It is 11am on a sunny Saturday morning in July 1967 and I am standing on the steps to St Augustin’s RC church in Felling on Tyneside. I’m dressed in grey short trousers, brilliant white shirt and bright red tie. My mother (also my primary teacher at this time) has me shining my shoes on the back of my socks as she spits on to her handkerchief and roughly scrubs at my chin as we wait to process in to mass to celebrate my first Holy Communion.
I remember this scene so vividly today at the age of 62, I think because it is the first memory I have of a feeling of awe. I knew deep in my seven year old heart I was about to take part in something wonderful, something otherworldly. I could not explain it’s significance, I doubt I could today some fifty-five years later but it was a tangible feeling that I remember to this day, a feeling that on the darkest of days when God seems a million miles away, even on days when God seems to not exist at all I can still summon up and it sustains me, it keeps me tied in to my relationship with Jesus, a relationship that in those intervening years has often been painful and sometimes very distant. It is part of my belief that God grants us spiritual highlights so that we may cling to them in dark times, this one was right up there with them despite my tender age and lack of understanding.
All through my school days I had a deep feeling of Jesus walking with me, I had been a perm baby with many health issues and between birth and my teens underwent many operations and spent long periods in hospital. At the age of four my mother was told by surgeons to simply take me home and love me and that I probably would not survive. . Because of this my parents and grandparents kept me tightly cosseted and were more than reluctant to let me join with the other lads playing football, or British Bull Dog or snowball fighting in winter. So much so that on one winters day after I had just come home from surgery and I could hear the other boys playing outside in the snow, my grandad put two sheets of plywood on the kitchen floor and brought six wheelbarrow loads of snow in to my grandmothers kitchen so that I too could build a snowman. My grandmother’s response to grandad was to ask why he couldn’t have built me a snowman in the garden and I could of watched from the window. I can still hear grandad’s booming Geordie voice “Now then Mary! That bairn can hear all his pals playing and he wants to be part of it, how would he part of it watching me, a daft old bugger building it for him”? Grandad knew the true meaning of equality. He knew that it meant feeling as included as possible.
All through this period I fought against this excessive cosseting, I knew I was unwell but I also knew I was in Jesus care, the Jesus that came to me in my first Holy Communion.
In early 1983 I left the RC seminary, already an ordained deacon, literally only a few weeks away from full ordination. I had reported abuse being committed by clergy within my order to the principal of the order and for my trouble he threw me out but it didn’t end there. I left the seminary in the January, in July of that same year I met the girl I have now been ,married to for thirty-five years. By August my former order were putting it about that I had been carrying on a secret affair with her and that was why I had left.
For the next two years I stayed away from all forms of church as I was so hurt.
Easter 1985 I was persuaded to join my pals Andy Raine & John Skinner (co founders of what became the Northumbria Community” to join them on Holy Island for Easter workshop.
On Easter Sunday morning I found myself on the tiny Cuthbert Island just off the shaws of Lindisfarne for a sunrise eucharist. When it came to the eucharistic prayer, John, a vicar and knowing the hurt I was carrying invited me to join him at our make shift altar and to say the eucharistic prayer. This was a huge healing for me and I cried my way through the rest of that service.
What I’m trying to show but telling you all this is that for me Echarist is an inclusive, all encompassing thing which includes a sense of belonging to something far bigger. The things I see about reserved sacrament, eucharistic ministers taking communion to the sick, these just don’t cut it, we need to feel part of the whole service, being present at the consecration is every bit as important to us as receiving the bread and wine.
Here in 2022 I find myself leading an online community of more than 19100 and with the Ordinary Office being said online more than 8500 times a day and an average of around 100 people a week watching our Sunday service.
This community is made up of many who feel disenfranchised from mainstream church, because of issues of disability, race and ethnicity, sexuality and gender and other forms of abuse. Many of these people have been so damaged by church that they find themselves unable to attend, for them church is no longer a safe space, yet they long to take part in the eucharist. They are being failed twice by the church, firstly by the way they have been abused and force out then secondly by their desire to have some form of online eucharist and having the church declare it invalid.
When the priest raises the host at the consecration, do the back doors of the church burst open and does the risen Jesus march smartly down the isle? No! Yet is Jesus present? Yes! So if he doesn’t have to be in the room to be present where is the problem?