Category Archives: Alex’s Sabbatical

Journey as Quest

I offer some of Michael Northcott, reflections on “Journey as a Quest” reproduced below, and summarises some of my feelings about what I hope our journey is about. But it may also speak, help discussion for those who will shortly watch the film The Way, which the will be the focus of the Biddenden and Smarden Lent study group this year.

The Journey as Quest

Literary accounts of heroic journeys that encapsulate the archetypal desire to travel are, like traditional pilgrimage, set apart from rapid mechanical journeys of the modern tourist in their description of the formative role of chance and circumstance that the hero encounters on the way.

At the outset of the journey the hero often has little idea of the end in view, and even less confidence in his capacity to reach it. The eventualities of ups and downs of the journey are therefore crucial to the acquisition of the virtues and skills that the hero needs in order to attain the goal. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings powerfully evokes the way in which at the beginning of many classic narratives of heroic journeys the hero is often hardly a hero at all; hobbits are at first sight too quirky, short, and physically weak to perform the valiant task set before them by Gandalf.

Along the way Frodo the hobbit chosen for the quest, is plagued by self-doubt about his ability to succeed. By being open to the gifts and interventions of friends, strangers, elves, ents, and even enemies, the hobbit who becomes a hero is eventually able to complete the quest to cast the ring into the fires of Mont Doom, and so save Middle Earth from the militaristic and technological darkness of Mordor. But there is also a contrast between Tolkien’s tale and other shamanic myths in which the hero gradually acquires mastery and new powers through the journey which enable him to fulfil his quest. At no point does Frodo become a master of the ring, or even master of the journey. On the contrary, he relies on Gollum to guide him for much of the way, and by the end Frodo has so fallen for the dangerous attraction of the ring that he only succeeds in destroying the ring through the intervention of Gollum, who in one last desperate attempt to wrest the ring from Frodo falls into the fires with the ring in his clutches, and so destroys it, and with it the rising and destructive power of Mordor.

With this crucial twist in the tale Tolkien has evoked the essential feature of the Christian conception of the life as a journey or pilgrimage, which is that of learned dependence. Far from achieving mastery and autonomy, the Christian pilgrim goes the way of the cross and therefore seeks to remain humble and open to the gifts and trials which each turn in the road, each step may bring. Mastery and control are not the ends in view, but instead encounter and submission to the Master, and a related preparedness to endure the rigours and rewards of life on the road. . . .

extract from A Moral climate, Michael Northcott. 2007. p224

Sunday 26th February, Holy Trinity, Nuwara Eliya.

Sunday 26th February: we were in Holy Trinity, Nuwara Eliya.

We accompanied our friend Fr. Keerthi Fernando who was the guest of honour at the celebration of the church’s founding, 165 years ago. Holy Trinity has a strong colonial past. Nuwara Eliya, known as “Little England,” is very high, 2,200m, with a gentle mild climate that made it a popular retreat for the British from the hot summers. Its most famous visitors include our current Queen who dedicated a window in the 1950’s. The church now hosts a vibrant mixed Tamil, Sinhalese and English-speaking congregation.

Before the formal church service, we took part in a celebratory procession that wound itself through the town. This was a surreal mixture of traditional Sinhalese dancers, Mothers Union, the “Gents group”, as the impatient traffic weaved past, accompanied by the odd fire cracker. We also had a couple of youth bands and lots of members of the congregation. At points along the way we stopped and prayed for the town and its institutions of government.

Once in church, the trilingual service began. Just imagine the logistics of making the mammoth service paper, and how you prepare a sermon that will need to be translated twice over – from English into Sinhala and Tamil. Things overran by quite a bit, with the service that was initially suggested to us finishing at about 11:30am, actually completed by 12:45pm, having started with the procession at 9am.

I think I contributed to part of the delay, being invited to do an individual children’s blessing during the final hymn. I don’t know how many children there were, except that they had to sing the final hymn twice, and then improvised an extra one to all me to get through the huge queue of children that snaked down the aisle to the altar rail.

Things didn’t finish there. There was the planting of 165 trees to form a new cypress hedge, and a rice and curry lunch, that consisted of a lentil dhal, green beans and onion, a fish sambol, and a chicken curry. We were grateful for the generous warm welcome.

A video clip is on the Facebook page.

Does Fairtrade really make a difference?

We currently in the heart of Sri Lanka’s tea growing estates, staying in a town called Bandarawela.

We can be easily persuaded by cynicism that suggests that paying extra for fairly traded tea, coffee, and bananas goes only to increase the profit margins of supermarkets. Do the workers really benefit? Today, during a visit to an organic Fairtrade tea factory we were surprised by what we found (an unofficial visit, so we aren’t naming the factory concerned).

