“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.”


Does loneliness still cause the greatest pain to ‘The Wounded Healer’?

Detail of a painting from a Crucifixion sequence by Kari Juhani Hintikka (recently of Alton Abbey)  "Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me." Ps. 22:16,17
Detail of a painting from a Crucifixion sequence by Kari Juhani Hintikka (recently of Alton Abbey) “Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet. I can count all my bones; people stare and gloat over me.” Ps. 22:16,17

I’ve just finished reading Henri Nouwen‘s ‘The Wounded Healer’ (in an updated form of the 1972 original) as part of background reading for my ‘Pastoral Care’ module.

Throughout this little classic, Nouwen identifies closely with the suffering and particularly loneliness of people, including ministers. He encourages the reader to acknowledge and understand their own pain, and especially loneliness, as a means of removing barriers to creating space for the hospitality of healing.

I love the image of hospitality being part of the gift of healing. Well before I understood my calling to the priesthood, I openly acknowledged and practised the gift of hospitality. In fact a broadening understanding of hospitality, and a frustration that study greatly restricts it’s practice, is becoming a constant thread to my ordination training.

I agree with Nouwen that we need to make space for hospitality in our lives. If I understand him correctly, we are to set within the hospitable space we create within our own strivings, something like a bowl of water with which we can refresh our senses with an awareness of our own suffering, to enable us to attune ourselves better to the suffering of others.

However, 40 years on from when Nouwen originally wrote, and whilst acknowledging that loneliness can be a very acute problem in the lives of some people, I am not convinced that loneliness is the dominant, life threatening, injury that we are most likely to meet in a pastoral encounter. From my limited experience, I see today’s culture of busyness as being the festering wound that causes the greatest pain in both the world and specifically in Christian ministry.

I grant that busyness can itself create loneliness and isolation because it creates a barrier to the spaces in our lives that enable us to priorities love, and exist in the expectation of encountering Christ in others. The non-existence of busyness in the lives of the unemployed and dis-empowered, probably increases a sense of loneliness through the inappropriate assignment of guilt and a lack of opportunity to contribute to changing their own circumstances.

Perhaps, as an only child who has always enjoyed my own company, who is comfortable with a certain degree of introspection and the company of a window, good books and great music, I have yet to encounter true loneliness. But as I replay conversations with people I’ve met, and connections with those in ministry (often via their blogs), the greatest burden today repeatedly comes over as being busyness.

As we move towards Passiontide and focus on Christ’s suffering – the archetype of the wounded healer – I am trying to understand where lay the greatest pain of all his wounds on the cross.

We are used to the imagery of Christ’s lonely suffering on the cross; pain is after all a deeply personal experience (whether physical or emotional) that can not be shared or fully understood by any other living person. We are fond of saying aren’t we, that only Christ can truly understand our pain.

Painting from a Crucifixion sequence by Kari Juhani Hintikka (recently of Alton Abbey) "I have offered my back to those who struck me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; I have not turned my face away from insult and spitting. Lord Yahweh comes to my help, this is why insult has not touched me, this is why I have set my face like flint and know that I shall not be put to shame." Is 50:6,7
Painting from a Crucifixion sequence by Kari Juhani Hintikka (recently of Alton Abbey) “I have offered my back to those who struck me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; I have not turned my face away from insult and spitting. Lord Yahweh comes to my help, this is why insult has not touched me, this is why I have set my face like flint and know that I shall not be put to shame.” Is 50:6,7

However, if we read the Passion narratives, much of the busyness of accusation, beatings and denials, happens before first light – the time today when the stress of busyness torments the sleepless, before cock-crow.

Similarly, the male disciples may be largely noticeable by their absence at the foot of the cross, but in common with any busy, out-0f-town, tourist attraction in the middle of a ‘Holiday Friday’, the taunting tumult of conversations, and offers of inappropriate beverages, form an overwhelming noise around the cross.

