A different kind of exile?

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The people of God looked at the smoke of the burning city and wondered if they would ever see it again.  (From Exile and Return, a Godly Play story by Jerome Berryman)

This time of the coronavirus feels similar to the people of God’s experience of going into exile in Babylon.  Our daily lives have changed dramatically in little over a week and the rate of change shows no sign of slowing.  This must have been true for the people of Jerusalem as well – one moment they were living their usual lives and the next they had been captured and marched off to exile in Babylon.  Not all of them made it; not all of us will make it either.

These times of exile have an impact on all aspects of our lives, and this includes our spiritual life.  The people of God had grown into the belief that somehow worship needed to take place in the temple in Jerusalem.  This was the place where they came close to God.  The exile began for them as a time of lament “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept, when we remembered Zion.”  As time went on, they discovered that worshiping God was possible in Babylon too.

Spiritually it can feel like that for us as well.  Our churches have closed, both for public and private prayer. The laity are unable to share in communion.  Our worshiping communities have been dispersed.  We have been told to stay at home and many of the voluntary activities that we did to serve our communities have stopped.

But there is I think, a key difference.  Going to Babylon, the people and the priests shared the same experience of exile from Jerusalem, the temple and all it meant to them.

For us it is different.  Although the priests are still able to receive communion this is no longer possible for the laity.

For those who find that they come closest to God during the Eucharist, this can be devastating.  During these difficult times the last thing they want is to feel cut off from God.  There have been several questions on social media along the lines of would it be all right to have my own bread and wine at home and is it possible to consecrate the elements over the internet?

As far as I can make out the church’s answer to both of these is no.  There is some discussion of spiritual communion and how priests can take communion on behalf of all of us.

Theologically and rationally this may be true.

But it doesn’t feel like it emotionally.

We, the laity, may in time be able to appreciate this position but we aren’t there yet. We can’t be.  It is too soon and until a few days ago most of us did not know that the idea of spiritual communion existed.  Many of us still don’t.  In recent years the church has stressed the centrality of communion in the Christian life.  If, for a time, this can no longer be so, this puts us (and the church) on a journey similar to that of the people of God as they travelled into exile.  Where will we find God during this time?

For priests, still able to receive communion, the questions may be different but just as difficult.  What is communion like on your own, unable to share with the rest of the church?  Is there some way in which it is fundamentally different? (I don’t know, I’m neither a priest nor a theologian so my questions are just guesswork. I’m sure their questions will be just as difficult though.  None of us is being offered an easy way through this.)

Sacred space is another issue. For many laity the opportunity to go into a church, experience the peace, and spend time in prayer feels necessary to their faith.

At this time of writing the guidance seems unclear.*  Many priests have been told that they too cannot go into church. However, government guidelines seem to indicate that online streamed services are allowed and some priests see no problem in entering a church for which they are the keyholder.

I think one of the difficulties is that priests are trying to direct the laity down roads that they themselves do not need to travel.  They are doing this out of concern for their congregations and because they can see the need.  But how do we, the laity, avoid thinking: “It’s all right for you.”  How do priests avoid wondering if the road the laity take will be more exciting than their own or lead them away from the church rather than towards it?

I am, I think, one of the lucky ones.  I will miss encountering God in receiving communion, in worshipping in church with my community and in the peace and silence of my local churches.  But I do not feel bereft as I also encounter Him walking in the countryside (today there were skylarks!), through storytelling, symbol and prayer and all these are still available to me.

At some point in the future, the different roads we travel during these times will start to come together again.  How will we show sensitivity towards each other’s experiences and how can we bring them together to enrich and renew the church?

The people of God returned from exile and began rebuilding the temple…

*Update:  The guidance from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York tonight has clarified this issue: “Our church buildings must now be closed not only for public worship, but for private prayer as well and this includes the priest or lay person offering prayer in church on their own…   …We must take a lead in showing our communities how we must behave in order to slow down the spread of the Coronavirus.”

Framing the nativity

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“I’ve found the children are quite confused about the nativity story and its characters,” a friend tells me, talking about her visit to a primary school. “Except for the donkey,” she adds ruefully.

This surprises me.  I have always assumed that everyone over the age of four knows the nativity story backwards.  Our Christmas nativities and crib services always worked on this assumption: the need to find a fresh approach to an over familiar story.

Were we wrong?  Perhaps children are not told the Christmas story in primary schools?  Or perhaps the story is just too complicated for them to remember?

Or perhaps this is about framing?

