To be a pilgrim

PUBLISHED: 15:54 28 July 2014 | UPDATED: 15:54 28 July 2014

Dean Frances Ward of Bury St Edmunds Cathedral talks about the forthcoming visit of the Archbishop as part of the Centenary celebrations.

Dean Frances Ward of Bury St Edmunds Cathedral talks about the forthcoming visit of the Archbishop as part of the Centenary celebrations.

As the diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich celebrates its centenary, Tessa Allingham talks to the Very Reverend Dr Frances Ward about preparing for pilgrimage, why Rousseau was wrong and church services that ‘tingle’

Dean Frances Ward of Bury St Edmunds Cathedral talks about the forthcoming visit of the Archbishop as part of the Centenary celebrations.  Dean Frances Ward of Bury St Edmunds Cathedral talks about the forthcoming visit of the Archbishop as part of the Centenary celebrations.

It is a reflection of the times that, as part of my preparation to interview Frances Ward, Dean of St Edmundsbury Cathedral, I scan Twitter.

It turns out that virtual chit-chat is not her thing. She occasionally recommends a book. Denys Turner’s volume on theologian Thomas Aquinas has caught her eye, as has Feral, environmental activist George Monbiot’s polemic urging humanity to reconnect with nature by ‘rewilding’ the damaged world. She tweeted a cheer when the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich voted in favour of women bishops back in March and there’s the occasional reminder about a concert or lecture. Her Twitter ‘bio’ describes someone passionate about Little Gidding – the Christian retreat centre of which she is chair of the trustees – and chickens – and someone defiantly opposed to the self-centred individualism of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

People who know her tell me also that she’s a lovely person, a great communicator, erudite, open and friendly. They are spot on.

We meet during Holy Week and her timetable is beyond full at this, her favourite time in the Church calendar. “There’s some extremely powerful liturgical action at Easter, lots of tingle!” she says.

Dean Frances Ward is pictured in Bury with her chickens.Dean Frances Ward is pictured in Bury with her chickens.

The Very Reverend Dr Frances Ward has already led the 7.30am communion, has the 1pm eucharist round the corner and has put the final touches to her address on the Wild Patience of God for compline at 7pm. It’s one of her series of Lenten talks that explore the Christian approach to environmental challenges.

“I use the words of the hymn ‘Guide me, o thou great Redeemer, pilgrim through this barren land’ as a starting point. I want to consider how we should respect and take care of God’s creation, this beautiful world we live in.”

The concept of pilgrimage is very much in her thoughts. This year the diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich celebrates 100 years since its formation out of the dioceses of Norwich and Ely, and celebrations are happening under the title Pilgrims in Time. Frances’ Lenten talks, a series of actual pilgrimages, and the idea of journeying towards a better future for the Church at large form the framework for commemorative events.

A visit by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, set the centenary ball rolling in March. “He’s a great person,” Frances says, ever so slightly breathlessly. “He spent time with people who work in the cathedral and we had a massive, wonderful evensong. He had supper with us in the deanery. I think he was expecting Suffolk to be sleepy, but he was wowed.”

Sadly, even he is too late to sign up to the pilgrimage to Kagera in Tanzania that Frances is leading in November. The trip, hard on the heels of one to the Holy Land and another to Santiago de Compostela, is full. He will miss what will no doubt be a thought-provoking tour of Suffolk’s ‘partner diocese’ that became home to 600,000 refugees during the Rwandan genocide 20 years ago, a visit to the theology college the Cathedral helps fund, and an opportunity to see the work of Rwanda Direct, the Suffolk charity that aims to transform lives through support of the Rwandan Church.

He could, however, don his walking boots or oil his bicycle chain and join one of the walking and cycling ‘pilgrimages’ in Suffolk. Routes take in some of the >>

>> county’s tiniest, humblest churches as well as its most magnificent, and are a chance to enjoy Suffolk at its prettiest.

Frances insists that the ‘Pilgrims in Time’ theme must look to the future as well as celebrate the past. “Christianity has existed in Suffolk for a very long time – St Felix brought it here – and we need to think where we are taking it.

“I believe it is perfectly possible to retain tradition and modernise at the same time. Traditions can always be freshened, and by doing that we are more likely to get young people involved.” Modernisation can be as literal as improving the fabric of churches and community centres: money raised by the new Centenary Fund (administered by the Suffolk Community Foundation and launched by the Archbishop in March) will contribute to such projects.

“I believe that religion can improve society and community,” Frances says. “By encouraging growth in our Church, we are helping society to function better. People need to see themselves as part of a community, not simply as individuals.” It is here that she takes issue with Rousseau, who argued that society corrupts, to the extent of writing a book, published last year, called Why Rousseau was Wrong: Christianity and the Secular Soul.

Talk of modernisation leads, inevitably, to the question of women bishops. With legislation now to be fast-tracked, the first female bishop could be enthroned before the end of the year. Frances sighs gently – she knows the question that’s coming.

“If I receive a letter which says I should look at a certain position, who am I to say no? It is part of my obedience – ministry means that I am a servant. It’s nothing to do with self-promotion.” She pauses, perhaps considering the prospect of becoming one of the country’s first women bishops. “It would certainly be scary; an awful lot of media spotlight.”

She quickly, typically, turns the focus from herself and on to the issue of selecting a bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, a post currently covered by David Thomson, bishop of Huntingdon. Frances is part of the appointing committee.

“We need someone who is keen on education – everyone accepts it could be better here – someone keen on engaging in civic life. He must be warm, a good preacher, but above all a holy, prayerful person.”

It’s a process she takes extremely seriously. With all this time spent considering the wellbeing of the Church and the community, not to mention preaching meaningful sermons and leading services with ‘tingle’, who looks after her, I wonder? How can your congregation pray for you?

She laughs, and she’s a lesson in humility to the very last: “Pray that I might have God’s grace, that He might guide me. That’s enough, don’t you think?”

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