One of the most life-giving parts of my ministry in Toowoomba was the installation of the Reconciliation Cross in St Luke's Anglican Church. Created by renowned Aboriginal artist Uncle Colin Isaacs, as a gift from Heather Johnston (a descendant of one of the original European settlers), this commemorates the great Aboriginal leader Multuggerah, the Battle of One Tree Hill, and Aboriginal resistance to invasion and dispossession. It was overseen with the guidance and leadership of the late Uncle Darby McCarthy and other local elders, with particularly notable support from Mark Copland (from the Social Justice Unit of the Catholic diocese of Toowoomba). It represents a vital visible step in Australian Reconciliation, affirming a continuing journey for recognition and justice. For, in these days of #BlackLIvesMatter and questions about 'white' history and memorials, it offers a tangible example of what can be done to renew our histories and nurture new symbolism and focal points for a better future together. In my view, as both an historian and a priest, it is undoubtedly appropriate that some, more offensive, statues and other historical artefacts are replaced and/or re-used in new ways. Others might have constructive adaptations or additions made. Both of these courses have indeed been employed, on church owned sites, as part of Church practice in addressing the legacy of, and memorials, to child abusers, and those who have colluded with them. Much much more important however is addressing living injustices and forging new pathways. Reclaiming Australia's 'black history' is a crucial aspect of this and Toowoomba's Reconciliation Cross is a living symbol.. It is therefore a cause of thanksgiving that it is placed in the centre of Toowoomba, in one of its oldest and most significant spiritual buildings, available for anyone to visit, to ponder and to encourage the next urgent steps in the journey of justice and healing...
Although aspects of Christian tradition have been devastating for physical love and comfort, the Jesus' story resounds with affirmation of the goodness of life, materiality and the senses. Touch is central to so many Jesus, and other holy, encounters. The body is not at all to be shunned. Rather it is, literally and spiritually, to be fully embraced, as a place where God is 'incarnate' (made flesh) among us. Of course, as with other aspects of life, there can be issues with use of the body, and its abuse by others, but it is fundamentally a beautiful, good, and loving gift of God. This is expressed in the very embodied nature of so much Christian sacramentality and liturgical action, including the sharing of the Peace and laying on of hands.
One of the saddest things for many people right now, particularly those who are most isolated and/or lonely, is the further radical distancing of touch. The following prayer is thus partly a contribution to expressing this and finding other spiritual connection. It uses the practical tool, and embodying symbol, of the holding cross, which many people find helpful at times of stress, illness and loss. When we are unable even to speak due to pain, clasping such a spiritual aid can be life-giving and a means of receiving vital grace and strength. Even when others cannot hold us, we can ask for God's love to do so, and allow it to flow through us.
In writing this prayer, the word 'lingering' came particularly to mind. It is less conventional than other descriptors of the divine but maybe especially evocative for these times. Perhaps, not least when church buildings and traditional elements are closed or silent, God is often among us as a more lingering presence, more like a whisper than a roar? That is also to affirm a more enduring reality than the 'signs of wonders' of much conventional religiosity. I offer it anyway as part of my prayer, in solidarity with others from whom I am currently physically apart.
Do you have a holding cross? Could you perhaps make one, or more, for yourself and/or others? As I wrote this prayer I was particularly reminded of the late Sister Angela - the extraordinary Franciscan nun, mystic and sculptress/artist - whom I met years ago in Stroud in New South Wales. She taught me how to make my own wooden holding cross. I also give thanks for Les Rub, a beautiful friend and faith companion in Toowoomba, who has made so many holding crosses for others, distributed as a ministry to those in need in hospital, at home, or elsewhere. May such expressions of love, like this prayer, continue to hold and strengthen us and others, this day and always:
we struggle to hold on
amid fear and suffering.
Hold on to us
and help us
hold on to the cross.
we struggle to wait
amid stress and insecurity.
Wait on us
and help us
wait with lingering faith.
we struggle to live
amid death and despair.
Live in us
and help us live,
even in the vale of destruction,
in your eternal life.