In primary schools the nativity story is usually framed by the school’s Christmas production. While some schools go for something completely secular (celebrating Santa, winter or a pantomime) many others opt for a “nativity play” loosely based on the Biblical narrative.

“The Lucky Owl” is about an owl in search of a home. He eventually ends up in the stable watching the nativity story unfold.  However, before this point is reached, he has visited several other woodland creatures, all singing about how glad they are to live in holes (or trees or nests or caves depending on species).

Another “nativity play” is about the Little Blue Star who was badly treated by all the other stars until the Big Gold Bethlehem Star comes along to sort everyone out.

In this context it is not surprising that the children are confused about the Christmas story.  A single retelling of the Biblical nativity story in class or assembly cannot compete with five weeks spent rehearsing and singing about being an alien or a forgetful angel.

Each year the actual story is framed by the school’s “nativity play” and becomes just one story among many.  How can we expect five and six year olds to discern that this is the story we want them to remember as “the Christmas story”?

It would be sad (if not impossible!) to ask schools to ditch their Christmas performances as they offer children so many other kinds of opportunities.

Instead I wonder if it would be possible to use the nativity story to frame the performance instead of the other way around.  Instead of waiting until Christmas to tell the story, tell it straight after the October half term.  Explain to the children that the play they are going to do includes Mary, Joseph, shepherds and wise men but that the writers have imagined all sorts of other things about the story – and that these things are just that: the writer’s imagination.

At times during the lead up to the production this could be re-emphasised, clarifying which parts belong to the original story and which parts have been added. The children could be asked what they think about the additions – do they add or take away from the original story?

But if we make the nativity story into the focus, we also need to think more deeply about the story we are telling.

Is it about the birth of a special baby or about the coming of the Messiah?  Is it a story that can be tweaked for moral purposes (stop bullying the Little Blue Star) or the mystery of God incarnate?   Are we short-changing children (who cope well with mystery) if we protect them from the dark and difficult aspects of the story?  The Godly Play story of the Holy Family finishes with the baby grown up, crucified, resurrected and “now with us in a different kind of way.”

It may be tempting to leave the baby trapped in the school nativity play; it is Christmas after all.  But some time we will have to pick up on the story and start along the road to Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter…

A day in the life of a Lying Politician…

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Who can we trust?

Over the last few weeks I’ve come across several people saying “all politicians lie” as if this is an excusable failing that can be allowed those who are aiming to rule the country.

Does this make lying the right thing to do in order to gain or retain power?  Is truth really expendable?

These ideas raise some difficult issues:

How do lying politicians (and others who favour lying) manage to keep lying out of other areas of their lives?

If they encourage lying – and are seen to encourage lying – how do they themselves decide who to trust?  How do they cope with daily life?

A behind the scenes look…

A day in the life of a Lying Politician

Breakfast:  The Lying Politician* has got up early in order to have toast and coffee with his wife.  She tells him that she will be spending the morning at the gym with her personal trainer, followed by lunch with a friend and an afternoon’s shopping.

But is she telling the truth?

Who can he trust?

A few months ago the LP (Lying Politician) employed a Private Investigator to track his wife for 3 weeks.  He ought to have been reassured by the report and photos which showed his wife leading a completely blameless life.  Even her personal trainer looked somewhat elderly and overweight.

But was the Private Investigator telling the truth?

Who can he trust?

What if his wife had paid the Private Investigator even more money to produce the report and photos?  Should he have employed a second Private Investigator to report on the first one?  And a third Private Investigator to check on the first two?  And a fourth… The LP envisages a long line of Private Investigators trailing each other around London at his expense…

Morning: At 10 o’clock the LP has a dentist appointment.  Last year the LP was suffering from mild toothache and visited his dentist who ordered X rays and a series of expensive investigations.  The dentist recommended several operations and as a result most of the LP’s teeth are no longer his own.

But was he telling the truth?

Did he really need those operations? Were the X rays even his?  Today the dentist is extolling the virtues of a completely new set of dentures that seem just like your own teeth…

Who can he trust?

Work:  Obviously the LP’s work involves a lot of other lying politicians giving it a striking resemblance to the television game show “Would I lie to you?”  but without the humour. As no one holds up the truth and lie cards the LP never finds out if he has guessed correctly.

Who can he trust?

The LP quickly discards the idea of flying pigs that can make their own way to the abattoir thus cutting congestion on the roads – surely that can’t be true?  However, there is a worrying ring of truth to the report that much of the chicken in a certain restaurant’s sandwiches is actually rat (free meat caught on the premises.)

