L’Arche UK Jubilee Pilgrimage By: Maurice Billingsley

Jean Vanier founded L’Arche in Trosly, France, 50 years ago this year; the first of many faith-based communities welcoming people with learning disabilities. Forty years ago, Jean’s sister Thérèse, with Ann and Geoffrey Morgan and Tony Gibbons, founded the first community in the United Kingdom, at Barfrestone in the East Kent countryside. To celebrate this double Jubilee, the eleven UK communities, with representatives from Trosly and other overseas communities, made pilgrimage to Canterbury from 4 - 6 July. They were joined by former assistants, as well as friends from near and far.

As one whose links with L’Arche stretch back a mere 39 years, I was overjoyed to welcome friends to what has become my home city. Here were my children’s godparents, my goddaughter and her mother, and so many who by crossing my path have enlightened my way – and that’s before I mention she whose path and mine have been one for most of those years. L’Arche inspires love, because if it demands love, it also extends it to those who come.

The big event was the procession down Saint Stephen’s Hill, led by drums right into the Cathedral, with banners and symbols of community life being carried up to the nave altar. Here the pilgrims were joined by Bishop Trevor Wilmott of Dover, the diocesan Bishop of Canterbury, and Bishop Nicholas Hudson, now an auxiliary in Westminster, but once a priest at Saint Thomas, Canterbury, and a long-standing friend of L’Arche. Here too were representatives of L’Arche Kent’s prayer partners at nearby Minster Abbey.

The ecumenical service was now led by Rev Fiona Smith, a Church of Scotland Minister and member of L’Arche Inverness, Fr Davis Standley of Southwark Archdiocese, a member of L’Arche London, and Rev Jean Winn, an Anglican priest from L’Arche Liverpool. There was singing, movement, colour, and well-chosen words.

Eileen Glass, Vice International Leader of L’Arche, marked the gifts that L’Arche UK brought to the whole federation of L’Arche, but also to the wider Church of God. Ecumenism: the situation in the United Kingdom meant that the communities, from the very start, welcomed people of different Christian affiliation and none. (It had been Archbishop Michael Ramsey who had first welcomed the community to his archdiocese.)

The practical and theological results of this commitment are sometimes joyful, at others painful, but they continue to bear fruit. Internationalism: while there have always been assistants coming here from all over the world, L’Arche UK has also fostered new communities in countries where there are fewer resources to set up and run projects that are greatly needed.

A third gift was working to resolve the tension between community life and service provision: friends afterwards described how tick box forms value only what can be measured: ‘Social Services ask has so-and-so been to the toilet and what he has eaten, but there is no box for “When did you sit down and spend ten minutes enjoying each other’s company!”

Such irritants were set aside along with blisters and creaky knees, as everyone enjoyed the moment, and the Spirit of Joy and Peace hovered over the nave, symbolised by a paper sculpture of Noah’s olive bearing dove, while flags, streamers and branches were waved, swirled and held aloft.

The last blessing was given jointly – as is now traditional in Canterbury – by the two Bishops, side by side. And then it was time to clap our hands again as we processed through thee West Door into the summer sunshine. Picnics on the grass, a reception in the Lodge, more time with friends. Back again in ten years’ time?

Fr Standley will conduct the funeral of Thérèse Vanier in Canterbury Cathedral at midday on Thursday 10th July.



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