Is it not therefore, the constant barrage of questions, appointments with secular and religious officials, off-stage whisperings of fraudulent friends, and the intrusive clamour of the lynch-mob, that produce the wound of busyness around the central sacrifice, and which that actually causes the greatest pain to the wounded healer on the cross?

Writing this reflection on my recent reading I realised that there are links here with the ‘I’m not busy’ Lent campaign, and Stephen Cherry‘s ‘Beyond Busyness’ book, which I haven’t had time to read 😦 

Any thoughts on what causes the greatest pain in our society, or recommendations on reading round the theme of ‘Wounded Healer’ as a model for pastoral care, would be greatly appreciated.

Living Hermeneutically about Homosexuality (thanks to Steve Chalke)

Pink Primrose
I didn’t have a photo that seemed particularly appropriate to this item, so here’s a pink New Forest Primrose currently flowering against the odds in my garden.

About ten years ago my husband and I were delighted to become Godparents to the child of some old college friends, and co-Godparent with their close friend who happens to be a lesbian Christian.  We had no problem with this, but I’m ashamed to say it wasn’t something I particularly advertised among my Christian friends back at home in our reasonably evangelical church.

There, at about the same era of our lives, I heard at least one sermon deliberately advertised as and preached against homosexuality. I still have the notes that went with it somewhere on file upstairs. I couldn’t agree with it, but somehow felt unable to argue against it, through lack of knowledge and lack of nerve.

Recently I mentioned on Facebook Sara Miles’ autobiographical ‘Take this bread’ as being ministry changing. A friend rang me some days later having bought and read the book. She commented that she kept expecting Sara to deny her lesbian sexuality as she came to understand more about Christ, and that this was one of the things she had found most challenging about the book, because it didn’t happen. I realised that this simply hadn’t been an issue for me, I was far more interested in the challenge of the hospitality of the Eucharist and Baptism! That’s for another day, but it showed me that perhaps I ought to share more openly what I think about homosexual relationships and how I hold my views as having integrity with my Christian faith.

Now seems an appropriate moment for asking forgiveness of my few homosexual acquaintances for my silence, but I admit I only do so, because someone else has done the hard work of expressing their thinking on the subject, far more eloquently and comprehensively than I would. Suddenly I don’t feel so alone, and can unashamedly and lazily quote them.

First, I came across this quite balanced article around New Year from the Independent ‘Evangelicals who say being gay is OK’.

Then, this week, even better, was Steve Chalke’s excellent article ‘A Matter of Integrity’ which talks about responding hermeneutically ‘in thoughtful conformity to Christ’ to the matter of homosexuality and particularly homosexual relationships. I probably ought to find something to argue with him over, but I’m afraid I’ve failed. I’m either that bad, or he’s that good, you decide.

I have always disliked inconsistency, especially in myself, so hiding what I think hasn’t always been as comfortable as it might be. Before my BAP I was advised to work out what I thought about the ministry of homosexuals and homosexual relationships, in case I got quizzed on what I thought. I wasn’t, but the preparation was still useful.

Possibly Steve Chalke would see my thinking as a twisted exegesis, but looking back at my notes, my studies suggested that Leviticus 18 seems to be about not unthinkingly copying the behaviours of those people live among and keeping the purity of our relationship with God. Leviticus 20 asked people not to defile the sanctuary of God with any inappropriate behaviour, and I noted today we wouldn’t condone the death of anyone for the offences mentioned. In the New Testament, the use of the word translated ‘perverts’ in 1 Tim 1:10 comes from a Greek word the meaning of which is unclear, whilst there was a commonly used word for gay men that Paul hadn’t used (I can’t blog the Greek, sorry). Paul’s teaching here is directed at the goal of being pure in heart, of good conscience and sincere faith (1 Tim 1:15) which is what I was trying to work through to in this context!

So to have Steve Chalke articulate where his study (which includes these passages among others) has brought him to on this issue, has been very helpful. It has also finally made clear to me the difference between Biblical exegesis and hermeneutics – the former is just one tool among others for speaking about and living out the latter. Hermeneutics is basically what Sara Miles grapples with in her book, as in the midst of unexpectedly eating Christ she tries to grapple with what it means to try and live out God’s hospitality.

