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Angela Tilby: Ashburnham taught me about prayer

17 June 2022

Ashburnham Place

ONE of the many things I am grateful for from my Evangelical youth is an introduction to scripture-based contemplative prayer. It happened in the context of a weekend with the youth club from St James’s, Muswell Hill, in north London. We used to go away in September, leaving by coach on a Friday evening with our weekend bags, and arriving at Ashburnham Place, in Sussex, for coffee and biscuits at about 9 p.m., traffic permitting.

Ashburnham Place had been the country seat of the Earl of Ashburnham. It was inherited by one of the Earl’s distant relations early in 1953: John David Bickersteth. He found the house in a terrible state; it had been damaged in the war and neglected since. Bickersteth had little choice but to sell most of it off. But he saw potential for a place of Christian renewal, and eventually, in 1960, donated house and grounds to the Ashburnham Christian Trust. Bickersteth used to drop in on us on our annual visit — he was much revered by visitors for his piety and his vision. We camped out in dormitories, wandered round the magnificent lakes, and listened to suitably uplifting talks.

The estate had its own church, and, on one occasion, our leader, the curate of St James’s, Mr Oddy, celebrated communion on the Sunday morning. Then, he suggested that we took our prayer books, went outside, found a place on our own, and spent half an hour reflecting on the 23rd Psalm.

It was a beautiful, sunny morning. I remember perching on a tombstone in the cemetery and wondering what I was meant to do. It all seemed a bit awkward at first, even contrived. But, as I read over the familiar words, I had the first inkling of what it might be like to simply allow the words of scripture to form a bridge between me and God — not forcing anything, not wrestling for any particular meaning or direction.

I was familiar with the Evangelical “quiet time”, and thought of prayer as a process: ACTS, as we were taught, meaning Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. But this non-directive dwelling in a familiar psalm felt both more casual and more exposing. I felt as if I was entering a stream of prayer, a practice more ancient than I could ever have known.

It changed me, although I could not say how. But it made me realise that the traditions of prayer are more ingrained than our doctrinal differences, and that they can lead us on, even when we have no idea where we might be called to be going.

I like the description of lectio divina ascribed by a Roman Catholic writer to a Southern Baptist: “I reads myself full, I thinks myself clear, I prays myself hot, I lets myself cool.”

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