Tying up some ‘loose ends’

Part of the activity at the last Evening Prayer of Easter School was to tie up some lose ends...
Part of the activity at the last Evening Prayer of Easter School was to tie up some lose ends…

Lent was this year, a dark time. There was a lot of wrestling for me to do, and a lot of just getting through all sorts of anxieties and pain – mental and physical.

My husband and I gave up on our daily ‘Giving It Up’ blog conversation; not because we had a problem with Maggi Dawn’s lovely book, but simply because there weren’t enough hours in the day. He was up to his ears in coursework marking, and other secondary school related strain, and I recognised that it was taking me round in ever decreasing mental circles that weren’t particularly healthy, and were a distraction from the job in hand, namely writing my Old Testament portfolio.  But, by late Good Friday this portfolio was complete, and handed in last Tuesday as term re-started.

Easter School marked a significant point for all of working to the end of our final year of ordination training, and brought together people from the OMC/RCC part-time and mixed-mode formats, and those from WEMTC also part of the Cuddesdon family. Since the other year groups have Summer School later in the year (after ordination season), this signals the beginning of the end for those of us due to be ordained this year.

The focus was Mission, which I’m sure would please my diocesan bishop, and our wealth of visiting speakers were very good. What surprised me was the way they inadvertently drew together an important network of experiences, ‘loose ends’ in my past that I’d almost completely forgotten about during training, but were very significant in their contributions to me being there at all.

Ann Morisy was talking to us about community/neighbourhood mission, and started to tell the story of a Mothers’ Union group who, despite age and infirmity, travelled to Zimbabwe carrying old hand sewing machines safely to those who would put them to good use making a living, and teaching future generations, in difficult circumstances. It is unheard of for me to be reduced to tears in a lecture, but I was as she described the impact these ‘radicalised older ladies’ (who allowed nothing to stand in the way of their mission) had on their grandchildren. I remembered the photos our 17 year old son had recently chosen to have printed up which included a large selection of those taken on our trip to Uganda and South Africa when he was nine, largely in connection with Mothers’ Union, and my realisation that they and this, our only trip abroad as a family, has had such a big impact on his view of the world and I guess the purpose of church. It reminded me too, that without Mothers’ Union I’d not be where I am today, as they radicalised this younger woman to contemplate all sorts of things (including foreign travel, preaching… etc.) that I would never have done otherwise.

The second ‘loose end’ of my life, was when Steve Hollinghurst of the Church Army (who blogs here) was talking about the necessity for and growth in Fresh Expressions of Church. He talked about the early church plants, represented on the statistics he showed us from 1992/3 when they tended to be ‘church plants’ through to the present day. I sat looking at a quite boring graph (sorry Steve) thinking, ‘I was probably part of one of those statistics’ and remember spending a very important 4 years or so helping ‘plant’ the All Saints congregation of Warfield Church (which also included the Eternity youth congregation, which was much more of a ‘fresh expression, though were were planted into virgin community, so both were valid). That was 1993/4! I wish we’d known then, what Steve was teaching us now, as I think we might have done things at least a bit differently.

[Interestingly Steve’s sessions also touched, tantalisingly briefly, on contemporary pagan/Christian conversations, and his involvement with the Forest Church communities, that I shall be exploring in the next 8 weeks for my next (Mission and Evangelism) portfolio!]

... into a cross, a cross that I shall carry.
… into a cross, a cross that I shall carry.

In retrospect all these ‘loose ends’ of the past should all have been much more at the forefront of my mind during training, and I wish my memory for the details of my experiences was greater, but this reminders were very much God’s gift to me as Lent closed. So it seemed so appropriate when at the last Evening Worship of Easter School we were asked to do just that – and in doing so make a cross, which I shall treasure.

The last loose end that appeared in Lent, was news that Rt. Revd. John Cavell contributed to the series “Rev”. When this story was posted on Twitter, the name seemed familiar. When I read the article I remembered why – as Bishop of Southampton he confirmed me in July 1979! As part of my preparations for ordination I have today posted off various certificates to the Diocesan Registrar including my Confirmation Certificate. This is a rare beast many don’t have, and instead have to have certified copies of registers and the like. However, my Mother had taken great pains to obtain one for me from Bishop John many years later. She had been prompted by my uncle’s desperate pre-ordination search for proof of his Confirmation, to make sure her daughter had a certificate, just in case! Given this was October 1991 (before the vote to ordain women to the priesthood), and I have the letter to prove it, that was quite some loose end my Mother left for me to tie up!!!!

