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Bishop Paul reflects on learning

We’re called to pray, and called to read.. In the first instance called to pray the Lord’s Prayer, and to read Holy Scripture. As a daily rule, these things are often - though not always - solitary activities. But when I speak of being called to learn I’m pointing to something that happens in community.

You can find wisdom about learning in many places. The silent cowboy-movie star, Tom Mix, is reported to have said: “If you’re talkin’, you ain’t learnin’”. The Rule of St Benedict begins with the word “Listen”. In my own family those of us who talked too much were silenced by my Grandma who would point to her face and say “Oi. Remember. Two ears, one mouth”.

Learning, then, begins in listening, but it doesn’t end there. The tremendous and richly-deserved success of the Alpha Course, and of other courses like it, depend on the opportunity to hear significant teaching - and then to be able to question it, to engage in dialogue, to put our point of view, to bring our own insights to the party, to have our questions answered and to ask new ones, in short to have a conversation.

As a parish priest I used to worry about the people we called “Alpha-holics”, who wanted to do Alpha over and over again rather than coming to church on a Sunday. It was only over time that I came to see that they wanted dialogue and conversation as a normal part of the Christian journey, and that our regular patterns of worship and life gave them no opportunity for that.

When the BBC Sunday Programme went on to the streets of Manchester a few years ago, to interview young people about “Back to Church Sunday” the responses were not encouraging: “I’m not going back to church if it means I have to sit quietly while some vicar rabbits on and I can’t even ask questions”. It was a fair point, and it presents us with a real challenge to our ways of working. To be a learning people means to be a people in conversation, and whether or not it’s on a Sunday morning, we need to make space for conversation in our weekly rhythm as Jesus people if we are to grow.

The Gospels are full of dialogue, as the disciples share their own thoughts and reflections in response to the words of Jesus, and as Jesus gives them time and space to share. “Lord, how many times…?” “Never, Lord!”, “Lord, tell my brother…” - all these and so many others become openings for Jesus to respond, and teach in conversation, and for his followers to learn by listening and speaking and listening again.

In my work for the national Church, which began over fifteen years ago, we undertook research which made it clear that if a church provided opportunities for this listening-speaking-listening rhythm then its people grew in faith, and that churches that grew in numbers were almost always providing these opportunities regularly. As the Rule of Life unfolds I’ll be looking at the application of this principle to our evangelism, as we find ourselves sent to tell. But here at the beginning of the journey I simply want to encourage you to find a regular opportunity to listen, and speak, and listen - where you are.

Many of our parish churches have a network of small groups, set up for discussion or bible study or friendship, often combined with worship and (of course) with a cup of tea. For others the regular organisations of the Church - for example the Mothers’ Union branch - provides the same opportunity. In our schools, dialogue and conversation is a central part of the teaching process. In our chaplaincies, the opportunity to ask questions and to hear opinions is greatly valued by those who encounter the chaplains in the course of their everyday lives. All these moments are to be treasured and developed, as we become a community of learning.

Listen-speak-listen. If you are already doing this, simply continue, knowing that tens of thousands of others across the Diocese are doing the same thing in all their different ways. If you’re not, why not begin? Talk with your friends and with the lay and ordained leaders of your community about the best way to start those conversations weekly, and to learn together.

Once again we will be providing resources in the coming months to enable this learning, for those who will find them helpful. But there will be no pressure to use any particular ones. As with all the aspects of the Rule of Life, I’m asking you to make your own sense of this in the place where you are. Not an additional burden on time and energy, but an intentional desire to receive from God the treasure of wisdom that the Spirit has placed in the church, and in the wonderful and rich experience of our friends who also pray and read and share.

And when you meet your friends to learn, whether over coffee for ten minutes, or in a house group for an evening, or in your church’s nurture course, or wherever, just begin your meeting by saying quietly in your heart or aloud: “As disciples together in the Diocese of Liverpool and around the world, we learn from our God who loves us and who gives us one another…”

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