Justine Huxley shares the ‘Four Stories of St Ethelburga’s’ and the values they represent. She writes about how those values are embedded in the fabric of our building and its unique history, and how they form the organising principle behind our work.
When the founder of St Ethelburga’s Centre, Bishop Richard Chartres, was asked, “How should we begin the work of reconciliation and peace-making?” he replied simply, “Open the doors of the centre and fill it with life!”
Over the past 16 years, Ethelburga’s Centre has been very much full of life, gathering people from a huge range of backgrounds, bringing them into relationship and initiating dialogue around the critical issues of our times.
The work of the centre has taken many different forms, but our core values have always remained the same. Those values are deeply rooted in our history – in the unique stories woven into the fabric of the building.
Four stories in particular form the guiding principles behind our work.
Putting spiritual values into action
Ethelburga was a 7th century Abbess whose life was characterised fearless leadership in the face of devastation. Her nunnery was at Barking Abbey, and when the plague came, Ethelburga gave her nuns a choice: close the doors and pray, or open the doors and serve the community. They chose to serve selflessly, even knowing that many of them would die as a result. Ethelburga is our inspiration for putting spiritual values into action in dark times, for bringing faith and action together as one. We see this story as highly relevant in today’s landscape where the challenges of the day call us to put selfish desires aside and act with courage, in service to the whole. This story is fundamental to all we do, and in particular, for our work with young leaders.
Protecting the sacred
This is a story about sacred space and remaining true to what matters. St Ethelburga’s is one of London’s oldest church buildings. The first church was built here over 800 years ago. This tiny patch of land has stood as consecrated ground for centuries. While skyscrapers, development sites and the economically-driven activity of the City have grown up on all sides dwarfing it completely, St Ethelburga’s has remained true to a different purpose – and will continue to remain true. We see it as vital in these times of societal and ecological disintegration to protect not just sacred spaces, but also our deepest human values. At St Ethelburga’s, we hold fast to the values of respect, empathy, compassion and interconnectedness. We fiercely protect space for silence, prayer and reflection amid the insane distractions of our consumer culture. And we care passionately about the natural world and rekindling relationship with Earth as sacred.
Collaborating across differences
The connection with other faiths was made as early as 1861, when Revd John Rodwell, a rector at St Ethelburga’s, made one of the earliest translations of the Qur’an. Our Bedouin tent and Andalusian style peace garden came later in 2006, in response to the violence of 7/7 and 9/11. The tent is welcoming to all, bringing Eastern architecture alongside the Western heritage of the church. It is a space without hierarchy where differing perspectives can be explored. This theme of diverse narratives and belief systems not just coexisting fruitfully – but actively collaborating – this is central to all our projects.
Seeking the opportunity in crisis
When the church of St Ethelburga’s was all but destroyed by an IRA bomb in 1993, this was an opportunity for change and evolution – for a new vision to emerge. Because of this history, we believe that instead of trying to avoid conflict we can approach it creatively. It is by no means easy, but if we commit to a process of reconciliation, something new can be born, something ruined can be rebuilt and become symbolic of a more hopeful future. Similarly, we see the multiple crises unfolding globally as an opportunity – to re-evaluate our way of life, to more deeply know our interconnectedness with each other and with all life, and to seek reconciliation – not just with each other, but with God, with Earth and with ourselves.
Every day, the team at St Ethelburga’s open the doors to the church, the garden and the Tent and fill them with life. They are host to visitors from around the world; community groups investing in the diverse fabric of their neighbourhoods; to refugees seeking new friendships, young adults from all faiths and none testing their leadership skills, tourists exploring the rich history, and to local business people craving a moment of peace in their busy day.
In all our work, these four stories are our grounding principles. We carry them in our hearts and they inspire and guide all our action.
What do these stories mean to you? Where in your life do you recognise the opportunity hidden in crisis? How do you put your deepest values into action? When do you collaborate with people different from yourself? And how do you protect what is most sacred to you?
Over the coming months, we’ll be sharing videos and blogs that bring these stories to life. We’ll be demonstrating the place they have in our projects and the impact they have on our lives and the lives of those we work with. So please join the conversation, and share your own stories and perspectives. We’d love to hear from you!