Thought for the Week – Journey to becoming a Church Warden

Claire Wright shares her journey which led her to becoming a Church Warden at St James’s.

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Claire Wright

I don’t know about you, but when someone asks me to tell them about myself my heart sinks, as I’m never quite sure what they want to know or where to begin.  So I thought I’d start my journey to being a Church Warden at St James’s Piccadilly somewhere in the middle!  I was in my early 50s when I was interviewed for, and spectacularly failed, to get my own job.  It seemed like a devasting blow, but I was due to fly out to Laos that night and by the stopover in Delhi, I’d decided that I would follow my dream and become an artist, probably of the penniless variety.  There were a lot of things I liked about my job, but I was very tired and super stressed out, and my work life balance didn’t exist.  Just the thought of painting made me happy.

After a good holiday, I was lucky and quickly got another job, but I didn’t lose the desire to paint.  I found a wonderful art class/community near to where I live in North London, and started to draw, paint, print etc.  What I didn’t realise when I joined the class, was that art would make me look at, and see the world differently.  Instead of rushing from place to place, head down and in a hurry, I started to really look at the world around me.  The shapes of tree skeletons, the new green of spring leaves, the interesting lines in everyday faces, and being me, the beauty to be found in rust, pavement cracks, and peeling paint!

I was born in Manchester, and baptised and confirmed at St Johns Church, Flixton (C of E!), and I have many happy memories of church life growing up. However, to cut a long story short, by my early 50s, although I still believed in God, I had God in a box marked nightly prayer and emergencies only.  Without realising it at first, as I started to really see the world around me, God was suddenly everywhere, and we started to chat regularly, and gradually I felt the need to be part of a church community.  The latter is more than ever true, but walking and talking whilst out and about, is still when I pray best.

I’m a happily single, bi-woman, who was put off many churches in my 20s and 30s by patriarchal structures, negative views about homosexuality, and a generally unhealthy obsession with sex, when there was and is so much injustice in the world.  I had attended an Alternatives solstice service at SJP with a friend in the late 90s, and so when I was thinking about a church with a difference, SJP came to mind.  It was a bit of a surprise to attend an 11.00 Eucharist, and find the familiar liturgy of the Holy Communion Service I remembered from childhood.  However it was beautifully done and I felt welcomed.  I’m not the best networker in the world, so it took me some time to stay behind for tea and coffee, but I did start volunteering with the welcomers team and the winter shelter, and gradually felt at home and part of the community at SJP.

Perhaps it was growing up in Manchester or it’s something in the genes, but social injustice at scale and as it affects individuals has always made me angry.  It has directed both my career choices; as a nurse/NHS worker working with people who are homeless, living with HIV, dealing with substance abuse, and finally in children’s services; and my attempts at activism outside work, which haven’t always lived up to my own expectations.  It was also one of the reasons why, when in my early 30s,  I went to work in a project in rural Honduras that had its origins in Liberation Theology.

Although I’m often inspired by the teaching at SJP, the most memorable and powerful sermon I have ever heard, was given by a lay preacher called Elias in Honduras.  There had been a hurricane overnight and we were visiting one of the mountain communities which for Elias would have been a four hour walk, and for me one and half hours (eight hours and three hours day return).   As we walked it emerged that the hurricane had taken the topsoil from Elias’s Milpa (small field for corn and beans), which meant that life, which was always uncertain, had suddenly become precarious for him, his wife and 8 children.  I remember being amazed that he hadn’t stayed home that day, but to Elias, a commitment had been made and carrying on with the work of the project was important.  In his sermon to a group of maybe 12 people, he talked, eyes shining, about the importance of community and sticking together, of Jesus who loved us and was with us in the struggle for a better life, and of the practical ways we could help each other, which included some advice on community silos for better crop storage.  Jesus felt very real that day, and that feeling has stayed with me.

Volunteering at SJP is something I enjoy doing, it feels part of giving back to God what God has given me.  That said, although stepping up from Assistant Warden to Church Warden might seem like an obvious step, I wasn’t certain.  I love being part of the community at SJP, and being Church Warden felt like and feels like a privilege, but I wasn’t sure it was right for me, or that I was right for it.  A lot of over thinking that was settled by Czeslaw Milosz’s poem Love.

Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills—
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.

Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.

Looking a myself at a distance, as one thing amongst many, one person in a rich and diverse community where we all have our parts to play at different times, it somehow feels very right.  I’m looking forward to being one your church wardens alongside Dee, and as she said last week, to listening to and being there for all voices, not just the loud ones but those we can’t quite hear yet.