prayer in struggle', and discovering the transcendent in our earthly dust. As I and my immediate family make many transitions at this time, it is as though Alan again speaks directly to me - be encouraged; don't be afraid to be, bring and suffer change; the mystery of God calls us on...
At the end of this year a very fine west Durham voluntary and community sector body closes. Yesterday a party was held to celebrate its achievements. Those involved kindly remembered my early contribution (as its first Chair) and asked me for a few words of my own. I was only too glad to respond. For I am immensely grateful to have been part of the 2D journey in the early days. Indeed it was the very best thing I ever did in my native county Durham, not least because of so many truly canny people who were involved. So, though it is sad to talk about closure, I know that the spirit behind 2D will never fail. It reminds me of a local story. For, back in the 18th century, a Queen of England once asked what had happened to a particular clergyman. ‘Is he dead?” she asked. ‘No’, came back the answer, ‘he is just the Rector of Stanhope – he is not dead, just buried.’ ‘Not dead, just buried’: those might also be appropriate words for 2D at this time. For 2D’s secret has always been the love and life which have been poured into the people and places of the Durham Dales – so many seeds of encouragement, commitment and inspiration, which have borne such great fruit, accompanied by so many typical moments of humour and solidarity against the odds. Such things won’t just be memories but will continue to blossom. For they are buried in the hearts and lives of all of us who have had the joy and privilege of walking together with 2D: whether for a short while, or for all, or most, of its existence. I am thrilled by what 2D has gone on to achieve. May God continue to bless everyone in the next steps of new life.
Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.