Saturday, 20 July 2024

Irish District Fellowship Weekend at Corrymeela - 9th-11th February

Long ago I had holidayed in County Kerry and visited my sister in Portstewart back in the 1970s, so already had a soft spot for the lands across the Irish Sea. The warm hospitality I experienced visiting Gracehill when Sr Sarah Groves was consecrated Bishop, and later with the Moravian Pilgrimage in 2021, meant that when I saw the publicity for the weekend I didn't need much persuading to book a place. I had first heard about the Corrymeela Community in the 1970s and the chance to go there was an added attraction. Also, I had met Sr Jill Vogt, who would be leading the weekend, at a previous Provincial Synod, and was interested to hear about LebenslŠufe, having recently heard part of Peter Gubi's lebenslauf at his funeral. Jill is jointly minister at Herrnhut, with her husband Peter.

So we gathered, as the light was fading across the north Antrim coast and the lighthouses on Rathlin Island a short distance across the water, were blinking their reassuring presence, to begin the fellowship weekend with a hot meal. Corrymeela has a strict no alcohol policy, so we compensated with plenty of cake. Several cakes were donated by people who weren't themselves participating but wanted to make a contribution to the weekend.

The first session was a gentle but penetrating icebreaker which helped us look at how to tell the stories of what God is up to in our lives, revisit memories of key moments from our past and build up a sense of trust and community among us.

During the sessions the following day Jill enticed and intrigued us with an aspect of Moravian identity - the Lebenslauf - that I wasn't very familiar with. It is a way of recording who you are - from God's perspective, a kind of spiritual memoir of the significant encounters and events through which a person has grown deeper into faith and into Christian community and service. From early in the life of the Renewed Church, Moravians have been encouraged to write, or narrate, this account in their riper years, as a testimony, a witness and a means of encouragement to their sisters and brothers. It has been the practice at Moravian funerals for extracts from the person's lebenslauf to be read out, rather than a eulogy, so that it is their own voice, and not someone else's ideas about them, that is heard. The emphasis is on God's saving grace at work in my life, rather than how marvellous or insignificant I may think I have been. Having been given a general understanding of the background to the lebenslauf, we looked at extracts of one from the 18th century and a more recent one and were given some tips on how to write one for ourselves.

Since the past gains perspective in the context of the present and the future, our final session was led by Peter Dornan, bringing us up to date about Project 32. As you will know, the vision behind Project 32 is strengthening and reviving our church to build up its quality and sustainability across the next eight years. Peter outlined the Natural Church Development strategy which has been adopted by the Project 32 team as a helpful way forward. While he was speaking, a penny dropped for me, that the lebenslauf itself can be a tool for strengthening and reviving Christian community.

The emphasis of the weekend was on fellowship, so the programme wasn't overloaded. The calm and gentle care and hospitality of Corrymeela, with plenty of tasty and nourishing home-cooked food, set the tone. And then there was cake. The beautiful landscapes, ever changing with the weather and lighting conditions, enhanced the atmosphere. And of course, Christian fellowship is rooted in worship, and we were ably led in morning and evening prayers by members of our group. On the Saturday we also joined Corrymeela's evening reflection in the Croi (Irish for heart), led by the Community's leader, Alex Wimberly. And there was cake. Saturday afternoon was free, so some walked, some explored Ballycastle, some just chilled. And all chatted, and there was cake.

Thanks to the succession of storms pestering the UK at the time, I was the only participant from England. I came by ferry on a calm day, but frustratingly someone else who had booked to come was stymied by their local airport being shut down for the whole weekend, with all flights cancelled. I had never met four of the participants before, and three I knew only slightly, but by Sunday afternoon it was as if I had known everyone all my life. Such is the powerful effect of the presence of Jesus amongst us. Such is the magic of Corrymeela. Such was the skill and love of Jill's leadership. And, of course, there was cake.

Special thanks must go to Sr Sarah Groves and Br Livingstone Thompson for organising the event, and to Sr Jill Vogt for her leadership, input and companionship. Since retiring from Moravian ministry, I have not been able to worship regularly in a Moravian congregation and have felt a bit on the edge of things. This weekend made me feel I was back in the heart of the Family.

Br Martin Smith

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