The Bishop of Buckingham, the Rt Revd Alan Wilson, with Queenie, enjoying the meal after the Travelling Home for Christmas service.
The Revd Joseph Fernandes, a Curate in the Horton and Wraysbury Benefice in Buckinghamshire, reflects on the relationship between Horton’s traveller community and the church.
At the heart of every traveller is the yearning to travel home. The question travellers ask themselves is where is home? For most, the pursuit of this quest will take a lifetime, and is fraught with many challenges. This comes with being part of one of the most misunderstood ethnic minorities in the UK. The nomadic lifestyle, still practised by many, associated with prejudice, general assumptions, media stories and caricatured television programs, are part of a misplaced public perception towards travellers. This has severely hindered their integration in society at large. As a result, it comes with no surprise the traveller community is close-knit and naturally distrustful of outsiders. In many places throughout the UK, there are long established traveller communities, often where their members are treated as second class citizens. As for the Church, it has not always intervened in a way that reflects the hospitality that should be at the heart of Christianity, and in many cases contributed to a social exclusion that persists to this day.
The village of Horton in Berkshire, is part of an area which has a long established traveller community, which is a reflection of the wider context that can be found in the Thames Valley. Although the relationship between travellers and the wider community has witnessed a steady improvement over recent years, there is much work to be done in terms of building lasting bridges. At the heart of the village sits St Michael’s church, a much-loved building for over a millennia. It is a place that has witnessed the journey of life for many travellers, from the joy of celebrating a new life, through the affirming of relationships, to the harsh reality of death, in many cases prematurely. Although the church plays a central role in local traveller society and culture, it is not representative in terms of attendance. It was in this context that the concept of a service aimed at travellers was born. This was only possible through the involvement of Kathy Atkinson, a much loved and respected member of the local traveller community, who is an accomplished writer, and a new member of the church community, also from a traveller background, who is now training to become a Local Licensed Minister.
The name chosen for the new service was Travelling Home, which encapsulates the yearning mentioned previously. The first service took place in July 2015, with an attendance that exceeded all expectations. Due to its success, it was decided to hold another one in July this year, and add a blessing of the churchyard, as looking after the graves of the deceased is intrinsically part of traveller culture. Due to the popularity of the service, the idea of a Christmas service was put forward. The service, entitled Travelling Home for Christmas took place on Sunday 11 December, and it was presided by the Bishop of Buckingham, The Rt Revd Alan Wilson. It was followed by a light meal served at the village hall.
This was only possible through a close collaboration with Thames Valley Police. Les Bradfield, A PCSO who used to be a chef, now runs a food station as a way to engage with communities. We are now looking to strengthen this partnership and increase the outreach to the traveller community, particularly through the “Travelling Home” format and concept. The journey has just begun and the future is looking exciting.