Lunch: The LP decides against his usual chicken mayonnaise sandwich and goes for the vegetarian option instead.

But perhaps even the lettuce is contaminated?

Who can he trust?

Home: The LP stops on the way home to get cash out for the following day.  (For some reason few people will accept his credit card.) As he goes in the phone rings and he absent mindedly puts the cash down on the kitchen worktop while he answers the call. When he next looks, it has vanished.

The LP goes into the living room where his three children are sitting glued to their phones.

Quite rightly he never, ever trusts his children, but he finds himself asking the question anyway:

“Do any of you know what has happened to my cash? It was in the kitchen on the worktop.”

Without looking up his children respond in unison: “The dog ate it.”

The LP has taught his children that Lying is the Way to Gain Power and Get Ahead and they have taken him at his word.  (It is possibly the only thing he has ever said that they actually believe.)

He tries hard to make them see that lies need to be plausible and that even if they lie to everyone else, they should not be lying to him.  His children look up momentarily, before returning their attention to their phones.  They are baffled – what can he be getting at?  They are all £50 richer and they didn’t even need to think up a new lie.

Evening: When the LP goes into his study, he finds that his wife has placed the children’s school reports on his desk.  The children go to a very expensive private school and each of them takes about six extras a week.

The reports describe his children as brilliant students, natural leaders, kind, caring and honest.  Every teacher comments on the wonderful progress they have made over the last term.

But who can he trust?

He recently discovered that after a term of music lessons his daughter still did not know which way up to hold her violin and that his oldest son was unaware that frogs were once tadpoles.

As he gets ready for bed it occurs to him that when he asks the children what they have been doing at school all day and they respond “Nothing” they might, for once, be telling the truth…

How can he decide between truth and lies?

Who can he trust?

*It is perfectly possible that the Lying Politician is not a white, straight man.

Playing the labyrinth

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Annie, aged 9, is walking the labyrinth.

Today’s story has been about Wangari Maathai planting trees across Kenya and everyone has been asked to take something into the labyrinth that reminds them of the natural world.  Annie has chosen a lemon and some bark.  She has placed the bark at a junction and the lemon in the centre and collected a tiny tree button to take back with her.

As an adult walking the labyrinth, I walk straight in and straight out.  I follow the rules, trying to focus on what has been asked.  It is a peaceful and reflective experience.

On her way out, Annie is stopping at every junction.

“Where am I?” she muses out loud.  “Am I going in or coming out?  Should I go this way or the other way?  I know I’ll go this way,” she adds choosing the way that leads back to the centre.

I know that she is doing this in part to wind up her friend Tom, who is waiting impatiently for his turn.  In this she is successful.

“Hurry up!” he calls to her, leaping from one foot to another. “Don’t go back again!  Oh, come on!”

I tell Tom that it is up to Annie how she walks the labyrinth and he needs to let her be.  He stops talking to her and tries to contain himself.  Annie glances at us, and continues on her way, backwards and forwards, making each junction a decision point.

And I wonder, as I frequently do in children’s ministry, how much should I intervene?

It is difficult to make the labyrinth a quiet personal experience in this room.  The children range in age from a few months to 12 years and there are too many other activities going on – planting trees, painting, craft, sand, free play. It is a noisy room acoustically; when I tell the story to those who come later it can be hard to make myself heard.  It probably doesn’t help that I frequently get up from my seat by the labyrinth to replenish craft supplies or talk to a child who has brought something to show me.

It seemed right to stop Tom interacting with Annie so that the labyrinth remains a personal experience.  But is there a right or wrong way to walk it?  Should I be insisting that the children walk slowly in silence?  Sometimes they do.  At others there seems to be an eager rush to take in whatever they have chosen.  Even the smallest children are keen to have a turn.

Did it matter that Annie seemed to be playing to the audience?  When I subdued Tom did it help her to focus on her own experience?  I don’t know.

But it seems to me now that real life is far more like Annie’s way of walking the labyrinth than mine.  Perhaps I should take more time to stop and wonder at the junctions?

A story like Maria’s Part 6: Reconciliation and forgiveness?

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A story like Maria’s is an exploration of bullying in churches in six parts.  You can read Part 1 here: A story like Maria’s: Part 1

Reconciliation

Is it possible for this story to have a happy ending?  Is reconciliation possible?

The answer is yes but it depends on several factors:

1 The diocese needs to be committed to reconciliation, resilience and how to deal with conflict.  Some dioceses have advisers on these issues. There also needs to be ways in which churches can access this help and someone outside their church to help them with the process.