If doing hermeneutics means  looking at the Biblical revelation of the nature of Christ, in a way that ‘encompasses verbal and non-verbal communication of the wider culture’ then and now, then that’s what I see myself called to do now, and in the future as a priest. Sharing truths that might challenge others in their faith, is going to have to be part of the deal. I might not like the arguments that result from this, but that’s the next challenge I have to live with I guess.

So, there’s me then, coming out all hermeneutical and proud of it.

Dare to Break Bread – a reflection from discernment

Following on from my previous reflections (here and here) written in the last few weeks before my BAP, re-reading the following written some months earlier I find that there have been several echoes of my reflections on what Bishop Jonathan Frost (Bishop of Southampton) asked me to read during my Diocesan Panel Interview with him in November 2011.

It was a book called ‘Dare to Break Bread – Eucharist in Desert and City’ by Geoffrey Howard, that had been published in 1992. It focuses on the work of a priest (the author) in the light of the Eucharistic liturgy (the words Christians use at Holy Communion.) The following is a copy of my letter to Bishop Jonathan in January 2012 responding to the three tasks he gave me in connection with the book, and forms a review and reflection of it:

The first part of your charge to me I failed, as I did not achieve it before Christmas; the festive demands got in the way I’m afraid. Actually this confession of failure almost seems appropriate to the book. Within it the author shares so much of his burden of guilt for what he seems to feel is constant failure. I found myself wanting to hold him before God (as he does Harry at the start of the book) so that he might find absolution.

The second part of your task I have now accomplished. With shoes off and candle lit in a wonderfully silent room at Alton Abbey, I read the whole book in a day. Now I am returning to my notes and thoughts as I read it, I once again appreciate the gift of that space, indeed any quiet space, within ministry. Geoffrey Howard wrote the book in a space within his ministry. It is from these spaces with God that perhaps we see most vividly the true “colours” of how we connect with God in people and draw people to God.

"Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom." Luke 23:42 (Painting by Kari Juhani Hintikka by permission of Alton Abbey)

This letter completes the third part of the challenge you set me, that I write to you with my reflections. The book emphasises that the role of a priest is not restricted to the Lord’s Table or any other sacramental liturgy. Blood is truly shed, and the body and soul broken in day-to-day contact with those in whom we recognise Christ. We come alongside people on God’s behalf, yet we must expect Christ to be revealed to us in every encounter – the Christ who holds the pain and sacrifice of our failures nailed with him to the cross.

The word that struck me as I concluded the book, and has stuck with me in the days since, is “vulnerability”. By offering to serve as priests we make ourselves vulnerable in several ways. In the simplest sense, and with our families, we make ourselves vulnerable to unwanted interruptions, ‘reduced circumstances’ and spiritual attack. We will also have repeated occasion to make practical and spiritual sacrifices and make ourselves vulnerable to acts of aggression – verbal, material and physical. It’s like in the very act of being “gospel” we offer people the right to metaphorically nail us to the cross next to Christ – whether they do so deliberately or we do it to ourselves in our responses, both visibly and invisibly.

If we understand the Eucharist as a sacrament of community (“sharing the bread of common experience”) then this book seems to emphasise its’ place as the culmination of all that proceeds it through the days or week of other “sacramental activity” that precedes it. Our connection with Christ in the Eucharist should therefore lie in what we bring to it, not that which we expect to receive from it.

Perhaps in this lies some of the differences and tensions between the Eucharistic worship of evangelical and catholic traditions. Is there any truth in the idea that for many of a more evangelical persuasion, the Eucharist can be a place from where people take the Gospel message out into the community, rather than the place of Resurrection to which those of a more catholic persuasion bring to Eucharist both the burdens and joys of the Gospel message in community? For if Christ had not been raised from the dead, we would and could not share in the remembrance of the broken body and blood of Jesus; so we must first have shared in that sacrifice through our living and preparation for Eucharistic worship.

