ON Wednesday next week, the Church Army will again have somewhere it can call home. That day, the Wilson Carlile Centre in Sheffield officially changes from being the college that trained evangelists to becoming the headquarters for the whole society. The grand opening of the refurbished building will be marked with a day of celebration, to dedicate it as the new hub.
Its new staff, including IT and media specialists, will be joining the old occupants to try to work out what it means for the building to be the “Mother House” or the “Minster of Evangelism”. There is both an expectation of new beginnings and a sense of homecoming.
In a curious coincidence of timing, 1 June is also significant for the Church Army in a different sense of homecoming. On this same day, the funerals of two of the Church’s oldest evangelists will be held. Sister Lily Thrush, who was 105, and Sister Mary Morris, 95, will both be laid to rest after a life-time of Christian service. These outstanding women had served God faithfully in the Church of England for a combined total of 140 years.
Lily Thrush was commissioned as long ago as 1929, serving some time overseas. With her sister, Elsie, also a Church Army officer, now aged 100, she continued in outreach and prayer ministry long after retirement. Mary Morris had worked alongside the armed forces after the war. Her deep longing to let people know “how special they are to God” had led her to work with homeless women, elderly people, and teenage mothers, remaining a powerful witness to the love of Christ to the very end of her life.
The loss of these women will be felt keenly; for their deaths bring an era to its end. Yet I am sure there will be profound gratitude as well as sorrow. To go home, after long lives well lived, calls for its own thanksgiving and celebration.
One random day in the calendar therefore becomes unexpectedly symbolic. It marks the handover of the generations, the passing of the baton from the earlier pioneer evangelists to those today who have caught their vision. It becomes a day when living personal memory passes into history, and yet the centuries remain linked by the continuity of God’s call.
It is also a day when the importance of home is publicly acknowledged. Home, as the place of belonging, is where our identity is shaped, and where we can find out who we are. In a culture where homelessness is a spiritual as well as physical condition, wanting a place to call home is to recognise its significance. It is to address the destructive experiences that have damaged so many people, and offer a more hopeful future.
Many evangelists work with those for whom home was the place where they were abused or negated, and never experienced their own worth. They visit those whose home is a cardboard box or a disused passageway. It is hardly surprising that many people find it hard to move on. Travelling forward is difficult when we are unsure where we start from. We cannot set out on a journey unless we first have a place to leave.
The vision is that the place they will call home will be a place to come to and go from. Home can provide a hospitable base, where people can be drawn together to share stories and encouragement, and to deepen their faith in worship.
It can be the meeting place for generations, enabling those in training to learn from the wisdom of those who go before.
Ultimately, such a vision of home can point beyond itself, to the realisation that God is our home, and that God travels with us on every journey. As the generations change, we trust that those who hear the call to serve today will go with the faith of those whose journeys have ended, and take the love of God with them.
Dr Elaine Storkey is Director of Education for the Church Army and President of Tearfund.