2 The suggestion about reconciliation needs to come from someone above Zoe in the hierarchy – the area dean, the archdeacon or the bishop.  She is unlikely to take much notice of anyone she sees as below her.

3 All parties need to actively want reconciliation. This isn’t something you can force someone into.

4 Why is Zoe bullying?  This is crucial.  It may be that lack of experience or poor training has given her the impression that this is the best way to manage volunteers.

It may be that she feels inadequate and is so terrified of getting things wrong that she has created this authoritarian persona to hide behind. She realises that what has happened is wrong but has no idea how to put things right.

It may be that Zoe sees the problems (and Maria) as belonging to the past.  She does not engage with anyone who wants to talk about Maria and seems surprised that they want to do so.  Perhaps she is concentrating so much on changing the church and moving on that she is unaware of the impact her actions have had on the present.   Her lack of awareness may be due to overwork or to focusing only on the positive.   An increase in numbers could look like justification by success.

It may be that she is a narcissist. Unable to empathise or see people as real, she is prepared to manipulate everyone around her to get her own way.

5 Both Zoe and Maria would need to accept that they might find things out about themselves that they would rather not know.  They may both need to change aspects of their behaviour.

6 Zoe will need to give up some of her power.  At the moment, the power in the church is weighted towards Zoe. She is the incumbent, the person in charge, with the authority to make decisions about the church.  If reconciliation is going to work, Zoe and Maria need to be able to meet as equals.  If the power remains weighted towards Zoe, then the bullying will only be exacerbated.

Forgiveness

Several Christian friends tell Maria that she needs to forgive Zoe.

“Forgiveness is at the heart of Christianity,” says one.

“Christians must be prepared to forgive,” says another.

One friend has taken to posting inspirational quotes about forgiveness on her Facebook page.  “Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” Maria grits her teeth and hits the like button.

Theoretically Maria knows all this is true but putting it into practice is something else.

“How do I do it?” she wails to Clare. “It’s months now.  I want to forgive Zoe but I’m still so angry.  It’s the injustice of it all.”

Clare listens and prays and tells Maria about her own experiences.  “It’s ongoing. Just when you think you’ve forgiven someone, something happens and you have to start all over again from scratch.  I find it helps if I can imagine myself in their shoes. I try to understand why they did what they did.”

“I can’t imagine myself in Zoe’s shoes,” says Maria.  “I don’t understand her at all.  It’s not just me, it’s the effect on everyone else, my family, people at church, the dementia group.”  She pauses and giggles.   “Especially not those awful crocodile sandals with the snapping teeth.”

“Sometimes I think it’s the first step that is the hardest,” says Clare.  “You just have to wait and one day that first step will be shown to you.”

Maria tries to pray for Zoe.  She hopes she doesn’t wish Zoe any actual harm.  What she would like is for Zoe to be “alive and well and somewhere else.”  This is unlikely to happen; Zoe seems to be popping up everywhere.

Maria finds herself at the annual parish meeting, where all the local community groups get the chance to talk about the past year.  She has come to give the WI report. In the past the churchwardens have given the church report, but this year Zoe has come herself. If Maria had realised this, she would have stayed away but it is too late now.

Zoe is beaming and expounding on the successes of the year the Sunshine Club has 30 regular children and families, the Sunset Club has 20 elderly people most weeks, numbers are up significantly at All Age Worship.  She thanks everyone profusely in detail and says that she knows everyone is having fun by the big smiles she sees wherever she goes.

Is this what success at church looks like? wonders Maria. Is success just about smiles and statistics?

This is something she thinks about a lot over the next few weeks.  She tries to make more time for prayer and reflection.

But it isn’t until she goes to a candlelit evensong in the cathedral that she realises that no, it isn’t like that at all.

For Maria the church is like a stream of living water, existing through all times and all places.  She only has to step forward to be part of it.  However much the institutional church tries to contain and manage it, somewhere the living water breaks free.  No one can take the living water away from her. No one can exclude her.

Maria is aware of the Holy Spirit when she prays with Clare on Wednesdays, the hands of Jesus at the healing service and the presence of the Creator when she takes her dog on early morning walks.

Listening and laughing with Eve, sitting with Jane as she faces yet another anniversary, the dementia group singing along to Buddy Holly are all times when she can pause and let God come close.

She is not alone.  There are times, especially when she prays alone in a remote corner of the church, that she is aware of being part of a great crowd of people all journeying together.  No one has ever been promised an easy journey, but she is not alone.

