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Telling the storyTelling the story

Ben Aldous, CTE’s Principal Officer for Evangelism and Mission, shares his excitement at hearing stories of God at work in traditions other than his own.

I have a distinct childhood memory of visiting my grandmother on Saturday mornings. She was a Telegraph reader, not because of politics but for the crossword. Once that was completed, usually in collaboration with my father, she would be on to reading the obituaries. She often told me she loved reading a succinct rendering of people’s lives. And when I used to buy the papers, I always made that part of my reading habit.

I love hearing people’s stories. It was part of the joy of parish ministry in Cape Town, sitting with people who had led both extraordinary and yet at the same time often mundane lives, and being about to see the sacred ordinary within. I heard stories of people making incredible journeys across the continent of Africa with little in the way of resources, and other stories of people living in the same house their entire lives. When I started getting interested in contemporary classical music, it was as much the lives of composers themselves as their music that fascinated me and continues to do so.

As I reflect on my role with CTE, I see that increasingly this love for stories and people’s remarkable lives is a vital component of ecumenical mission. As I’m travelling, I am reading a little book by my favourite Catholic missiologist Anthony Gittins called Reading the Clouds.

A sentence resonated with me this week. Gittins writes, “None of us knows in detail where we will be called or to whom we will be sent in the course of a lifetime. But we can learn something about people, and about their wonderful variety, by learning their stories.” In both learning and sharing these stories, we see there is more that draws us together in common than divides us. We so often have caricatured versions of each other’s traditions. Meeting each other, going to each other’s places of work, homes and places of worship, stops us from easily parodying one another.

With this in mind, the past week has taken me to Warwickshire for a gathering of the Churches Rural Group. The most pertinent issues in rural contexts around mission seem to be the challenge of the ensuing Brexit deadline, which has the potential to devastate farming communities. We heard stories from rural chaplains supporting farmers who are facing deep challenges. Hosted by Germinate at the Arthur Rank Centre they have some great resources on rural isolation and loneliness being trialled in Yorkshire.

The next day I spent some time with the brilliant Joel Edwards who is our keynote speaker for the Missionary Disciples 2020 conference next March (more here). As I shared my story, Joel suggested it might be worth writing about, to help others on the journey of crossing boundaries and giving up power. It was not something I had really ever considered before, but has sown a seed.

On Friday I had the privilege of meeting the ecumenical officer for South London Churches TogetherClaire Crowley, who is doing some brilliant networking and has even been recently asked by a local council to help them write their policies on church engagement.

I had lunch in Brentwood at the Sion the Catholic Community for Evangelism. As I heard the story of the community, I was struck by three key things which can lead to endeavours of this kind. The community are housed in a convent belonging to the sisters of Mercy founded in 1831. Like many religious orders, in the 70s and 80s they were struggling to maintain their premises because there were so few young women joining them. An act of self-sacrifice and generosity meant that the Sion community could have the property with a commitment to upkeep of the interior.

Secondly, it took the risk of a young couple Peter and Michelle to come and set up the community and take seriously helping Catholics across the UK to encounter the risen Jesus. “Not just catechesis but encounter”, Peter told me.

Thirdly, a commitment to being open to the Holy Spirit. On reflection, ecumenism can be very Enlightenment thinking, very cerebral and a bit mistrustful of the emotional and tactile. The gift of our Pentecostal brothers and sisters is placing the work and person of the Spirit back in the centre of our imagined life together.

I was inspired by what was happening. And I’m excited by hearing more stories of God at work in traditions other than my own.

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