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A true fast Isaiah 58:6-12 #givingitup #Lent2014

A photo of the frost on the car windscreen on 1st March - just because I like it!
A photo of the frost on the car windscreen on 1st March – just because I like it!

Graham will post later I’m sure, but it’s me making a start on our Lent reflections today.

Today was always going to be a day set aside for reflection; I am on one of my regular days at Alton Abbey, taking the chance to soak myself in it’s quiet prayerful atmosphere, and with nothing but birdsong to fill the gaps between offices. That, and time with my spiritual companion, which isn’t quiet, but is reflective and meets the need to face the joys and tribulations of life with someone who will wisely suggest where I have not noticed God at work, or a realistic approach to some specific issue – time to be reminded that I am made in God’s image AS I AM deep down inside without layers of expectations imposed by myself or others, or in fact the system within which I train and will minister.

Isaiah 58:6-12 (todays reading in Maggi Dawn’s ‘Giving It Up’ Lent book), reminded me strongly again, of what I have missed in ordination training – the sharing of love and hope as God’s servant and on his behalf; not because it’s my job to, but because that is the way through which I most frequently experience God’s guidance, strength and ‘watering’ – his light. These things have been in short supply during ordination training, and I am apt to blame ‘the system’ and the way in which I was slotted into it as a Reader with a recent FdA in Ministry. But, realistically, though there are ways in which the system hasn’t helped, it’s not as wholly true as perhaps I would like it to be.

Interestingly though, with less than four months to ordination, even realising this, I see no point making vast changes to my pattern of life at home and college at this point, but I am really looking forward to a new pattern of life and picking up the threads of creative and social justice work in new ways in my title post (curacy). In some senses I guess ordination training, both through it’s own structures and aim, and through the way I have inhabited it, is a sort of extended Lent IF we focus on the deprivations of rich foods for which the medieval Lent that Maggi describes is known. I may not have enjoyed the ‘deprivation’ from active ministry, but (as I’ve said elsewhere before) through it I have had emphasised to me the things that are most important to my relationship with God and what it was that led to my calling to ordination.

Maggi talks about creating change in our kitchens and limiting the amount of waste that we generate. Perhaps because I’m the daughter of a chef (my mother) and a wildlife manager (think gamekeeper and you’d be reasonably close) I have always inhabited a ‘make do’ and ‘mend’ lifestyle. I think we do a pretty reasonable job of watching the state of the fridge and freezer (without which I’d be lost, domestically) using leftovers, composting and recycling.

So where in my life, or our family’s life, am I generating waste that needs to be used up and put in some sort of pre-ordination pancake? The places to look I feel should be in the realm of technology and social media, yet as others (like Revd Pam Smith in her Big Bible blog post ‘Giving Up – or Opting Out) have pointed out the relationships built through social media are important, else we’d not be blogging through Lent though a little cutting down might be in order! I could equally become a tech junky to facilitate this as integral to ministry, and the impending curacy makes the temptation strong. But tech costs money, and until I know something I don’t already have is vital, or some existing tech becomes so slow as to be obsolete, we try to measure our tech needs against the expense of generally making ends meet! So, where do you think our (or your) family waste is?

If you don’t ask, you won’t get!? Ordination Training

This newly fledged squab (young Wood Pigeon) had to keep asking to get the care and food it needed! Photographed 15th Feb 2014 at a blustery dusk.
This newly fledged squab (young Wood Pigeon – right) had to keep asking to get the care and food it needed! Photographed 15th Feb 2014 at a blustery dusk.

I don’t know about you, but at times it seems that we’re always being expected to chase things up. It’s like we’re living in a culture of “if you don’t ask, you won’t get”.

In church life, experience tells me, that a personal challenge or request for assistance gets better results than general requests in the notices, and in the case of pew sheet and parish magazine articles, possibly the least said about the typical response rate the better! Or have I just had bad experiences over the years?

I remember many years ago in a church plant, we tried for months to get a second team together to lead the worship band on a rota basis, rather than doing it every week. It was only when my mother died, and we simply weren’t available for several weeks on the trot, that something happened; hey presto a second band had formed, and the result was a rotation of musicians/bands in the years that followed. Situations like this possibly contributed to the fact that, whatever the context I was in, in the years that followed I tended to ask lots of questions of people to try and get answers, get things done, move things forward, for me or for others. It didn’t always make me popular.

The young squab being well fed and cared for! We saw them both again next morning - the squab had made it through the night!
The young squab being well fed and cared for! We saw them both again next morning – the squab had made it through the night!

When I started ordination training I thought I’d try a different tack. I decided to be less pushy, and not to make myself into the total pain I feared I’d been in Reader Training. I’d wait to see what guidance, support etc I got, given that much was promised from various sources. Some things did quietly materialise in the background, but in other respects, nothing.