It may be that Zoe has these experiences too but if she does, they are not reflected in her current focus on status, authority, success and fun.   Maria wonders if Zoe has lost her way in her drive towards success.

Perhaps she should be feeling sorry for Zoe?

Perhaps this is the first step towards forgiveness?

And then again perhaps it isn’t… Is forgiveness even possible without justice?

 

A story like Maria’s Part 5: What next?

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A story like Maria’s is an exploration of bullying in churches in six parts.  You can read Part 1 here: A story like Maria’s: Part 1

As the weeks and months go on, it becomes clear that Maria isn’t going to be reinstated as pastoral care leader.  It’s also unlikely that she is going to be able to do any pastoral visiting on behalf of the church.

So what does the future look like?

I’ve considered four possible futures for Maria.  Three of them assume that Maria has a choice, the first is beyond her control.  There is no simple solution. All present difficulties for Maria and the church.

Possible future 1: Loss

In this possible future Maria has no choice.

She has experienced bullying in the past and this makes her vulnerable to bullying in the present.  Her experience with Zoe re-opens unhealed wounds.

Despite the support of family and friends, she finds what has happened deeply painful.  Even the most resilient person can find bullying has taken over their life; for Maria it has become all encompassing.

Her thoughts run in circles. Perhaps everything Zoe said was true?  Perhaps everyone really sees her as Zoe sees her: a critical loner who messes up relationships and blocks her church from moving forward.  Perhaps even God sees her like this?

Maria’s identity and relationship with God are bound up in her pastoral care role. Without it she is cast adrift.  Everything, including going into work at the library, becomes too much effort.   Lack of sleep and ongoing stress turn her circles into a downward spiral.

Eventually Peter insists that she goes to the doctor, who signs her off work, prescribes antidepressants and suggests counselling.

For weeks Maria isolates herself: even the thought of encountering Zoe or anyone from church makes her feel sick.  But the worst thing is the loss of her relationship with God. She stops going to church.  Friends struggle to cope with her bitterness and anger.

At church people ask her friends about her in hushed voices.  For many Maria has become the elephant in the room that is not spoken about.  Although no one admits it, the church’s confidence is dented.  Is it really this easy to stop going to church after twenty years? What should the church, as the church, be doing about Maria? Who should she be turning to for pastoral care and spiritual support?

Possible future 2: Changing church

This (and the other two possible futures) show Maria as sufficiently able to cope without needing time off work or antidepressants (though the counselling might be useful).

Several months have gone by and Maria is wondering what she should do next.

There seems to be little point in staying at St Augustine’s; she is never going to meet Zoe’s criteria for someone who is able to use their gifts in the church.  The new strategic vision is in place but still has the faults identified by Maria and a few others. It’s clear that critical voices will not be accepted.  Perhaps the time has come to go elsewhere? For the first time in twenty years, Maria is looking for a new church.

Maria first tries St Matthew’s about three miles away.  It is another Anglican church in the same diocese and deanery as St Augustine’s.  The service is worshipful and friendly but larger and more evangelical than she is used to; she doesn’t feel all that comfortable with the half hour of praise songs that begin the service.    The woman she sits next to introduces herself and welcomes her and asks where she is from. When Maria replies, she says she knows several people from St Augustine’s through the Deanery Lent course. Perhaps Maria knows them too?  She invites her to stay for coffee, but Maria just wants to go home.

As she leaves the vicar shakes her hand warmly; he also asks her where she is from.  When she tells him, his expression changes momentarily and she wonders if Zoe has said anything at clergy meetings.  Even if she hasn’t, she suspects the vicar will be asking about her when he next meets Zoe.  She doesn’t go back.

Over the following weeks Maria tries out a few more churches but eventually ends up at St Swithin’s which is about ten miles away.  It’s in a different diocese and there seems no contact with Zoe or St Augustine’s.  Maria finds the services quiet and peaceful and the people friendly without being over curious.

It takes some weeks before she feels confident enough to stay for coffee and several months before she feels able to say more than a polite hello to the vicar.  Maria has lost confidence in the church and the clergy.  Eventually someone asks her to help with the weekly lunch club for the elderly and Maria begins to feel that she might have a place there.

It isn’t that simple though.  Maria is bringing a lot of baggage with her to St Swithin’s.  Will they be able to cope with it? It takes her a long time to start to settle in and even when she does it isn’t her community.  She doesn’t meet the congregation except in church. When the talk at coffee time is about the proposed new executive housing, she can sympathise, but it isn’t her concern.

