I’ve written about this before, the half-yearly meeting of old college friends. We met again yesterday in Mount St Bernard’s Abbey, a Cistercian Trappist monastery near Whitwick, in Leicestershire. We are some of the remaining Methodist ministers whose theological studies were in the mid-nineteen fifties in a Bristol college which is now up for sale, regarded as surplus to needs, by the authority of the wider church (which decision some of us unsuccessfully campaigned against).
True at the time, it is still true that despite the common vocation, we are all very different. Our ministries have taken us to different parts of the country and in some cases, abroad. We spent some of the time together yesterday sharing experiences and later in the afternoon it was my turn to give a talk which prompted a discussion, emphasising the differences But there is this college experience and subsequent work for which we were prepared, which creates a slight but strong unity between us and which we celebrated in the solemn portals of a monastery.
(We agreed that he venue next time will be in a pub in Derby!).
It was impossible to ignore the fact that we are all in our late seventies or eighties and yet the strange thing was that whilst we sat in a circle sharing thoughts and sometimes memories, we saw the people we once were rather than the old characters we have become. Memory took hold of reality. But then when we observed each other (an undeclared activity though it was happening I guess much of the time) we saw a collection of old people with all the physical signs of age.
One of us had found a photo of our football team and I have a copy of it. Everybody looks ridiculously young. All of us in our twenties then, one at least only nineteen, grinning as if we had the found the secret of success at least on the football field (as I remember we had the reputation if not of actually playing dirty, certainly the team was known to play robustly).
But then the hard truth of that photo. Man after man is now dead. I have found it difficult to cope with that truth, not because of death – it comes to us all, but that we had so little connection after college days. I am sad about that. We were let out into the Church to do our best or worst, but as individuals, the community we had been part of was over and we were on our own. It had to be so but I have been checking names against faces in the list of ministers. So many names are no longer there, and our little generation of students is fragmented and scattered. And I wonder what it has all been about, that we let go of each other.