The thing that truck me as liturgically most significant, and something I’d like to know more about, was the question that Howard poses early on: where is the freedom of unconditional forgiveness in our Eucharistic liturgy? Beyond the reason of tradition, I don’t know why the liturgy maintains a stance of repeatedly seeking God’s mercy after the absolution, which seems on the face of it to conflict with a Gospel of abundant grace.

Thank you for making this book part of my journey to understanding a calling to ordination. It leaves many questions unresolved in the readers mind, but then I don’t think it set out to answer any, only to highlight that there is no black and white in our faith, and how we are called to live it out. Instead it highlights the many tensions that a priest draws from the community they are called to serve, and is required to hold as a humble offering before God.

House of a 1000 books!

Look carefully at our shelves: chocolate and alcohol also seem to feature!

It feels like we have nearly 1000 books in our house, of almost every genre imaginable, so it’s easy to be inspired by LLM Calling to think about the books that have been important in my life on this World Book Day. I’ll try and use some of the catagories Emma suggested. I won’t stick completely to them though, I can’t be as categoric as her and I’m not helped by a lousy memory (which at least means I frequently get to read books more than once!)

Favourite Children’s book: good old Winnie the Pooh… closely followed by Wind in the Willows… and the works of Beatrix Potter.

Don’t remember anything specific as a teenager: other than lots of historic romance (Georgette Heyer, sorry) and reading Enid Blyton under the bed covers because the parents approved of neither the author or the hour I was reading at! I also liked the Louisa M Alcott books like “Little Women” at the time – but I’m not sure I would now.

First real adult book: I suppose the Heyer’s were meant to be for adults… there was a wonderful epic tale of love and loss in the American Civil War that was the point where my mother and grandmother decided I was obviously more grown up in my reading than they thought, but sadly I can’t remember the title! (It wasn’t John Jake’s ‘North and South’, but I must have read it in the era that Patrick Swayze starred in that TV series.)

I don’t think I have a favourite adult book, but…

Most popular author’s on the family shelves (authors we’ve got mostly complete sets of and re-read frequently):
Terry Pratchett (that’s where the my ‘handle’ is derived from)
Patrick O’Brian (of ‘Master and Commander’ fame)
Tom Wright (his New Testament ‘for Everyone’ series)
Raymond Feist (the ‘Magacian’ and all that followed – I have a ‘Polgara streak’!)
David Gemmell
Arthur Ransome (Swallows and Amazon’s – a great teenage read that I’m re-visiting with the next generation now he has his own boat!)

Most used book: The Bible… but I’ve all sorts of versions, including a very special one off made especially for me by some friends and a computer programme (something to tell the story of one day)! Also my Celtic Liturgy from which I say my ‘early’ morning and night prayers.

Reference books: We’ve loads, but I can’t think of a favourite… lots of natural history and science stuff. My husband also like philosophy, greek myths and that sort of things. We recently startled the lad’s Latin teacher by saying we wouldn’t need to get Ovid and Pliny out the library! We also like poetry… there’s quite a bit of that around too.

I can’t think of a single book that changed my life, but there’s a whole heap of non-fiction that is emphasising the changes that are taking place in my life at present. I frequently wish I didn’t find good fiction such a distraction: I’ve more or less had to give up on novels, except in holiday’s, because I always want to finish the book rather than concentrate on the important things of family, ministry or the mundane need to eat!

So go on, how does your life with books work?

What a difference a week makes

Obviously it wasn’t sensible to advertise our absense in advance, but we actually got away from the builders completely last week by going to Withypool on Exmoor. We spent the week at Bridge Cottage, literally on the banks of the Barle.

This is the fourth cottage we’ve stayed in around Withypool since we were married, and actually my 5th cottage as I’d previously been with my parents! Jake is still running the bar at the Royal Oak 21 years after I first went there… though he was on holiday this year, and was missed! (The Royal Oak is totally recommended, but you have to be able to cope with the hunting/shooting/fishing lifestyle, on the working end of which I grew up, so no problems for me!)

