Reflections on Sanctum ’19 : Sacraments, Subversion & Salvation

As part of my role as Prayer and Spirituality Enabler for the Diocese of Bath and Wells, I have been looking for opportunities to experience parts of the breadth of the Anglican Tradition that I’m not au fait with. One area that I’ve begun to appreciate but not had much experience of is the Anglo-Catholic style worship / understanding of Christian spirituality. I have followed a number of the team involved in the ‘Sanctum Collective‘ for a few years on social media so when they advertised their annual retreat at Mirfield, I took the opportunity to spend a few days exploring and experiencing with other ’emerging sacramental practitioners and dreamers’.

The theme for this year was ‘Sacraments, Subversion and Salvation’ which appealed. I knew I would be at ease in an alt:worship environment but I’m not sure I was totally prepared for the level of ritual. However, that was the reason for attending, to experience the high level of ritual that Anglo-Catholics are known (and loved) for so I arrived with an open mind.

The group are Eucharistic in some wonderfully creative ways and we explored a broader sense of sacrament through formal discussion. I now have a much better understanding of the phrase ‘Smells and Bells’ having spent 3 days in an incense filled meeting space and ‘subjected’ myself to The Solemn Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament which includes the use of hand bells.

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Subversion turned out to be a brilliant hook for discussion on all sorts of areas of theology, churchmanship and mission. The story of The Woman at the Well was a running theme (unprepared as such but a super story to reflect on over the three days). Eddie Green had prepared the opening worship around the story, I had prepared morning worship for day 2 on the same theme and it kept cropping up in discussion and as participants shared during the ‘show and tell’ session. I curated a half hour video which led people through morning worship (which I’ll post separately) and experimented with live painting a modern icon as a way of bringing a tangible journey of creativity as we reflected on the spiritual journey of the Samaritan woman. Not the most incredible piece of art but that wasn’t the point – the point was to have a process happening in the space to bring the theme off the screen… It used elements of visuals that were included in the video.

Before I get to my reflections on what I learnt, there are a few other things worth mentioning. It was fantastic to have sessions that were participant led (something I’m keen on having researched unconference methods). In fact, the whole retreat felt this way as we were all encouraged to bring a prayer station and I was asked to do morning prayer which gave an immediate sense of belonging.

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Mirfield was a fantastic venue, steeped in monastic rhythm as the Benedictine Community of the Resurrection still reside there. Indeed, some of us joined them for evensong on the first evening. I didn’t join with the singing but soaked in the atmosphere and admired the scale of the ‘upper church’ in which the Brothers pray each day.

So what did I learn? 

I think there’s two interlinking things I came to appreciate during my time at Sanctum ’19. Firstly, the way Anglo-Catholics engage with prayer and liturgy is very embodied. The sign of the cross, bowing to the elements, bowing to each other, kneeling and standing – there is something about the physicality of worship that was very important. You can’t worship in this style in a passive way, you have to be present to what is being said and done. Secondly, and related to the first is that there is a level of reverence that I think I probably mostly ignore in slightly lower forms of Anglican worship as it’s the Clergy or the ‘leaders’ that do the bowing etc. During ‘Rock Mass’ at Sanctum you could not escape the pageantry of the liturgy as the cross and the incense made their way around the room at least twice.

Creativity was always going to be a draw for me but I was excited to see this playing out in a sacramental way, especially as I am growingly of the opinion that the Eucharist should be implemented as part of any emerging missional community from the very start. This is of course a bit of an issue in my context as I’m not ordained but as a majority of the participants at Sanctum were ordained my thinking may be helpful as they develop new expressions of church in their own context. I think my favourite piece of creative subversion was the ‘Communion Meal’ which Robb Sutherland leads monthly in his parish. All the liturgy is on one side of A4 which is laminated as a place mat. The ‘service’ begins with a short spoken liturgy leading to the sharing of bread and wine. This is followed by an actual meal during which you read a scripture passage and discuss a few questions that have been left on the table). When the meal is complete, praying around tables (or one large table if possible) commences before a final blessing. So simple, incredibly inclusive, participatory and an idea I will be immediately stealing and delivering in a lay pioneering (asking forgiveness not permission) kind of way.

I would encourage anyone who is interested in exploring different ways to engage with Christian spirituality to think about attending the retreat in 2020 and my heartfelt thanks go to all the participants who were so welcoming and inclusive (especially Laura for double checking I knew what was going on and encouragingly saying “it will be ok”.)


  1. Hi James,
    Thanks for your article which was a good summing up. I noticed your top 10 creative books, below, and wonder if you’ve come across Imaging the Story: Rediscovering the Visual and Poetic Contours of Salvation? I co-wrote it and you might be interested. It’s a course which puts creativity in conversation with the biblical narrative through a theology of making.

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