The journey itself has always been as important to pilgrims as its destination. Conversations along the way, stories shared over meals, tales told by those joining the travellers, and moments of silence and song in each other’s company, all make a pilgrimage memorable and possibly life-changing. This year’s CGMC Spring conference contained all of these elements for our pilgrim band of children’s ministry professionals during the 48 hours we spent together in north Wales. The sun shone brightly on us too and by the end of our time, we had assuredly all heard new things and had had fresh experiences that gave us much to reflect on and which will help shape and reshape us personally as well as professionally for our particular areas of ministry.
Our three days together based in Bangor at the Eryl Môr Hotel (which ‘overlooks nothing except the Menai Straits’!) were busy but also refreshing, as we explored the particular challenges faced by workers engaged in rural children’s ministry, the tensions of faith and doubt as expressed in the poems of R. S. Thomas, the importance of hospitality within intergenerational worship and the opportunities and pressures of working among families in a locally deprived community. And, because we had plenty of time as we walked, ate, travelled and just sat alongside each other, there was space to digest what we heard and push the boundaries of our thinking in ways that our day to day ministries back in the office, on the road or at events do not easily make possible.
Helen Franklin is a very experienced children’s ministry professional who is now working with Scripture Union in Wales and running particular projects in the north. She helped us understand from the inside what it means to be a child growing up in a small village on the Lleyn Peninsula, with poor transport, few contemporaries at church, speaking two languages and with quite possibly limited employment prospects; while at the same time that same child does often enjoy a rich extended family and a degree of freedom and security that many in our cities have lost. It is however a significant challenge for churches in the countryside to find enough people to run appropriate clubs or Sunday groups to nurture such children in their faith journey and one related danger too is that the ‘national resource solutions’ offered are often simply impractical. How to contextualise these materials is always a challenge for any of us, but especially for workers in a rural setting where most definitely one size does not fit all. This opening session was insightful and prompted lots of discussion as so many of these issues can be found in other parts of the UK within the dioceses and districts we work. It must be a case of local solutions for local situations rather than templates and models from on high. This introduction from Helen also prepared us well for our next day’s rural pilgrimage.
The church at Clynnog Fawr, dedicated to St Beuno, is the traditional starting place for a pilgrimage along the Lleyn Peninsula, and so this is where our happy band of CGMC pilgrims were taken by means of an unforgettable ‘vintage’ bus the next day. Here the Rev. Lloyd Jones treated us to a mini- version of his retreat talk that took in the site of the oldest stone church in north Wales, an ancient sundial from Ireland that challenged us how we spend our time, the burial place of St Beuno himself, the new chapel with its three significant chairs (for a preacher, a poet and a royalist prisoner), the medieval church with its wooden prebendary stalls, the High Altar and…. some dog tongs! The church also had amazing acoustics which these visiting pilgrims put to the test by singing ‘Guide me O thou great Jehovah’. Gareth Malone would have been impressed!
Our next stop was St David’s church, Nefyn, where Richard and Naomi Wood minister and who welcomed us with a warm drink and a slice of bara brith! Richard has 9 churches in his benefice with a total Sunday congregation of 100. The challenge is to find a practical and economic way forward, while still respecting people’s loyalty to their tiny rural churches in this beautiful part of Wales. One way must of course include working together, perhaps a partnership between church and chapel – though each, it seems, can still be slightly suspicious of the other in some places – and also more happening outside Sunday, although that too is something that many find a bridge too far.
We stopped for lunch at Aberdaron, where we met Susan Fogarty who is an R.S. Thomas expert and who would be taking us on the next step of our pilgrimage together. The setting for our lunch was glorious as we looked out on a bay bathed in bright Spring sunshine. We could hear the sounds of the waves on the shore that had inspired R.S. Thomas as he wrestled with faith and doubt during his ministry here. Inside St Hywyn’s Church we listened to more of his poems which expressed his struggle to hear a God who is so often silent and to feel the presence of One who can seem so absent. Each reading was followed by a profound silence in which each of us had time to reflect on what we had heard as well as on the special place we were in; each of us in our own way were also striving to hear God’s voice amidst all that we were experiencing on this particular pilgrimage day. Perhaps, as R.S. wrote, ‘the meaning is in the waiting’.
Our pilgrimage with poetry continued with a visit to the poet’s retirement cottage where we heard more about his life and ministry in this part of Wales as well as about his remarkable wife whom he grew to love very deeply. Finally our faithful old bus crawled its way up the big hill at the end of the Peninsula, from where we could look out towards the island of 20,000 saints – Bardsey Island or, as it is known in Welsh, Ynys Enlli.
So, was this the end of our pilgrimage or perhaps, as R.S. Thomas reflected in the poem we heard here, the beginning of an inner pilgrimage that we are all invited to make? Before we left this beautiful spot, a few of us scrambled down the headland to make an extra pilgrimage to St. Mary’s well with its healing waters. It turned out to be much more of a challenging descent than we had imagined and we almost added to those 20,000 saints that afternoon!
The pilgrimage dimension of our conference wasn’t however all about being ‘out and about’. Later that night and the following morning, we held our regular CGMC Business Meeting whose minutes are recorded elsewhere, but we also spent time discussing a chapter written by Karen Marie Yust entitled ‘Being faithful Together’ and from the book ‘Understanding Children’s Spirituality’. In this she explores how we might become a better intergenerational community when we gather together on a Sunday for worship, with ideas for preaching, praying and singing that really can bring all age groups together. Good children’s ministry can only truly flourish within an intentional, intergenerational community of faith and though this may be obvious to us, it isn’t often so to the churches with which we work. Together we worked on some small steps that could be taken, particularly in the area of hospitality towards children in worship, and these are recorded in Appendix 2 of this reflection. In a similar way on the previous evening, we had each shared some of our best-kept website or resource secrets, including a bargain printing website that only Aled could have found, a book of paraphrased lectionary readings for use in worship with children present, and a number of useful blog sites that people have found inspiring – all these are recorded in Appendix 1 following this reflection.
Our final session of the conference introduced us to one further and important aspect of ministry in this part of north Wales. Mererid works at Eglwys Noddfa on a housing estate on the edge of Caernarfon where there are a number of families facing challenging circumstances. It was a good example of both family ministry and family support working hand in hand and which has been built on trust and a good deal of faith and determination by the leaders, especially as many of the problems among the working poor are not easily or even ever solved. Many of us could recognise the circumstances within which Mererid was working and we were interested to hear her story of how she had been called to this family ministry and of where she finds support both locally and from the wider church networks, to which he belongs.
And with this, our CGMC pilgrimage officially came to its close. It was a privilege for all of us to have time and space in such a lovely part of the world and to be able to step back from our work and reflect on so many different aspects of our ministry. Whether it was during a leisurely walk along the Victorian pier or following the coastal path towards the University and the near-by Bardic stone circle, we enjoyed many deep and supportive conversations together which will be vital in the months ahead. CGMC is far more than just a conference theme, a business meeting or even a grand project together – important as each of these are; it offers its members a safe place to listen to each other across the denominations and organisations, as well as to each other’s pilgrimage stories of faith, all of which in turn can only but enrich our work and ministry.