What is a Sheppard Scholar?

What is a Sheppard Scholar? – Michael Winter

Some of you will know that, as part of the “Creating Space For God” year that Becky and I are on, we make a monthly trip to London for some study sessions at St Martin-in-the-Field alongside a few other people doing similar pastoral assistant schemes from across the UK – we have members from as far as Edinburgh and Nottingham!  We all meet together in the flat of Revd Dr Sam Wells for a couple of hours and have a discussion with Sam Wells and, occasionally, another member of the clergy team at St Martin-in-the-Field present.

Our two-hour long sessions are divided into two sections.  The opening hour is a chance for everyone to speak for a few minutes uninterrupted on an experience from the last month that has had an effect on them.  These experiences range from pastoral encounters to large-scale events and services.  Once the speaker has finished, we go around the room and ask a “wondering”.  “What is a “wondering?””, I hear you ask!  A “wondering” has no wrong or right answer to it and often gets the speaker to delve deeper into a scenario and open up about how they or others felt.  They aren’t always simple to answer and they get you thinking about other perspectives.  When talking about a pastoral encounter that I had experienced, I was asked the wondering “I wonder what do you think this person wanted to achieve by coming into church?”.  It was something I hadn’t thought about as I was too focused on what I had and wanted to achieved in that encounter.  This opening hour is a chance to share the joys and burdens of our roles and give encouragement and advise to one another.

After a short break where we struggle to make tea in Sam Wells’ kitchen (he didn’t have a kettle for the first few sessions!) we begin our second hour.  This part of the session is focused on some theological reading that we have all undertaken.  As a group, we have been making our way through a selection of Sam Wells’ own writings, mostly looking at his “Being With” theology.  This theology is centred on the fact that Jesus spends most of his time on Earth “in Nazareth” – being with us rather than doing things for us – and that God is constantly in relationship with us, being with us, and wanting us to be with Him.

In the sessions, we are able to make comments or ask questions to Sam Wells on what he has written and find out some of the reasonings behind his thinking.  We are able to say which parts of the book we enjoy (and then work out why we enjoyed it) and which paerts we struggled with (and work out why we struggled with it).  A very apt experience of the latter for me for the liturgical season we have just entered is that I was struggling to comprehend a section in Sam Wells’ “A Nazareth Manifesto” (2015) where he writes “The cross is a unique event…because the Holy Trinity is the utter presence of unalloyed with, and, at the moment of Jesus’ death, that with is, for a brief moment, and for the only instant in eternal history, lost” [1] .  Firstly, you need to get your head around how Sam Wells writes (he states at the beginning of the book that he isn’t going to highlight “with” as he aspires to make such terms a part of regular theology).  Secondly, I found the thought of the Trinity being lost a very challenging concept.  In asking Sam Wells why I found this difficult his response was along the lines of “You’re supposed to”.  It is a challenging thought but it makes what happens at the cross an even more devasting event.  Jesus suddenly, briefly, becomes without – absent of God, absent of the Trinity – so that He can be with us.  That is a far more devastating yet powerful thought then the simple transactional theology of Jesus dying to take our sins away.

 What I have enjoyed from doing this reading is how the reading and studying is able to link and feed into the work and the encounters that I have at St Peter Mancroft.  I have learnt a lot about my relationship with God and God’s relationship with me.  In other words, the time taking for theological reading, study and discussion helps “create space for God”.  When you are then able to apply some of that thinking to your day-to-day encounters and analyse what we do as a church, you then realise that you are able to be with others and aid them in discovering their two-way relationship with God. 

I hope this gives you a bit of an insight into what being a Sheppard Scholar is about and what Becky and I get up to on our monthly jaunts to London and how it then feeds back into our life at St Peter Mancroft.   During this strange period that we find ourselves in, these sessions are still continuing virtually and, as a group, we are battling with the challenge of “being with” during a time of lockdown and social distancing. 

[1]Sam Wells, A Nazareth Manifesto – Being With God, (Chichester, John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2015) p.81