Finally, an update!

I’m back! With sincere apologies for not writing for so long. I’m afraid I was rather lazy over the summer, but come early September, family issues took over for a while. Unfortunately, the result is that I’m now in the process of moving out of St Thomas’ Vicarage and back to my old home – but I’m committed to remaining a member of the Community, albeit no longer as a resident. My family and I have received so much prayerful support during this time, for which I’m extremely grateful.

Over the past few months, we’ve been working on some changes to the Community’s pattern of prayer and meetings, and at the end of October we held our first Awayday, at Clare Priory. Ten members attended, and our main discussion was about how to formalise our commitment – and exactly what that commitment should be. It’s a work in progress, but in due course we hope to hold a special service in which we make promises to God, to each other and to the world.

It was a blessing and a privilege to spend so much time together in such a lovely place (and the weather was beautiful too!) Although not everyone could be there (there are fourteen of us now), our absent friends were constantly in our thoughts as we prayed, talked, and ate delicious soup. We hope this will be the first of many, as we journey on the Way together.

God, Each Other, and the World

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!


In the middle of May I travelled up north for the weekend, to visit an old school friend. We went to a lot of concerts in Manchester together when we were younger, and we decided to carry on the tradition – the lead singer of one of our favourite bands has been touring following the release of a solo album, and my friend’s birthday was coming up!

My outward journey went like clockwork, and although there were a few delays on the way back into Manchester for the concert (nothing out of the ordinary, according to my friend!) there was still plenty of time to orientate ourselves and look forward to the evening. The venue, which was new to us and is now known as the Albert Hall, turned out to be a former Methodist chapel, and I instantly felt comfortable there – there were  simple stained glass windows still in place, which I could appreciate with my low vision aid, and the images of crosses in particular. The fact that it stayed light for a good part of the evening, and the sun came out late in the day, added to the beauty and the atmosphere.

The singer (Tom Chaplin from Keane) has sadly had some of the struggles with addictions so common for people in his position, but he’s always so warm in his appreciation of the support he has received from family, friends and fans, and he frequently describes himself as ‘blessed’. There’s one particular song called Solid Gold, which contains the line ‘Took me so long to find out I was blessed’ – it’s actually about his wife, but most of the lyrics could easily describe someone finally discovering the presence of God.

I found the whole evening powerful and poignant, as much for the enthusiastic singing of the devoted audience as for the actual performance. There was an atmosphere of worship there, and although it may not feel quite right for a former chapel to be used in that way, there was a real spirit of unity and community. In the light of what’s happened since in Manchester (of which more later), I pray for everyone who was there, that they may find comfort and peace in the music they love, and sense God’s healing presence in their lives.

A Week of Wonders (Part 1)

Several weeks have already passed since Easter, and I should have updated this blog much sooner (technical issues notwithstanding!)  I had such an amazing Holy Week, with so many new experiences – but there may be something to be said for looking back on it all at a little distance.

The tradition in which I grew up, and have mainly been used to since, has only involved extra services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, with an especially joyful service on Easter Day (following a family treasure hunt). These services nearly always included the singing of ‘There Is A Green Hill’, ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’, ‘Jesus Christ is Risen Today!’ and ‘Up From the Grave He Arose!’ on the appropriate days (with the more recent addition of ‘See What A Morning’). This year I only sang one of these (and a somewhat different version, at that), despite spending more time in church than ever before. How good it is to be challenged, at times, by the different and the unfamiliar!

It all started for me on the Tuesday evening, with a Taizé-inspired meditation at St Thomas’ Church, where the focal point was a wooden cross on the floor with candles outlining its shape. It was still light for much of this service, with the sun streaming into the church at the start, and I was struck by how the candles around the cross managed to be so visible despite the competition.

Then, on the Wednesday evening, I attended my first ever Passover Meal. There was so much that was moving and inspiring about this – the sense of gaining a little insight into something Jesus himself experienced and valued, the awareness that this has been an important part of Holy Week at St Thomas’ for years, the joy of sharing such a special time with people who have so quickly become friends – and the power of a close-knit community singing Psalm 23 (The Lord’s My Shepherd) together, unaccompanied, by candlelight. I must confess that the reservations about candles expressed in my previous post have already been severely challenged (although I would certainly have struggled without the torch which was so kindly provided for me!)

