“Grace is in the fighting” Rachel Mann’s ‘Dazzling Darkness’ (book review)

2013-04-18 16.05.57cwRachel Mann‘s book ‘Dazzling Darkness’ (Wild Goose Publications) should be required reading for all trainee pillocks…, sorry, those currently engaged in ordination training,

“One has to be a pillock to want to be a priest” is just one of the statements that encouraged or challenged me from her autobiographical book – but I’ll leave Revd Lesley to unpack that particular statement!

I briefly met, and heard Rachel speak (at the London Centre for Spirituality) before I  actually read ‘Dazzling Darkness’. I am glad I did, because her poetic style and poise resonated all the more loudly as I read it, but if you’ve not heard her speak, don’t let that stop you getting the book!

What I went looking for was a little understanding about several things:

  • How gender dysphoria might impact on a person’s understanding of and relationship with God;
  • How one person has found it possible to develop and keep a functioning Christian spirituality in the face of chronic pain and depression;
  • What practical steps are involved in the journey from one gender to another.

‘Dazzling Darkness’ does all of that.

But as I fight with ordination training – and at present it is a fight, academically at least – the grace I received in this book came in other, less expected guises:

  • There’s a lot here about salvation; a slightly caricatured ‘evangelical salvation’ that I am very familiar with, critiqued in favour of the transformative power of Christ, the God of love revealed within our brokenness, holding the pain, making us participants in our own salvation;
  • The sometimes desperate search for hope, “the dark face of God”, in the kind of physical and emotional darkness that no one wishes to confront.

However, the one thing that my recent reading of Nouwen’s ‘Wounded Healer’ left me expecting to see, but which I don’t find in Rachel’s book, is loneliness. The emotions she conveys are raw, real, painful and deeply distressing, but she doesn’t articulate loneliness among them. Unless I’m missing something, Rachel’s wounds are more about engagement and communication with herself and others; wounds found in the fight to become, and cling on to, the woman she has become, and to fulfil her calling to the priesthood, that I regard as prophetic in an institution yet to come to terms with the sexuality with which she identifies, let alone her trans gender status. As she says, the “grace is in the fighting.”


Is God waiting for the C of E? (Reviewing Maggi Dawn’s ‘Like the Wideness of the Sea’) #womenbishops

2013-03-03 21.02.40 (w)I read Maggi Dawn’s ‘Like the Wideness of the Sea – Women Bishops and the Church of England’ yesterday.

That tells you for a start that it’s not a very big book – I’m not that fast a reader, especially when I want to give some thought to what I’m reading. If like me you’re a busy ordinand it also shows you that it’s not a difficult read, and worthwhile fitting in among the studies.

There are three main chapters to this little gem. They seem to me to be loosely themed around that Anglican cord of three strands attributed to Hooker; scripture, tradition (or you might term it also ‘history’), and reason/experience (what I think Maggi describes as ‘participatory knowledge’).

I was particularly interested by Maggi’s association between the concept of ‘reception’ (in this case of women priests and a detail of the existing legislation I had a only a sketchy knowledge of) and the story of the Wisdom of Gamaliel in Acts 5. Maggi’s solution to the impasse that has the Church of England adrift in the middle of ‘The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner‘ seems a simple one; is it really the light at the end of the tunnel that offers the hope of journeys with God in a new land?

I remember back in 2010 thinking that the Archbishop’s amendment at that stage in the legislative process was helping to obscure to the imaginative, vital and prophetic voice of the church and those who minister with it. It is clear that situation hasn’t improved, and our voice isn’t getting any louder. I guess what worries me is if it really is as simple as Maggi suggests (and I want it to be), why has this solution not been thought of before, and what stands in the way of this being the solution that is being worked on right now?

I came late to the detailed history of the movement towards the ordination of women, despite my mother’s strong opinions and work for this idea. Maggi’s discussion of the theology of waiting within the scope of this history (Chapter 2) was very helpful. I was most profoundly struck by this, and her moving personal testimony in Chapter 3 of the damage that can be done by waiting to individuals and is being done to the Church’s ‘prophetic power for change’. To read of the extreme behaviour that some have exhibited towards Maggi Dawn was humbling – she, as many others, bore the cross of rejection for too long, to Yale’s gain and our loss.