Pinkney Pond, source of the River Barle near Simonsbath
Pinkney Pond near Simonsbath - a headwater of the River Barle

It took a few days to wind down, and then just as I had, it was time to come home. However we had some really good family time. We took a Sunday ramble round Withypool hill as usual, spent a day at Porlock Weir (travelling via the rather exciting Worthy Toll Road), another walking from a layby west of Simonsbath to the source of the Barle, and significant amounts of time sitting around. It’s amazing how fire lighting can become a competative family activity – and I’d taken the last of those chestnuts with me which we toasted, along with marsh mallows for nommish puddings. We saw several Buzzards, Snipe, Curlew and three groups of Red Deer during our various rambles. Also, since it was largely mild, quite a lot of Red Admiral Butterflies – impressive given the date.

On the way home we visited lovely friends in their tiny retirement cottage in Tiverton where she is almost avoiding heavy involvement in Mothers’ Union, and he (retired from parish ministry in Southampton) is making the most wonderful furniture to fit the rather special nooks and crannies of the house… including all the kitchen cupboards, shelves, bookshelves… I think I need to go repent the sin of envy again.

It was good to get away and I think I feel better for it, but it really wasn’t long enough – a week never is for me. I didn’t read a lot, just sat and watch the river or fire depending on the time of day. Except for Trevor Dennis’s “Three faces of Christ” which was wonderful. I can forsee making use of it on Christmas morning and in a few other places beside. G read “The Shack” as well, and commented that possibly the former could have inspired the latter, as some of the imagery (God up to her elbows in flour baking) is very similar.


Here at home all the internal walls came down, the windows went in and the new floor was laid! And Virgin Media managed to leave us without any form of communication which wasn’t rectified until this Monday! Not even the TV worked when we got home! To say we were cross was an understatement, but “Lee” has worked hard to get it all sorted out this week… and now just needs to finish fixing the neighbours set up!

This week is just mad here, with the plumber and electrician all working and the house constantly being wandered through. I’m having to take the dog everywhere with me, else she wouldn’t be safe. Walls going up, is easily as noisy as the ones that have come down, the nail gun is just plain scary, and I know more about wiring and how radiators are fitted than I thought possible.

And the biggest news – ALL the builders and contractors work will be finished by the end of the month! Then the real work starts… (she says reaching for a Homebase colour chart!)

Of books, time and the Kingdom of God

I’ve started working on some exegesis for this weeks Gospel reading: Mark 10:17-31 (the Rich Man) in preparation for an early start on Sunday (8am Morning Prayer) and wondering what possessions I have that might stop me entering the Kingdom of God.

DSCN0644cwWell there’s a few more books to add to the collection after people’s generosity at the weekend, but they’re designed to help me, or through me to help others, to understand Jesus, so hopefully they won’t be a problem!

The thing that I think is actually most likely to be a problem is the same thing that will most likely stop me reading most of them in the near future… lack of time. So could my most damaging possession be the sticky-notes on my iGoogle page that tell what I need “to do”?

What I’m hoping is that with our real weeks holiday looming (after the next assignment, if I can find time to do it) I can at least take two thin volumes with me. I’m thinking the little blue Celtic Liturgy, and Trevor Dennis’ ‘Three faces of Christ’ which looks like it might be a ‘read out loud’ as a reflective, family thing to do in a quiet cottage on Exmoor.

Reading Tom Wrights ‘Mark for Everyone’ today I learnt a lot about how the Jews viewed the much anticipated ‘Age to Come’ and how what I thought were almost parentheses in the passage, aren’t… it was a question about the Law that Jesus answered in reference to the Law and therefore the commandments – with NTWs help I found them. But it left me wondering:

  • How many of us really want to inherit the Kingdom of God?
  • What does God bringing heaven and earth together look like?
  • Does it, or should it, look like me.. us… Jesus?
Another picture from Saturday - Licensed to play a part in bringing forward the Kingdom of God!
Another picture from Saturday - Licensed to play a part in bringing forward the Kingdom of God!