One more step along the road we go. For it is 6 years, almost to the day, since I successfully proposed a diocesan Synod motion for the Anglican Church Southern Queensland to explore a Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP), inspired by the work done by the Toowoomba Catholic diocese. I was reminded of this this afternoon as I took part in filming Reconciliation stories with Anglicare Southern Queensland and other diocesan colleagues as part of a new and developing Anglicare Reconciliation project. It has certainly been a sometimes frustrating, but also, above all, deeply enriching journey for me personally. For - from Cunnamulla to Buderim, through Toowoomba, the Gold Coast, and Brisbane - I have walked, yarned and worked with all kinds of people, from all kinds of different spaces and with all kinds of different stories. So it was lovely to share today in bringing some of this together, in immediate advance of NAIDOC Week, in order to enable fresh steps ahead with many more people. The RAP, is, and always was and will be, an ambitious project - seeking to work together over such a large and diverse area, with all sections of the diocesan family - and there is so much more to do, but today was an example of how rewarding this can be.
In the midst of handover work for our impending move, it was lovely today to have a visit from my dear friends Mr Haniff and Meiling, updating me on the UNESCO partnerships we have been working on with others in Toowoomba and bringing me a beautiful new year's greeting card from the Venerable Master Chin Kung.
The front of the card has this interesting picture. What do you see in it? An explanation is given below.... It can be misinterpreted by those who see inter-religious dialogue as seeking some kind of mish-mash of philosophies. Yet I do not feel that this is that at all. Rather it is an expression of the deep understanding of the Venerable Chin Kung that all great pathways of wisdom can connect. Indeed that they connect most deeply when we walk together in peace and harmony. May this be a blessing for us all in 2017.
Yesterday I was given a marvelous gift from a remarkable artist of both life and embroidery. This is a person of great grace and determination who, little known to most people, was a courageous female pioneer in her field of work, also engaging with Indigenous people in other places long before it was 'fashionable' (if it ever has been in a positive sense). At the same time, she has been an amazingly skilled and prolific needlewoman, whose creations, soaked in prayer and deep reflection, richly adorn not only much of the parish of St Luke Toowoomba but many other places besides.
I was overwhelmed by the generosity of this gift and also the beauty, skill and insight which has gone into it. For as my blessed benefactor put it, in an accompanying card:
Traditionally the needlepoint group gave a piece of needlepoint to outgoing priests from this parish. This continues that practice.
It was worked with care and consideration in in appreciation of all you have done in the parish and community.
The four arms of the cross symbolise the outreach in all directions.
Celtic knot work has no beginning or ending but one has to start somewhere - so in your new position may that outreach continue.
On the eve of the feast of St Hilda of Whitby, it is hard to express the Celtic Christian call to mission better, in a medium so resonant of Celtic spirit. I feel richly blessed.
At the risk of sounding like The Big Bang Theory's Dr Sheldon Cooper, we have been having some appropriate 'fun with flags' at St Luke's Toowoomba over the last few days, as we have sought to honour the tragedy and courage of our broken Australian and international histories. Firstly we held our annual Remembrance Service, remembering the fallen and damaged of the great wars and conflicts in which Australians have been engaged, as well as praying for peace across the world. This involved armed services representatives, our mayor and local MPs, retired services organisations, Harlaxton RSL band, serving army chaplain the Revd David Snape, a fine sermon from the Revd Penny Jones, and display of the three services ensigns and main Australian flag. The collection from the service also once again went towards the maintenance of the Warriors Chapel in St Luke's, a space for our city which honours the fallen and damaged of various conflicts (including those of the world wars, Korea, and Vietnam) and which holds a number of banners from former times.
A new step this year however will be the addition to the Warriors Chapel of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags. These will be installed next Monday, 14 November, alongside a beautiful memorial cross to remember the Battle of One Tree Hill, one of the most significant local conflicts in the European invasion and settlement of the Toowoomba region. This is part of our Reconciliation journey together as we learn more about our shared histories and walk more closely together for healing and a better world. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait island flags are recognised national flags of Australia and are available free from MPs offices to recognised bodies. It was a delight therefore to receive these for St Luke's yesterday from the office of the Hon John McVeigh.
We pray together that all the flags we will hold at St Luke's will bring renewed honour and dignity to all they represent. I did have a little wry chuckle yesterday however as I received the Aboriginal & Torres Strait Island flags. They, like all our flags, are deeply sacramental of identity, visibility, connection and life. Yet in another sense, they can also be aspects of our human capacity for pompousness and far worse, if they are not regarded properly with humility and care for all. For, as Eddie Izzard put it memorably, especially for those of us with British backgrounds, flags are also very curious constructions...