As I recommend the book to anyone remotely interested in the situation that the Church of England finds itself in over women bishops, Maggi has left me with the very strong idea that she is right, and that God is waiting for the Church of England to pull it’s finger out, and make a clear and simple decision one way or t’other.

Bryony Taylor and Steve Taylor and Andy Goodliff have also written reviews.

Book Review: ‘He Never Let Go’ by Lynda Alsford

Is your journey with God clear and straightforward, or has it vanished into the distance, overcome by parts of your life that you are fighting to deny are leading you into darkness?

I bought ‘He Never Let Go’ by Lynda Alsford because Lynda was one of my early Twitter friends, and quite simply the snatches of her story that she had shared as she wrote the book intrigued me. It was only my second e-book, but the format suits the book, which is VERY reasonably priced, but it is also available now in paper format for not much more.

Lynda is a Church Army Evangelist when the story opens, a professional lay minister with an active ministry, and a secret. She has stopped believing in God.

The book is not a work of literary genius, but is all the better for that! It might at some points seem muddled as Lynda tries to reason out in her own mind why she should believe in the God she eventually acknowledges she misses, but this muddle has integrity with the state of her mind at the time. The story, which loops from crisis of faith, through her initial journey of faith, back to the crisis and onwards into the future, is a difficult one, painfully and honestly told.

Reading this book will give Christian’s several challenges: it will help them admit and face their own doubts, remember times when perhaps they have condemned the doubts of others, and equip them with a tool to help themselves or others. For non-Christian’s it will unpack some of the ‘certainties’ that those who have come to share that faith have had to grapple with, as well as some of the nuances of different views on baptism. For those who have believed, but lost sight of Christ, this book will provide the comfort of knowing you are not alone. It is above all a story that should give everyone who reads it, hope.

That was what I wrote as an Amazon review, but that doesn’t say where it leaves me as a cradle Christian, heading from authorised lay ministry as a Reader, into ordination training.

I think I’ve reflected before that Reader Training was perhaps a time of blind faith; something I fell into because it felt right, and that involved survival. When I questioned things, it was the detail of the course content, not what I believed.

As I fearfully contemplate a two year, part-time MA at Cuddesdon, this book helped me realise that these studies need to be a place where I ask more questions, more deeply, of myself, what I believe and why I believe it; a place where I need to give doubt a place.

Lynda struggles to ‘reason’ God’s existence (or lack of it) because she could see both sides of a reasoned argument. Like her, I am easily swayed by someone’s point of view if it seems well thought out and evidenced. Part of theological reflection is to question things, and in many things I know I will need to question not only accepted practice, and a variety of theological viewpoints, but myself. Within that, I probably need to be honest about my doubts, when they arise (though not necessarily in academic submissions).

Another thought Lynda’s book caused me, was to wonder how much as ministers, we (should?) hide our vulnerabilities? It is possibly too easy to slip into the mode of simply acting on people’s expectations of us when we are ‘in role’. As an priest, being ‘in role’ will be a way of life that is much more recognisable to those around me – something that comes with the ‘dog collar’, but which I recognised as growing within me as I grew through discernment.

Other thoughts have flitted through my head as I’ve read this book: about faith ‘v’ works;  about those whose acceptance of their selves as single may need to form part of their journey to faith; about reason being a stumbling block to faith; and, about the need to give myself time to focus on God, and my acceptance and forgiveness by Jesus, when all else around me seems to be about the detail of theological arguments and acceptance by a congregation or community.

Thank you Lynda, for writing something to profoundly thought provoking and honest, and may God bless you richly in all that you do in his name in the future.

PS: the gallery of the artist Charlie Mackesy whose illustration adorns the book cover, and to which Lynda refers at the end of the book, is well worth a visit.