Community of the Sisters of the Church

Easter at Ham

4 April 2010

I seem to remember that during my school days we were all given silly things to do. My least favourite activities were all to do with the school gymnasium. Our class of 35 boys wad divide into five agility groups, with group 1 as the best, group 5 the worst. If there had been a group 6, I would have been in it, probably on my own!

Other sporting activities I found less unpleasant. One was a competition in which we had to hurl a cricket ball as far as possible. I wasn’t too bad at that, though I felt a bit sorry for the poor boy who had to run and pick all the balls up and bring them back to the pavilion.

Well, if you were to stand on the edge of the Common nearest the Convent and throw a cricket ball, you would have to be very strong indeed to get it as far as the building I am thinking about this morning. It is right over on the side of the common next to those new flats, and opposite the pub called the Hand and Flower. It is, like this convent, based on quite an old building but which has had other buildings added on. It has grounds at least as large as our garden here.

I am referring to the Cassel Hospital, which for as long as I can remember has been a centre for the treatment of people with psychological and emotional problems. I first heard of it, described by a psychotherapy consultant at the hospital I was working at, as a Therapeutic Community.

These communities, of which the Cassel Hospital was one, provided a rather revolutionary approach to mental health problems. They were much less authoritarian and hierarchical than much medicine and psychiatry of their time. They had a much more egalitarian approach - a far cry from the ‘doctor knows best’ – or ‘doctors’ orders’ style of medicine of their day.

The fundamental philosophy of these residential communities was that everyone was expected to care for one another and to take responsibility for their own process of healing. There were to be doctors and nurses, and there was treatment, drugs and psychotherapy. But the emphasis was on helping people to help themselves, to rediscover their own strength, their own self-belief, their own potential.

At the heart of the system was group meetings, in which all were invited to bring their personal concerns, fears, worries, their despair and – when things started to improve, their hopes and their joy at being able to make a new start. No-one was bothered about whether you were male or female, young or old, black or white, married or single, rich or poor, gay or straight. Everyone was given a voice; everyone was expected to accept others without question, and as far as possible to help one another along the, often steep, path to recovery.

Our churches, all of them, face tough questions this Eastertide. What kind of church can be the human face of Christ, the living expression of his Resurrection today? What kind of church do we want to belong to? What kind of church does God want us to build for the future? What can the victory of Jesus Christ over the destructive forces of evil do to change the church now?

For me, there is a vision in mind of a church that has up to now so often failed it members in a number of ways. The abuse of children is only one – albeit devastating – example of the ways in which things have sometimes gone disastrously wrong. The way forward might be one in which we begin to learn from secular organisations like the Therapeutic Communities.

Will we ever all come to believe exactly the same things? Will we all come to worship in exactly the same way? Will we ever reach the point when we can say that all the moral, social political questions and problems have been answered? Very unlikely, I imagine. I am not sure if that kind of superficial uniformity would be a good thing anyway.

After the Resurrection, and filled with the Holy Spirit, the infant church began to meet in each others’ houses for prayer, conversation, and the Eucharist. The author of the Acts of the Apostles tells us that they held all their property in common. That doesn’t just mean property in the literal sense. It describes a profound and pervasive sense of belonging to one another – as a new family in which everything is shared. They were living the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This speaks eloquently about a church in which all were accepted, welcomed, supported, challenged, encouraged, healed, and enabled to grow in loving acceptance of one another…..If we could recover that vision, our Church today just might have a chance of being, and proclaiming the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. 

I wish every one of you a Very Happy Easter!

Nicholas Roberts

Ham Chaplain