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A BEACON OF LIGHT
Empowering Worth – Canon Peter Dobson
This speech was given by Newcastle Cathedral’s Canon for Outreach and Discipleship, the Revd Canon Peter Dobson, at the National Cathedrals Conference on 16 May 2022.
We arrived at the sense of being called to prioritising empowering one another and all with whom we have to do here in their God-given, innate, sense of worth by many routes. An important route being though that being radically welcoming is one thing, but, what next? Part of the way we want to extend that welcome is to welcome learning and new insights, to be a people ‘on the way’, moving and growing together. Informed by our prayer and worship, we want to continually ask the question, how the people and circumstances God is giving us in this place are to be cherished as a gift and used for good?
Stories, I always think are the best way into, illuminating how that is looking in real life. I have a few brief stories I want to share, about prison, people, the public square, and the partnerships undergirding our work.
The first is, having long had a ministry of responding to the city on our doorsteps as it really is, particularly those experiencing acute moments of vulnerability, having good relationships with folks from the street-life community, those struggling with addiction, and being a safe haven for those experiencing times of mental ill-health, we began to be aware of just how many of the people who make up parts of the community here were prison leavers, and just how some struggles were based in not being able to find work or meaningful ways to use gifts and skills because of the stigma of histories of offending.
At the same time, some of us were pondering how we best use our refectory and kitchen. This has led us to forming a partnership with the Oswin Project, committing resources and raising funds together to open a satellite café of a café based in HMP Northumberland, with a mentoring scheme, volunteer and work-placement opportunities, with employed posts for three to four prison leavers, and two other staff to offer mentoring and training. The baked goods and wonderful cakes are all made by the residents of HMP Northumberland and are part of what we’ll be enjoying at coffee times. The most memorable moment since opening the café came when the café staff were catering for the annual Legal Service, not realising who they would be serving canapes for, with one of our colleagues meeting not one but two of the judges who had sent him to prison!
Our value of ‘Empowering Worth’ serves to challenge us when we stop learning from one another and truly co-creating the future God has for us here. Even when there is a commitment to ‘being with’ people, and not ‘doing unto’ them, we can be tempted (in the Church at present, especially, it seems to me) to want to prove our worth, and look busy, creating programmes and putting on activities. We only want to do that here by doing it together. The Cathedral’s ‘Recovery Church’ is one example of that, something which has emerged from being with those struggling with substance use which has become problematic, of connecting with other partners in the city and rehab facilities, with a group of people who have asked for a way to intentionally explore their recovery in the light (in many cases) of a new or rediscovered Christian faith.
If you heard the recent Radio 4 Sunday Worship broadcast, you’ll have heard how important partnerships are at the heart of our wanting to be a place of empowerment, how we want to take our place and continue to find the voice that is ours, amongst all the others, in the city. In recent times we’ve been able to find a way for the voice of lived experience and the place of the Cathedral in the public square to work with the City Council around policies affecting the street-life community here in Newcastle, and just two weeks ago, working with a group of national charities and ecumenical partners to play a part in helping to set up a symposium to re-think drugs policy in the light of a Christian ethic.
Being at the heart of the city, historically, and, we pray, into the future, if you venture out of the East Entrance and onto the terrace and south churchyard you’ll find a ribbon of words in the pavement. We think of it like a ribbon which would hold a parcel together in a neat bow (the sort of which I can never manage to make; it always looks just like a knot!).
The words on the ribbon are words which, when creating our values were words that cropped up again and again, things which, living out our values we hope people recognise here. I always say on tours that if you find a word you don’t recognise, see lived out or feel, you have to tell us, because then the ribbon is unravelling, God’s gift here is not all it could be.
It was moving this last Christmas at the Crisis Carol Service to discover that someone, struggling with homelessness and addiction, had come to find his sense of home here, by first of all walking the ribbon, again and again and again. He wrote down all 120+ words, cut them up, put them in a bag, and wrote a poem with the first twelve he picked out, a poem read at Crisis’ Carol Service. That same person, now housed, sober (as he had longed to be), flourishing in his help for other people, confirmed here this Easter, is now one of the leaders of Recovery Church, and one of the members of the symposium on Drugs Policy I was mentioning earlier. And so, it’s his words, before we hear from some other people about their experience, with which I want to end.
‘To value life based on the shadows of our
Finding Faith to not use the past to
damage the future Self.
The beauty of the Gift of Life, a present
constantly unwrapped each day.
In a place of worship deep in the heart of
our City with open Doors.
Hospitality from charity to all we serve.
Using the experience from our shadowy
past and offer inclusivity to all the