Pearls of Life (with caption)From 18th-20th May members of the Mothers’ Union in the diocese held their annual retreat at St Katharine’s Centre, Parmoor, between Henley and High Wycombe. The retreat was led by Canon Tony Dickinson, the European Officer of the diocese and chair of the Oxford-Växjö Link Committee, who spoke about the “Pearls of Life”.

The “Pearls of Life” (in Swedish, they are known as frälsarkransen, which means “the lifebuoy”) were invented by Bishop Martin Lönnebo of the Church of Sweden. In 1996 Bishop Martin was travelling in Greece after fifteen years as Bishop of Linköping in Sweden, using the first year or so of his retirement for a time of relaxation and renewal. While he was exploring the Aegean islands his boat was overtaken by a storm and he and his fellow-passengers had to take refuge on a tiny island with forty-seven inhabitants and one small guest-house. It took several days for the storm to blow itself out. During that time Bishop Martin spent his enforced leisure, as he put it later, “freezing in a rented room with a notebook”. Bishop Martin had long been interested in the spirituality of the Eastern Church and fascinated by the mixture of formality and informality in Orthodox worship, with its candles and icons and prayer beads, and he set about designing what became a “prayer bracelet”. After trial and error, he finally decided on a set of eighteen beads in which he summarised the message of the Christian faith.

Bishop Martin wanted a tangible means of communicating that faith, and from his studies of eastern spirituality he knew something of the ways in which beads are used as aids to prayer in world religions. In Islam, a rope of 33 beads enables Muslims to focus their prayers on the 99 Beautiful Names of God. there are similar aids to Hindu and Buddhist devotion. In Western Christianity the Rosary holds pride of place. It has a whole literature devoted to it, mostly by Roman Catholic writers, but with significant contributions from Anglican writers such as Austin Farrer and from the Methodist Neville Ward. In the Eastern Church ropes of “prayer knots” are an aid for those who wish to fulfil St Paul’s injunction to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), running through the rhythms of the Jesus Prayer.

Martin Lönnebo’s “Pearls of Life” are very different from the Rosary. There is no single prescribed way of using them as there is for the Rosary. They are, Bishop Martin insists, “a lifebelt not fetters”. Those who have sufficient leisure can work their way in prayer round the bracelet. In other circumstances it may be more appropriate to focus on a single bead or group of beads. They aren’t only a way of praying. They can also be used as a framework for teaching. The beads can be linked to stages in the life of Jesus, as well as opening up Christian experience. In the Church of Sweden, and in North Germany, they are widely used as an aid to catechesis. Our partner diocese of Växjö (which is, incidentally, immediately south of Bishop Martin’s former diocese of Linköping) has used it for some years now as a basis for preparing young people for their confirmation. Their great advantage is that they are discreet, and they are portable. They can be carried in a handbag or a pocket or they can be worn, like any bracelet, on the wrist.

The “Pearls of Life” are a means of developing prayer, deepening faith and broadening understanding. Some who use them do so at the beginning or end of the day. Some find them a helpful framework for a prayerful reflection on the events of the day that has just passed. Others like to focus on particular beads on particular days (for example, the Resurrection pearl on a Sunday). During the retreat Tony Dickinson led the retreatants in thinking about using this aid to feed their prayer life.

It was a happy coincidence that the retreat was taking place in Parmoor. St Katharine’s Centre is located in the former home of the Cripps family, who were prominent in British and international politics in the first half of the 20th century.

The best-known member of the family is probably Sir Stafford Cripps, a famously austere Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1945 Labour government led by Clement Attlee. His father, Alfred Cripps 1st Baron Parmoor, was a leading political figure in the first decade of the 20th century and a strong advocate of international institutions (especially the League of Nations) in the 1920s. One of Lord Parmoor’s guests during the 1920s was Archbishop Nathan Söderblom of Uppsala, a pioneer of the ecumenical movement and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1930, the year before his death. Archbishop Söderblom had a vision of the unity of all Christian people, and was particularly active in promoting the unity of Anglicans and Lutherans. In 1920 he arranged for Bishop Frank Woods of Peterborough to share in the consecration of two Swedish bishops, with the aim of handing on a succession in ministry that was not simply “Anglican” or “Lutheran” but a pattern of what God intended for his Church.

Archbishop Söderblom’s action then planted the seed which blossomed, sixty years or so after his death, in the Porvoo agreement between the Anglican Churches of Britain and Ireland and the Lutheran Churches of the Nordic and Baltic lands. That, in turn, paved the way for the partnership between the dioceses of Oxford and Växjö, which has made available the resources of Swedish Spirituality which Tony Dickinson explored with twenty members of the Mothers’ Union during their retreat week-end.

A.W.D.

21st May, 2012