September 18th, 2005



The first time I went to Hengrave Hall I was about ten. I went there with my family for a gathering of members of Progressive synagogues in the region. It was snowing, and the central heating in the hall chose that December weekend to break down. I don't remember being cold, I remember playing games I was probably too old for in a room redecorated for a visit of her Majesty with the royal arms of Queen Elizabeth I, and in the snow-covered grounds, more park and woodlands than garden. I remember noisy, friendly meals in the oak-pannelled dining room, and having the best fun at an amateur cabaret in the banqueting hall, and sitting in the corner room reading children's books published before my parents were born. Or maybe I don't remember all these things from that year; I've been attending Hengrave at least once a year since then, mostly the same Progressive synagogues conference but a few times a Jewish - Christian dialogue event in the summer as well.

Hengrave changed my life. Almost everything I like about myself has some connection with my time at Hengrave. Let me try to explain what this place is and what it has meant to me. Collapse )

Earlier this year, and very suddenly, the Hengrave community announced that they were in financial difficulties and would have to close the centre. I was and am absolutely devastated by this news. Yesterday I attended with my Dad a thanksgiving service at Hengrave, held to mark the end of this wonderful community. (I can't bring myself to talk about Hengrave in the past tense, so my apologies to any grammatical pedants who may object to the earlier part of the post.)

The service was structured as a celebration of all that is wonderful about Hengrave, but it was done sensitively and accepted the sadness of the congregation. And it was based around a harvest / thanksgiving festival, with people bringing offerings of produce and stuff. They brought the Hengrave cross out into the garden in front of the house, and gathered together the community past and present as well as people like me who wanted to join them in saying farewell. They had baked bread which they shared round, after asking R Goldstein (who used to run the Jews and Christians group) to make hamotzi (the Jewish blessing for bread) over it. It was a lovely service, but I was really having a hard time not weeping throughout.

They had as many people as practically possible to speak about their memories of Hengrave; it has touched so many people so profoundly, I know. The music was almost entirely modern hymns which I don't really know or like (hatam_soferet would likely disapprove), but still, Hengrave has always favoured participation over aestheticizing religion, so it was in keeping. Sr Asterie played her big African drum, much more audible out of doors than the guitar, flute and electric organ that provided the rest of the accompaniment. It would be impossible to have a service of remembrance for Hengrave without mentioning Sr Julian, who led the community until her death a few years ago and who very much made Hengrave what it is. I can't go to Hengrave and mourn for Sr Julian, who died in her 90s surrounded by her community and people who loved her, without remembering J, who didn't.

After the service there was a tea, the community even now keeping up their tradition of trying to serve others in small practical ways as well as following their grand religious ideals. There was some of the usual Hengrave spirit of realizing how wonderful people are, the happiness of meeting old friends who have shared Hengrave experiences. Sr Aquinas, who has retired from Hengrave itself now but who was among the people who inspired me in the early days. Sr Angeles, who is like everybody's adored and indulgent grandmother, was sweet to me as she always has been. And there was someone who remembered me as a precocious 14-year-old from the Jewish - Christian events more than a decade ago.

And all of that, and more that goes beyond what I can describe, is over now. I started out asking the community where they were going to go, but was horrified to find they don't know. Some of them have been part of Hengrave for five decades, and some of them have nobody in the world but the community. I'm sure they will find homes eventually but it's an unimaginable grief for them to lose all this. I know, nothing lasts forever and all that, but I find it really hard to accept that this community quietly living their lives in rural Suffolk and doing genuine good, have to be broken up because they've run out of money.
O God
Give us a well of tears
To cleanse the wounds of our world
Blessed is the Judge of truth.
  • Current Music
    Taizé setting of Laudate omnes gentes
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Book: Heathern

Author: Jack Womack

Details: (c) 1990 Jack Womack; Pub Tor 1991; ISBN 0-812-50872-6

Verdict: Heathern is frightening and thought-provoking.

Reasons for reading it / how it came into my hands: Present from rysmiel

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  • Current Music
    Beth Orton: Live as you dream
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