I’m not blaming anyone, because I think the cause was largely unrealistic workloads on those meant to be supporting us, but, for example, the building of a support network linking college, sending parish and student, didn’t materialise. I quietly got on with using the one I developed for myself. History is repeating itself though, as I know colleagues the year below me are also having to be self-reliant in this respect. If this is acceptable, perhaps the college ought not to create the expectation it’s needed in the first place?!

The same seems to be true of getting essays marked, at least at M-level. Because the few of us doing it are meant to pick and chose (with guidance) our portfolio subjects, we’re only ever an odd one or two people doing a subject and each to their own essay title or portfolio focus. Hand-in dates aren’t set in the same way, and getting marks back has never yet happened without me asking, nor within the two week period laid out in the course handbook.

At times colleagues have described to me how they don’t feel their Diocese, via their Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO), is interested in them. They start college, residential or part-time, and have a sense of abandonment especially in the middle year (if they’re on a three year course). Decisions made at one point aren’t followed up with a “how’s it working out?” type conversations.

That is unless, like me, you get to a stage (in my first year of two) where you have to shout for help because for whatever reason, things have gone wrong, and you’re not coping. I am now very, very glad that curate friends made me go see my DDO and tutors last year when things were getting out of hand – they made it quite clear you had to ask for such such ‘pastoral’ support from your diocese. That was the point where I gave up being less pushy and as a result have received great support and encouragement from my DDO, but I know of others who have simply decided that their Diocese don’t care (which I don’t think is the case, or I don’t want to think is the case).

But it struck me the other day, reading Archbishop Welby’s speech to General Synod, that this doesn’t really balance with the God of abundant grace that we’re expected to model. The Archbishop was talking about the need for cultural change within the church, and the way in which different traditions/factions approach each other within the church. Specifically he identified the Church of England as

… an untidy church.  It has incoherence, inconsistency between dioceses and between different places.  It’s not a church that says we do this and we don’t do that.  It’s a church that says we do this and we do that and actually quite a lot of us don’t like that but we are still going to do it because of love.

Oh boy, is he so right with respect to how different diocese select, support and appoint clergy!

I know I’m a simple soul, but it strikes me that if we don’t model love, abundant grace, taking time for people, asking for and listening to their needs and points of view, etc… towards the ‘young’ newly fledging, church’s leaders of the future, how can they then be expected to model it onwards into their own ministry and relationships?

If the church doesn’t resource modelling the first steps on the ministerial journey with the appropriate staffing levels (be that at diocese or in colleges), then we fall back on the life-style of “if you don’t ask, you won’t get”, and we’ll never manage to show the counter-cultural, grace-filled, heroic and courageous ministers and churches that we are called to become.

Gates, stiles and openings… as prayer stations

A New Forest gate, well padlocked. A familiar part of my youth.
A New Forest gate, well padlocked. A familiar part of my youth.

I grew up opening gates, unlocking barriers, and sometimes climbing over fences that had no other means of being navigated.

That was part of life as the daughter of a Head Keeper in the New Forest, at any chance I had to go out to work with him, and even when we just went because we love being out in the natural world.

When we went out looking at wildlife, or some other excitement, I was given ‘the’ key and spent much of our travelling time behind the scenes of that wonderful place, hopping in and out of the land-rover/van unlocking and opening gates and barriers, and then closing them again once Dad had driven the vehicle through. They all (mostly) had the same lock and many were from a limited range of designs. These days, I’m often the one driving if we’re out on the forest with him, so others get to do this.

A narrow way: above Askrigg in the Yorkshire Dales near Mill Gill, August 2013 (Note the appears to be a steep drop on the far side, and a choice of directions!)
A narrow way: above Askrigg in the Yorkshire Dales near Mill Gill, August 2013 (Note the appears to be a steep drop on the far side, and a choice of directions!)

On holiday in the Yorkshire Dales this summer, I was reminded of this, as I clambered, pushed, wormed and struggled my way over or through the most amazing selection of gates, stiles and other passageways I have ever seen. I became utterly fascinated by their variety and how they spoke to me with regard to my circumstances, faith and journey in ministry. Several weeks on, I find myself returning to the photographs I took, and regarding some of them as prayer stations. In fact as I prepare some ideas for an act of worship based on Psalm 84, I am struck by the fact that a montage of such photo’s as these might prove something people might use as a focus for their reflections:

Better is one day in your courts
than a thousand elsewhere;
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of the wicked.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
the Lord bestows favour and honour;
no good thing does he withhold
from those whose walk is blameless.
(Psalm 84:10-11)