At home she is still part of her local community, most of whom want to know why she doesn’t go to St Augustine’s anymore and where she is going now.  Many people want to share their own view of Zoe and what is happening at church; it gets very wearing.

Maria finds that the church building has become a no go area.  Whereas she used to pop in for a quick pray, just going past it now makes her feel sick. She finds that she is trying to avoid it and even takes a longer route to work so that she can avoid it.  When she sees Zoe walking her dog at the park, she leaves immediately.

Possible future 3: Changing denomination 

Maria’s community has a small but friendly United Reformed Church and she knows many of the members through joint activities.  Now that she no longer feels able to go to St Augustine’s she thinks about worshipping there.

The people at the United Reformed Church make her welcome. As they are local many of them know something about what is going on and they refrain from asking her too many questions.  Slowly Maria starts to relax.  She already knows the minister slightly and finds him quiet and friendly.  He is only there once a month as he is responsible for several other churches which are quite far apart geographically.  Eventually he suggests a meeting and Maria is able to talk about what happened to her and receive caring support.

The minister knows several people who live locally and who would appreciate a visit from Maria; he can see how well she relates to the elderly members of the congregation.  He is also interested in the dementia group. Several months have gone by and it is clear that St Augustine’s Sunset Group is not specialist enough for people with dementia and their carers.  He sees no reason why Maria should not start up a small low key dementia group; he does not think there will be any conflict of interest with what St Augustine’s are doing.

This may seem a positive future, but difficulties remain.  People still want to know why Maria is no longer at St Augustine’s.  The worship is friendly, but it isn’t her preferred style.  It may cause friction between the two churches, who are both trying to serve the same community.  Maria stays away from joint events like Remembrance Sunday and the annual carols.  She tries to avoid the church building, Zoe and several members of the congregation.  Just catching sight of one them in the supermarket can set her thinking about the bullying all over again.  It is by no means over…

Possible future 4: Staying put

Maria has worshipped at St Augustine’s for over twenty years.  She simply does not see how she can uproot herself from all the friendship and fellowship that she has found there.  On Sundays she takes Eve, her elderly neighbour to services.  She can’t think of anyone else who would take her place. Why should Eve lose out because of what has happened?

Maria does not see why she should be bullied out.  It is wrong, she feels, to give into bullies.  Unchecked they will carry on bullying.

Staying put means that the church does not become a no go area.  Maria continues to pop in for quiet times of prayer; if anything, they increase.

The congregation divides into those who never talk to Maria, those who talk to her when Zoe isn’t around and those who carry on talking to her regardless.  Maria is especially grateful for this last group. It may be a cliché to say you know who your real friends are but this is how it feels.  She has sufficient friends not to feel lonely at coffee time, but she does feel out of things. The life of St Augustine’s carries on, but Maria is no longer part of it in the same way.

Zoe herself rarely talks to Maria; she is far too busy at coffee time to give her any attention.  Maria is still helping out with the South American project and Zoe pauses to thank her one day when she is doing the teas for the bazaar.

“My mum really misses you.  She keeps asking why you haven’t visited,” says Joan’s daughter who has come into the library specially to ask about this.  Maria discovers that no one from church now visits Joan.  It seems miserable to leave her unvisited, so she goes to see her and before long has gone back to visiting her regularly.  She has always kept in contact with Eve, her elderly neighbour.  A chance meeting with Jane, the bereaved mum, makes Maria think that she needs support and she is soon going round every Thursday for coffee.

When Zoe finds out about these visits, she writes a piece for the parish magazine about St Augustine’s pastoral care team, listing exactly who the members are and how they are the only people who are allowed to visit on behalf of the church.  The people Maria visits do not care.

The local WI have decided that this year will be Dementia Awareness Year.  They ask Maria to talk to them about it.  Afterwards they are so fired with enthusiasm that they ask her if she would be prepared to start a dementia group on behalf of the WI.  Even the few churchgoers on the WI cannot see a problem with conflict of interest.  Soon other WIs are asking Maria to come and talk to them about dementia awareness.

In this future Maria has stayed with her church and is able to continue with her ministry, even if it is not supported by the church.  But although visitors to the church may be unaware of division it is still there, for no one has done anything towards healing and reconciliation. It is hard for a divided church to work for the kingdom.  It is also hard for Maria to avoid becoming a focus for the disaffected.  It’s not even clear that she should do so.

As in the first possible future, Maria has no one to turn to for pastoral care and spiritual support.  She is effectively priestless.