“WELCOME to the Whalley Abbey youth holiday! Now stick this up your nose.”
The complications of doing youth ministry in a time of pandemic are considerable. Normally, in early August, a group from the diocese of Blackburn would be travelling to Walsingham for the youth pilgrimage. But guess what? It was cancelled.
Instead, 50 young people gathered at our diocesan retreat house. Miraculously, they all tested negative, and enjoyed three days of sun-drenched fun. We prayed, we ate, we discussed, we sang, we climbed, we played, we argued, we ate again, we danced, we quizzed, we worshipped — and we ate some more. Young people eat a lot.
After 18 months of disrupted education and interrupted friendships, it is hard to think of a generation of teenagers more deserving of a good time away together than the current one. And, from kayaking in the river to singing at the mass, I think it’s fair to say that they took full advantage.
THERE was no TV, but who needs soap opera when you’re leading a youth residential? At one point, within a four-minute period, I had to deal with an arachnophobe who had discovered two vast spiders in his bedroom; a weeping, homesick 11-year-old; a teenager needing advice on skin moisturiser (which I was happy to provide); and a boy who was seeking to gain illicit access to the room of the girl with whom he had fallen hopelessly in love. It is never dull.
But a feature of working with young people is how events can suddenly lurch from the mundane to the poignant. Like most bishops, I spend far too much time in the meeting room or at the desk. So, to find myself in a conversation in which a group of boys opened up with total honesty about their anxieties, and how to manage and cope with the rawness of adolescent emotion, was a challenging but beautiful moment. I don’t know what I did for them, but they helped me to reconnect with the gift of priesthood.
Loveliest of all were those times when we explored our theme of friendship with Jesus and each other. “What makes a Christian friend different?” was one question that was posed in a Bible study. And the immediate answer from every group? Forgiveness.
WHALLEY ABBEY was a stunning setting. I have always enjoyed making the countryside accessible to urban teenagers, and an 18th-century mansion set amid a ruined abbey with the dramatic backdrop of the Lancashire Pennines is hard to beat.
Founded in 1296, the abbey is a former Cistercian house. Although it took an age to build, and was not completed until the 1440s, Henry VIII’s men did a much more efficient job in destroying it, as he plundered the monasteries for their money and, in so doing, laid waste to so much of the rich fabric of late-medieval spiritual life.
The new Warden, the Revd Adam Thomas, has been in post for just a few months, and by far the most important thing that he has done is to restore a regular life of prayer with a fourfold Office and the eucharist. That means that groups like ours, instead of importing the routines of prayer, are simply joining in with them — which makes all the difference.
As a result, retreat groups are starting to come back in large numbers, and the abbey is in the process of recruiting a small, resident community. It is to be hoped that Fr Thomas can complete the task in a somewhat timelier fashion than the Cistercians.
THEN, with all the speed of an unfortunate shake of the dice on a Monopoly board, we move without passing Go from Whalley Abbey to HM Prison Preston. I visited to license Lorraine Innerdale to the chaplaincy team on the feast of the Transfiguration. It is hard to think of a better day for such an event.
You can fully understand the transfiguration only when you know what happens next. Jesus moves from the glory of the mountain straight into the harsh reality of human life as he bumps into a demon-possessed child who has been failed by his faithless disciples. In so doing, he demonstrates his purpose to transfigure sinful human life through the power of his dying and rising.
There is no better place than a prison to see the harsh reality of human life. It’s where society dumps people when it doesn’t know what else to do with them; so hardened career criminals rub shoulders with the abused, the mentally ill, and the abandoned. A horrific number of inmates were brought up in care. Forty-seven per cent of prisoners are reconvicted within a year of release. It doesn’t work.
And that is why Jesus would feel totally at home here. Our prison chaplains do a powerful job of revealing the glory of Christ in this harshest of environments. The part that they play is simply to go on hoping and believing that lives can change through the power of the transfigured Christ.
AND so, at last, I’m back at home. This year, I have started growing courgettes — an interesting feat for one who hitherto had the green fingers of a can of glyphosate.
I never knew courgettes grew so fast. Or, indeed, in such astonishing bounty. So, if anyone has any good courgette recipes — or, indeed, wants a courgette or 12 — drop me a line.
The Rt Revd Philip North is the Bishop of Burnley.