St. Oswald's, Askrigg viewed from a narrow gateway on the walk down from Mill Gill, August 2013
St. Oswald’s, Askrigg viewed from a narrow gateway on the walk down from Mill Gill, August 2013

The image that speaks most clearly of my own circumstances at the moment is one of a narrow gateway, in a rather awkward field corner which was hidden when viewed from any distance, looking across to a village church. I know where the church is in this photo, but in the reality of my developing ministry that isn’t the case. Some of the reason for my sporadic blogging at present is the journey of discerning where I will serve my ‘Title Post’, or ‘Curacy’ as it may be better known. This is done under the guidance of my Diocesan Director of Ordinands, Bishops’ and others, and it isn’t a process that can be shared publicly, but suffice to say I’m waiting on “Plan B” and trying hard to learn something about patience.

In the meantime, I shall keep seeking prayerful inspiration from my photos – and I think I might be able to put together a montage that would fit Psalm 84:3 too, but that would involve nests, rather than gates!

Building the aeroplane in flight – reflections on #winchestermission

Rt Revd Tim Daykin speaking on his vision for a  'Rule of Life' for those in the Diocese of Winchester, 5th September 2013
Rt Revd Tim Dakin speaking on his vision for a ‘Rule of Life’ for those in the Diocese of Winchester, 5th September 2013

When I set out to our Diocesan Conference, stuck as I am in a funny place half-way through ordination training,  my sense of calling dry, and confused as to how and where God is shaping my future, my personal prayer was that witnessing the development of Bishop Tim’s vision for the Diocese of Winchester would lead to a revitalising of my sense of purpose in ministry and my passion to serve God.

God did do some business with me, but there was an overwhelming sense was that he did a whole load of business with the diocese. Through the inspirational Biblical teaching of Prof. Tom Wright, through Bishop Tim’s modelling of a passionate and prophetic focus, and through the the work of the Holy Spirit work in the 200 Synod and ministerial representatives present, a corporate re-imaging of church took shape. On Thursday, the priorities were set that require us to become a pioneering ‘mixed-economy’ of culturally relevant Christian communities, living sacrificially as agents of social transformation. If you live, worship or minister in the Diocese of Winchester I do recommend you watch (start at the bottom & work up, slides here) or read the presentations in detail – they will be changing our lives!

Bishop Tim’s use of a video clip where people build an aeroplane whilst in flight was, frankly, terrifying. It was also honest and realistic. We can’t stop being church whilst we re-imagine how we function, not just as a diocesan structure but at every level of our mission and ministry. Witnessing the pain being caused to the ministries of friends and supervisors wasn’t comfortable either, as the speed and direction of progress for some functions of the diocese were subjected to what might be termed a hand-brake turn. The letter of due synodical process may not always have been completely adhered to and some unheard questions may need close examination in the near future, but then I’m not a synodical specialist. Importantly, there was a sense that the Spirit of God visibly moving through the event was of greater importance, if only the pastoral and personal implications can be handled swiftly and effectively.

Prof Tom Wright, past Bishop of Durham, speaking at the Diocesan Conference for Diocese of Winchester, 3rd September 2013
Prof Tom Wright, past Bishop of Durham, speaking at the Diocesan Conference for Diocese of Winchester, 3rd September 2013

There were several specific words of challenge for the ordinands present. I silently wept for myself and others as Tom Wright quoted his own words to others “Don’t be surprised if you go through fire & water, it is the norm. Ministry & mission is cruciform.” Yet, I was consoled to know that even our spiritual leaders have at times spent years surrounded by a sense of darkness whilst in ministry, and I was challenged by interview questions Tom Wright and Bishop Tim have heard of being placed before candidates in their pre-ordination interviews:

  • How would I lead someone to Christ? (My answer would I am afraid, vary hugely depending on the circumstances and experiences of the person concerned – no one size fits all, I would suggest.)
  • What are my two favourite Biblical passages and why?

We were reminded we have to carve the stone, or stones, that are our contribution to God’s Kingdom here on earth, in the context of the groaning and sorrow of this world, so that the master mason can draw them together with all the others his followers have produced to build something incredibly special. My private conversations may have suggested this isn’t necessarily possible, but I just hope and pray I have a small stone to carve in this diocese as the journey continues.

At the other end of the emotional scale, there was strong affirmation that though “‘the parish’ is an invented, not a God given structure”, God (and our Diocesan leadership) take a real delight in the variety of ministries we can offer and the desire to change not just our missional focus, but the structures that support it, so that both parishes and pioneer ministries, and particularly pioneering parish mission initiatives, can be resourced, encouraged, affirmed and celebrated.

