Inner Life

Profound conversion needed to transform Church: Vicar

By Mark Brolly

March 9 2016Transformation of a Church that was “a bit dusty and in need of new life” would come only from a place of profound personal and communal conversion and commitment to God, the vicar of one of Melbourne’s oldest and most prominent churches said recently.

The Revd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter’s Eastern Hill, said that while catholic spirituality undoubtedly had a strong contemplative element, it was equally transformative and active.

“Few of us are called to the contemplative religious life in community, but most of us enjoy a regular drink at the waters of contemplative prayer, through our daily meditations or on an annual retreat,” he said.

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Dr Kempster was delivering the annual Jessie Nicholson Lecture on Catholic Spirituality: Contemplative and Transformational for the Melbourne branch of Australian Church Union in the Pioneer Chapel at St Andrew’s Brighton on 15 February. ACU’s annual meeting preceded the lecture.

Declaring that contemplation, meditation and prayerful silence were better experienced than talked about, he invited his audience to join him in a short meditation, using Jesuit mystic Anthony de Mello’s meditation on the Jesus Prayer.

“I wonder what Jessie Nicholson would be making of our evening thus far?” Dr Kempster said. “I didn’t know her, but I am sure that she was a woman of prayer, and from what I have read she was certainly a woman of action. She was faithful in worship, and I imagine that it was out of a prayerful contemplative wellspring that her works of mercy were inspired, especially her tireless visiting of the sick for which she was so renowned.”

He surveyed Anglican pioneers of contemplation in action, including the “rebel priest of the East End”, Australian-born Fr John Groser (1890-1966), who was one of the founders of the Christian Socialist Movement in England; Bishop Frank Weston’s clarion call to the second Anglo-Catholic Congress in London in 1923 to keep the plight of the poor central to the mission of Anglo-Catholicism (“You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum”); and in Australia, Henry Hewett Paulett Handfield (1828-1900), Vicar of St Peter’s Eastern Hill, who encouraged Emma Silcock (later known as Sister Esther) in her vocation to serve the poor of the streets and lanes of Melbourne; and Gerard Kennedy Tucker (1885-1974) – the founder of a religious order, the Brotherhood of St Laurence – who “in good slum-priest fashion ‘declared war on the slums’”, supported by another Vicar of St Peter’s, Farnham Edward Maynard (1882-1973).

“His (Fr Tucker’s) religious order caught the interest of other young men wanting to make a difference, and the old school at St Peter’s, Keble House, was turned into a training centre,” Dr Kempster said.

“By the end of 1934, there were 19 members of the Brotherhood. It was a life of prayerful priestly formation for those who lived there… Although the Brotherhood went through many ups and downs, it was these seeds of contemplation and transformation that grew into the Anglican social service agency we know today.”

Dr Kempster said the 19th century Oxford Movement, from the very beginning, was not about setting up a church political party or a religious club, but was transformative.

“It was about going back to basics and rediscovering the life-changing fundamentals of the Christian faith. It was a revival movement, seeking to breathe fresh life into the dusty bones of the 19th-century Church of England,” he said.

“Our beloved Church feels a bit dusty and in need of new life, but it will not change if we try to push it in our own strength. Transformation will only come from a place of profound personal and communal conversion and commitment to God. This is a painful place, a costly place that demands our all; a place well known to the great contemplatives, mystics and reformers of our tradition. There are no easy answers, but equally we must not shrink back and hide from the task.”

Dr Kempster concluded with a meditation by French Roman Catholic priest and theologian, Michel Quoist, perhaps best known for his little devotional book Prayers of Life (1965). “He encapsulates powerfully the cost, but also the blessings of a contemplative transformational calling (pages 90-91):

‘Lord, why did you tell me to love all…?

‘My door is wide open! I can’t stand it anymore! It’s too much! It’s no kind of life! What about my job? My family? My peace? My liberty? And me? Lord,

I have lost everything, I don’t belong to myself any longer. There’s no more room for me at home.’

‘“Don’t worry,” God says, “You have gained all. While [they] came in to you, I, your Father, I, your God, slipped in among them.’”

Click here to read the full lecture.