On the morning of Maundy Thursday I went with other Community members to the ‘Chrism Eucharist’ at St Edmundsbury Cathedral, the occasion when the clergy renew their vows and the holy oils are blessed. Another new experience – and the highlight for me was the sense of unity and equality before God, symbolised by the questioning of the bishops by a young chorister, and of the priests by an ordinand. Also at this service, Bishop Mike preached a memorable sermon, in which he described his teenage attempts to avoid the local vicar, and how his opinion of this individual was transformed during a time of family bereavement.

Speaking of Bishop Mike (of Dunwich), I feel privileged to have been part of the foot-washing ceremony at St Thomas’ on the Thursday evening. I was initially reluctant to allow a bishop to wash my foot – I said to Jutta beforehand that I’d much prefer to wash others’ feet than have mine washed! – but in the event it was a profoundly moving occasion. Not least because it was so quickly followed by the overwhelming sadness of the silent vigil, before the ‘Altar of Repose’.

To be continued…

Being Community

At a recent Community meeting, we were joined by Gareth, the leader of the Community of St Margaret the Queen (based in Streatham, South London). It was a joy to have someone from another Community visiting us, with the opportunity for mutual encouragement and the sharing of experiences, and I felt so proud and blessed as members of the St Thomas Pilgrim Community assembled. Having an ‘outsider’ present helped me realise afresh just what we have here – it’s over a year since our very first meeting, and we’ve come such a long way in getting to know each other and forming a bond through prayer and fellowship.

Read more

Let the earth hear His voice

I have a significant visual impairment, and I was interested to hear and read recently about the 19th century American hymn-writer Fanny Crosby, who was blind for most of her long life. I was listening to the sermon on Sunday Worship on Radio 4, while also thinking about starting this blog, when suddenly Fanny Crosby was mentioned as the writer of ‘Blessed Assurance’. On looking her up, I found that she had been encouraged when a child to learn long passages from the Bible by heart, and that she was also the author of ‘To God Be The Glory’, with its rousing chorus: ‘Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Let the earth hear His voice’. Read more

The heavens declare the glory of God

Since joining the Community, I feel I’m learning so much more about the Bible than I ever have before, despite having been a Christian for most of my life. As I was unemployed for my first few months here, I was able to attend Morning and Evening Prayer regularly. Morning Prayer is said daily at 10am in St Thomas’ Church (it’s wonderful to live right next door, but I’m afraid I have dashed in at the last minute on more than one occasion!) and as a Community we started Evening Prayer several days a week at 4pm in the Vicarage. Daily readings of sometimes unfamiliar parts of the Bible have been such a revelation, and in particular I feel I’m at last beginning to get to know the Psalms. Read more

The adventure of seeking God

My name is Helen, and I joined this new Christian Community (in Suffolk, England) in June 2016, as the first (and still only) resident among a dozen non-residential members. I’m on the journey of a lifetime, in north-west Ipswich, and I’d like to share it with you.

Until very recently we were simply the St Thomas Community, as we have very strong links with St Thomas’ Church. I live, and we meet, in the Vicarage, and Jutta the Priest-in-Charge is our Leader. But following much discussion and advice we have added the word ‘Pilgrim’ to our name – and I only realised after it had happened that we had actually made the final decision at Epiphany! What better examples of pilgrims could we possibly have than the Magi? Apart, perhaps, from St Thomas himself, who didn’t know the way, and doubted; but ultimately believed, and (it’s thought) went on a long journey to share the Good News, from which he never returned. ‘Thomas the Apostle’ is rather pleasingly listed as a ‘Notable Pilgrim’ on Wikipedia!

At one of our fortnightly Community prayer meetings on 5 January, during a reading from Matthew chapter 2, I was struck as I always am by Herod’s instruction to the Wise Men to ‘Go and search diligently for the child’. I started a new job a few months ago – I’m approaching the end of my probationary period – and I was delighted to be described as ‘diligent’ by my manager in her recent report on my progress. It’s a word I love (it will quickly become apparent how much I love words) – how good it is, and how hard at times, to be diligent! The definition reads: ‘constant in effort to accomplish something; attentive and persistent in doing anything’ – definitely something for me to bear in mind as I try and establish a rhythm of blog-writing!

It’s heart-breaking to think that Herod could give what seems such sound advice, when he had such evil intentions. But our discussion that evening also got me thinking about something Paul said in Philippians, which we’ve been studying at other Community meetings: ‘The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached’ (Ch. 1, part of v.18). God can work through anyone, however bad or unsuitable they may seem to us. ‘Searching diligently for Christ’, or ‘the journey of faith’, or ‘the adventure of seeking God’ (which is one way our Community has found to describe the Christian Life) surely includes looking in unexpected places, taking some risks, and being open to the possibility of angels in disguise.