By chance, we had made another visit to a conventional tea factory just only a couple of days ago. That factory was interesting enough, but as soon as we started today’s visit we immediately noticed a difference as we were asked to dress in special gowns, face masks and bags to cover our shoes, something the other factory did not require of us.

Inside the Fairtrade factory, staff were likewise kitted out with protective clothing and the environment was scrupulous clean. There was none of the slap dash attitude we saw in the previous factory, where we frequently saw processed tea leaves falling onto the floor, which were then swept up and put back into the process by staff who wore no protective clothing. By contrast in this Fairtrade factory, staff continually took great care that there was no spillage.

Workers at the Fairtrade factory are actively encouraged to help improve the production process, with rewards and promotions for those who perform best – there was no evidence of this at the conventional factory.

But there is more that is inspiring to the story of the Fairtrade tea factory. The original vision for the project was driven by a Muslim who now has a multifaith workforce. Our guide, an Anglican, told us that each day begins with prayers, the workers assembling in whichever faith tradition they are part of (most are Hindu), undergirding the spiritual foundations of the organisation.

Out in the field there are notable differences with conventional tea plantations. The absence of chemicals in the organic system results in better health for the pickers in the field. Staff live in individual houses, with electricity and space around to grow food, instead of rows of shacks reminiscent of hop pickers’ huts.

So it was really encouraging to witness how Fairtrade really does make a difference.

Our first Sunday: 19th Feb

For photos check the Facebook page.

We went to St. Francis of Assisi, Mt Lavinia, Colombo this Sunday, receiving a warm welcome from Fr. Melvin de Silva. The main Sunday morning service was at 7:30am, but in case you think that is early enough, there was also one at 6am!

But in our case, we followed our normal rhythm getting up at 6am, and got ourselves there at 7:20am to a sparsely filled church. But as service progressed there was a steady inflow of people of all ages. The two teenagers, acting as server and crucifer, sheepishly brought in the Cross 10 or 15mins after the service had begun.

After the service there was the usual tea and chat (we handed mugs of milky sugary tea poured from big jugs). People didn’t disappear, they hung around and chatted in groups all over the church. Then I realised that part of this was due to the various groups; Sunday School, Mothers Union, which started after and a teenage youth group a bit after that, all of which started after church.

It was impressive to hear something of the social witness, and the community life that holds the church so strongly together. One family spoke movingly about how they’d started coming following the welcome their autistic daughter had received. We also heard about the free drop-in medical clinic the church runs, through volunteer doctors who are member of the congregation enabling patients to avoid whole-day visits to hospital.

In the evening we were invited to a talk on a conflict in the Yugoslavia, by a Slovenian writer. Totally surreal, but fascinating, and relevant, more later.

Sabbatical Update December 2016

My sabbatical will have two foci of interest. One of those, will be to research churches where congregations meet for different types of services just once a month. The other focus will be a long visit to Sri Lanka: that is the subject of this article.

I will be re-establishing contact with a Sri Lankan Anglican priest, Keerthi Fernando, who studied at the University of Kent 15 years ago while I was vicar in Whitstable. During that time, Keerthi regularly led church services with me. He and his wife Arlene also did much with local schools and churches to promote cultural awareness of Sri Lanka. Our families had plenty of fun together on these evenings and at other times, and became good friends. Continue reading

Sabbatical update November 2016

My sabbatical will have two foci of interest. The first, and the one that will grab immediate attention, is my trip to Sri Lanka. There I will be re-establishing an old friendship with a Sri Lankan Anglican priest who studied at the University of Kent 15 years ago, while I was vicar in Whitstable. I plan to say more about the Sri Lankan angle in a future magazine.

My second focus will be to explore other churches where congregations meet for different types of services just once a month. One of the trends we have seen in church worship over the past 50 years is an increase in the variety of services on offer. This is very different from the situation in the 1960s and ’70s, when the ideal was considered to be the weekly communion service as focus of unity in the parish. Back then, the great bold vision was to bring the community together in a single service, as a symbol of the unity of the family of God.

Continue reading

Sabbatical update August 2016

Early next year I will be taking three-month sabbatical. I anticipate that my last Sunday will be 5th February, coinciding with our evening celebration of Candlemas (though I will participate in the annual wedding preparation morning on 11th February). I will be back at work on Monday 15th May.

My sabbatical will have two foci of interest. One is to travel to Sri Lanka and re-establish contact with a Sri Lankan friend and Anglican priest who studied at the University of Kent about 15 years ago, living in Whitstable when I was there as Team Vicar. My other focus will in in Britain, looking at churches where congregations gather for services which are just once a month.

In the coming months I will explain more about these two projects. Continue reading