One of the great joys of recent times has been the recovery of the ancient traditions of Christian meditation. It has been good to share in this and see new groups grow locally, including our regular Wednesday 5 pm group at St Luke's Toowoomba. Across the world this continues to be so, making new relationships of depth with God, ourselves, one another, different faith traditions, and the planet. The World Community of Christian Meditation is one key focal point in this global (re)development and it is lovely to see how new steps in the journey are forming, including the new home of WCCM at Bonnevaux in France. Check out more information at the WCCM website, WCCM Twitter feed or view one of the videos on the WCCM You Tube page. Best of all, just start meditating! :-)
A few weeks ago we had an owl in St Luke’s church building. It appeared first for the memorial service of a beloved Aboriginal woman. It stayed to perch above a wedding couple as they took their vows. It shifted next day to the high altar where it seemed to speak directly to me: ‘it is time to move.’ For, spiritually speaking, in many cultures the owl is a symbol of mystery, the feminine, and, above all, change. It appears, as a herald or guardian, at times of various transitions in the lives of individuals and groups. So it has been, I believe, for myself and Penny.
Today I am announcing that Penny and I are relinquishing our appointments in the Anglican parish of St Luke Toowoomba, to take effect from Monday 16 January next year. At the invitation of the Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane, we do so to take up new roles in the life of the diocese and to enable the parish of St Luke Toowoomba to find new clergy leadership for the next steps in its journey. We do so with mixed feelings. For we have been richly blessed in Toowoomba and it is very hard to let go of the depth of relationships we have enjoyed with so many people here, both within church circles and in the wider city. Yet we would not be being faithful to our own sense of calling, or to the needs of the parish and wider church, if we did not do so...
It is baffling and frustrating to hear some politicians, media and other leaders talk about a lack of Muslim response to terrorist and other Islamist-linked outrages. It seems as if sometimes people simply only want to see and hear what they want to see and hear. Earlier last week the following open letter from our Islamic community to our local Toowoomba Catholic bishop was received by myself and other faith and community leaders. It speaks of the continued revulsion of almost all Muslims to acts such as the recent killing of Father Jacques Hamel and the deep shared commitment to peace and humanity...
It is easy to become afraid these days. After all, we live in a very fast-paced world and today’s media brings us immediate revelations of fresh horror and violence anywhere across the globe. These can quickly disturb our thoughts and emotions and magnify such troubles out of all proportion. They can also lead us to mistrust others different from us, not least those who themselves are survivors or potential victims of the very forces which may be challenging us. We live in times therefore when we badly need to grow love among all people. For love, expressed in prayer and wise action, is the only true antidote to fear. When fear rises within and around us, will we close the doors of our lives and world to others, as the first disciples did after the terror of Jesus’ death? Or will we, like those first disciples, re-open those doors and re-connect with others in new ways, as we experience and grow more deeply in the peace of Christ? Being sensitive to fear and violence is human but how we handle these things is what shows God among us.
A wonderful sign of the divine presence in the midst of our troubled world was the All for Peace gathering at St Luke’s this July. It came about at the request of our Iraqi Muslim community who asked if we would host something to acknowledge the pain of Iraq and the wider world. Muslims asking Christians to host a joint event – in a church building -for peace: imagine that in many parts of our world! What a lovely expression of the model of loving community for which so many parts of our city of Toowoomba have been working and praying so hard. It was certainly a moving occasion, with a nearly full St Luke’s, and with contributors including our Mayor, Federal MP, District Police Inspector, faith leaders, St Saviours school children, and many more! We reflected together on the violent acts which had recently taken place in France, Germany, Turkey, the USA, Sudan and elsewhere. We lit candles. We placed flowers outside in a public witness. We recommitted ourselves together to help make Toowoomba even more of ‘model city of peace and harmony’. For one good model or example can be like the one candle which dispels the darkness which can seem so threatening. Each of us, in the strength of Jesus’ nail-marked hands, can be that candle for our own fears and violence, signs of divine love for everyone, lightening up our world.
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian and justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice and sustainable creation.