Jutta and I spent 4-7 July at the Anglican Religious Communities conference, which took place at Lee Abbey in Devon. It followed on from a conference in Whitby two years ago, of which we were both unaware at the time; it’s amazing how much has happened since. it brought together representatives from traditional and newer, ‘new monastic’ communities, and was an incredible experience – there’s so much I could say about it, and I’m honestly not sure where to start!
This was my first visit to Lee Abbey, for one thing. We travelled with our friend Anne, who has links with our Community although she was attending the conference wearing a different ‘hat’, and I was impressed at how she calmly got on with her knitting during the journey – especially on the long coach drive from Taunton with its steep hills and sharp bends. I spend a lot of time on my phone when travelling these days, sometimes sending necessary texts and emails but often doing non-essential browsing, and I mention this because, as we approached Lee Abbey and while we were there, there was no signal and very limited WiFi. Some advance warning of this ‘remoteness’ might have been helpful, but it certainly got me thinking – it was such a blast from the past to have to use a payphone (to reassure my daughter, who worries when she doesn’t receive a text from me at least once a day, that I hadn’t disappeared off the face of the earth!) How often do I use my phone for company and leisure, and not because I really need to?
On arrival, there was almost no time to familiarise myself with what is a rather complicated building (lots of random steps in the middle of corridors!) before going straight in to Evening Prayer followed by supper. The Lee Abbey staff are wonderfully welcoming, and so clearly a Community in their own right despite frequent changes in residential membership. It was a joy to sit and be served by them at some of the meals, while hearing about their lives and what had brought them there, and they also provided us with musical entertainment one evening and gave such interesting talks about their countries of origin (I certainly know more about Hungary than I did!)
When I sat down for that first meal, feeling slightly overwhelmed, I was immediately greeted by a voice on my right saying ‘Hello, I’m Sister Elizabeth Jane’. She turned out to be from the Community of St Mary the Virgin, and her friendliness amidst the busyness set the tone for the whole event. There was a very full, possibly rather too full, programme, but there was always someone on hand with whom to share experiences and aspirations – Franciscans, Hopeweavers, Sisters of the Love of God, to name but a few; clergy, novices, those who have been professed for decades or who are only just starting out on their particular journey – all so exciting for someone like me, who is exploring the Religious Life. We were truly a Community of Communities.
The times of worship together, outside, were a real highlight – the simple Eucharist on the beach, and Compline round the fire. We were blessed with glorious weather! Add to this the talks, discussion groups and workshops on the theme of ‘God, each other and the world’, which could easily fill another whole blog post – there’s so much to think and pray about, to remember and to be grateful for!