Northern Synod’s work on Holy Island
By Revd Rachel Poolman
The work of St Cuthbert’s Centre on Holy Island is full of anomalies, we are a church without any members which holds services six days a week for people from all over the world. There is no local URC community, apart from the Warden but 750 people follow our Sunday prayers on Facebook. We are based on an island with a permanent population of 130, which receives 750,000 visitors a year. The visionaries from Northumberland and beyond who grafted to bring the Centre into being in the 1990s were certainly ahead of the game when it came to thinking about fresh expressions of church!
The ministry here is unique but after eight years here I think I have learnt lessons that are significant for all our churches in these times where we can feel uncertain about what God is calling us to be.
St Cuthbert’s is a mission project and I’ve had more missional encounters here with people outside the church than anywhere else in 30+ years of ordained ministry. There is something about being away from home, in a place where people have expectations of something spiritual happening, that means people are willing to unburden themselves and also tell their stories of struggles with faith. Sometimes it feels as if they don’t have anywhere else where they can be listened to or to feel that their story is as important as those who they perceive as having greater need. For instance, we have a regular visitor who is in his 70s and is a full time carer for his dad, we can give him a space where he can put his own needs first for a few days and he can share the demands and anxieties of his role without feeling that he shouldn’t be complaining. I had a precious moment at dawn on Easter Sunday praying with someone facing another course of cancer treatment, but worrying about her children who were sitting exams at the same time. These sorts of encounters are a part of daily life here – but often there is no way of knowing how the stories continue, as people journey on.
These fleeting, but profound, encounters have made me think how we can be tempted to see mission as something that must have quantifiable results. If we’re not careful we’re lured into measuring our sense of self worth as individuals or as churches by whether we’re numerically successful. And yet what of Jesus, who consistently talked about the value God places on those who we think of as insignificant, who responded to the needs of those who felt crowded out and unimportant? We have no knowledge of what became of many of the people Jesus encountered in the Gospels but the stories of healing and teaching show Jesus having all sorts of important encounters.
So many of our churches are good at welcoming and at listening in all sorts of creative ways. Maybe the long chat with someone at a coffee morning, seems inconsequential or you wonder whether the hard work of running activities is worth it when it never translates to new people coming to church, but what is the theology of that? Do we think that the Holy Spirit is absent from our conversations? That no seeds sown in faith will grow?
And what of the power of prayer? Every day in St Cuthbert’s we pray with and for people whose stories we don’t really know and who we can’t physically help. They are reaching out with all sorts of needs which they leave on post-it notes on our prayer trees. We could analyse what is going on when people leave prayer requests and worry that is about folk religion rather than faith, but I prefer to believe that their prayers and our honouring of them, are all part of bringing people into the eternal divine conversation where God is a constant presence of love. What place does prayer have in our churches? What opportunities can we create for our communities to participate in the divine conversation without feeling that they must pass some entry requirements first?
A final lesson comes from those who come to stay in the Bothy and those church groups that use the Centre who speak of the joy of just being, with no demands placed upon them. I sometimes feel that we have forgotten that God wants us to enjoy life! Too often when we meet as churches our agendas are so full of things to do that we don’t spend too much time enjoying God. Whatever our role in the church we can get very tired of simply keeping the show on the road. When Jesus came to offer us life in all its fullness I don’t think he was calling us to packed diaries with no time to digest the good gifts he offers to us so freely. Jesus modelled to us the need to take time out and be still, to deepen our relationships with each other and with God.
Holy Island is different from many retreat locations – there is no cloistered monastic silence here, especially in the height of the holiday season, but I have found myself encouraging visitors not to feel that being on retreat or quiet days means that all the hours of the day have to be spent in serious study or intense reflection. God’s good gifts include the beauty of creation, but also ice cream or fish and chips!
It is wonderful that Northern Synod supports St Cuthbert’s Centre, as a Synod we reflect the love of Christ to thousands a year in ways that cannot be measured, but in which God is at work. This may be a unique situation, but the lessons learned about valuing seemingly insignificant encounters, about the importance of prayer, and about God’s call to us to enjoy fullness of life are timeless ones for us all.