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...
Reflecting spiritually, I should not be surprised to hear Alan's voice and sense his presence with me at this time. He has popped up at important junctures. From the moment of my birth, I was literally born into his 'cure of souls' (an awesome phrase about which Alan wrote well in the first chapter of Reaching for Reality), as a child of parents active in parish life and ministry during Alan's time as vicar of Barnard Castle in County Durham. Later, as Dean of St Paul's Cathedral, he was formative in my development as a nearby curate in the east end of London. With his wife Margaret, one of the key organisers and a wonderful person in her own right, we shared in the struggles and joys of the Movement for the Ordination of Women and other progressive and creative prayerful initiatives. As a former Warden of Lincoln Theological College and Canon of Lincoln Cathedral, he could also connect with that city and county which, like Durham, has shaped me so deeply to this day. Later again, we met up during my time on the staff at Ripon College Cuddesdon, when he led a memorable retreat and once more inspired and strengthened me.
'The cross comes when you try to change things' was a phrase Alan shared with me which has always resonated. He himself knew the reality only too well, not least during his time as Dean of St Paul's at the height of Margeret Thatcher's rule and in the face of conservative ecclesiastical opposition. Famously, for example, he earned the ire of the Tory establishment for his part in organising the service in St Paul's at the end of the Falklands War, rightly remembering the Argentinian as well as British dead and wounded, acknowledging the paiin and tragedy of war and seeking repentance and steps of reconciliation. Like his advocacy at the time of the Church's Faith in the City report and 'option for the poor' with the rich of the City of London, this is basic Christianity. Yet it was hardly the way of Thatcher's 'there is no alternative'. Such prophetic witness was also coupled in Alan's case with a personal commitment to the marginalised and to those who stood apart for conscience. In the midst of the pomp and show of my ordination as priest for example, the most moving sight for me was at the Peace. One brave young Evangelical ordinand had resisted the commanding injunction of the conservative Anglo-Catholic Bishop of London for all new priests to concelebrate. For my own part, I was not much fussed either. Yet it was enough for me even to be ordained priest at all that day, as I had struggled all year to reconcile this with the continued exclusion of females from priesthood (a longer story for another time). I went along with the Bishop's demand therefore but also admired the young man who had demurred, and who had had to have an interview with the Lord Bishop to explain his quite legitimate theological and spiritual objections to concelebration. For his pains he was then sat in the cathedral away from the other ordinands, at the front of the gathering but essentially as part of the laity. It was a cruel thing, reflecting the meanness and instututional violence the Church can still inflict. Yet, as soon as the Bishop invited us to share the Peace, I saw Alan speed at once across the clergy-laity gap to embrace and share several words with our conscientious brother. It was not only the action of a holy and loving dean. It was the best of what the Church can be and the embodiment of the gospel of 'Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love' which Alan, with William Blake, and others like myself, find at the heart of God in Jesus.
There is so much more that Reaching for Reality has reconnected me with, as Alan speaks to me again at this time. It has been an encouragement to take courage once more to take up the challenge of our truly big and inclusive God and the expansive Gospel which I share, in Jesus Christ, with Alan still, trusting in the mystery and the reality of hope and resurrection in the face of the odds. This is the best of the big family to which I belong, full of the poets, dreamers, artists, and other curators of the soul of our and other wisdom traditions. It is not a comfortable vocation but it is an unavoidable one once one is seized by it. For as Alan wrote in his Introduction to that book:
The religious traditions have flashes of change. The churches break out of routines and free themselves from words which no longer resonate and customs which no longer serve the gospel. Their members experience resurrection. All these events have been costly, not cheap; they all involve risks. Often the risk-takers have been criticised for crossing frontiers. But these flashes of change show that religion, to the surprise of some, has not become fossilised but continues to live and develop. Secularisation in western society has not led to God's funeral.
Alan's book, like his life and ministry, was not about the greatly known alone, though figures like Mother Julian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Bishop Leslie Hunter are rightly extolled for their continued inspiration to us. Rather it begins with and centres on humble ministries in so-called outlying and 'ordinary' places, calling us again to share in what we can of the down-to-earth transcendent mystery which creates, redeems and sanctifies us all. In a world (and sadly still churches) where Alan's profoundly inclusive, ecumenical and feminist voice is still so badly needed, it has been a delight to hear. Who, as Alan would say, will join us in keeping the 'rumour of God' - the God of love, mystery, mercy and peace - alive? May we indeed 'gossip the gospel' afresh.
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.