There was no witnessing the development of our corporate vision; the whole event was participatory even for non-Synod members like me. However, Bishop Tim and the other participants who facilitated our deliberations, made it clear that we’re on a long-haul flight – the changes that have started, including the desire for a Diocesan ‘Rule of Life’ to re-found our mission in keeping with our Benedictine roots, are designed to make the Christian life of this region engage “deep into the mission of Jesus” as our participation in the coming of his Kingdom and his glory, but it can’t happen over-night.

Every parish was at the heart of the prayers, and held by us in our closing worship, at the Diocesan Conference, 6th September 2013
Every parish was at the heart of the prayers, and held by us in our closing worship, at the Diocesan Conference, 6th September 2013

As individuals, as parishes, as departments and deaneries, we might not always sense it, but God really is building God’s kingdom in God’s way… through us!

Building communities – Steve Chalke at #gb40 might relate to #winchestermission

My blurred last image of Greenbelt 2013 - Duke Special and the Greenbelt Festival Orchestra were on stage.  'Colourful but very blurred' is about how well I currently see the mixture of theology and pragmatic community opportunities that ordained life is currently  looking like. I wonder, does it, will it, ever come into focus?
My blurred last image of Greenbelt 2013 – Duke Special and the Greenbelt Festival Orchestra were on stage.
‘Colourful but very blurred’ is about how well I currently see the mixture of theology and pragmatic community opportunities that ordained life is currently looking like. I wonder, does it, will it, ever come into focus?

It’s great to be told half way through ordination training, that “theological colleges are training people for the wrong things!”

I heard that gem, among others, from Steve Chalke at Greenbelt over the Bank Holiday weekend. After my issues with camping that curtailed my experience of Greenbelt 2011, this time I stayed with a dear friend in Stroud (real bed & bathroom in peaceful surroundings) and had the company of my sixteen year old son, and was thus encouraged to focus on music and poetry, rather than talks.

But Steve Chalke’s talk “The Business of Salvation: Building holistic communities in the 21st century” was one of the exceptions, and I think it may prove to have relevance to our Diocesan Conference this week “Living the Mission of Jesus” where the keynote speaker will be Tom Wright (Revd. Prof. N.T. Wright, to give him what may be his formal title).

Steve Chalke’s point about theological training was that we’re being trained as theologians to run churches, rather than what he thinks we need, which is to be trained as entrepreneurs or ‘pioneers’ (to use one of Bishop Tim’s favourite “p’s”) in social infrastructure and community building.

Making the link between the original social functions of the Jewish synagogues and the need for local Christian communities (as opposed to out-of-town mega churches) Steve said something like this:

Church groups need to become/create/found infrastructure organisations – something they can do, together with businesses, local council’s and other community organisations. We have to be in the mix so that stuff isn’t done for profit, and pragmatically to stop stuff in our post-welfare state society from not being done at all! Being are core/key part of the debate gives churches/Christians a voice in the debate and protest – because we will have “skin in the game”.

My impression is, that this is exactly the sort of collaborative partnership that we may be directed towards at conference, and which as a Anglican Diocese with hopefully still a building (or similar resource to sell or redesign) and a fellowship of Christians in every parish, we are hopefully well placed to use.

I will admit a failure here: I haven’t yet read most of Tom Wrights “How God became King” which was the ordinand’s Christmas present from +Tim last year. (To be honest, I’ve had other things to read in the meantime.) But, I think what he’s trying to say in that, and I have a hunch he will emphasise similar at conference, is that many Christian’s have become too focused on Pauline and salvation theology, forgetting that this needs to be partnered with the Kingdom theology of Christ’s mission in his lifetime, i.e. the things he did between his birth and death as told in the Gospel accounts. These are the bits that tell us God is already doing his Kingdom work, as Steve Chalke put it, and all we have to do is join in! From some reasoning like this, I’m guessing Bishop Tim get’s his vision statement for the Diocese of Winchester that we should be “living the mission of Jesus”.

To me Steve Chalke, Tom Wright and Bishop Tim seem to stating similar things, that come close to the category of “blindingly obvious”. What concerns me is whether there is really not just the aching/longing prayer, the resources (financial and human), and the will-power to do such community Kingdom building, but whether the structure and constraints of an Anglican Diocese is really enabled to make it happen? I’m hoping that I will receive and encouraging answer to this, because I need to be enthused for the year ahead, and hear some substance to the purpose of my possible future ministry.

Going back to my original Steve Chalke quotation about theological training, in my view at the end of the talk he actually partly refuted his own statement. He clearly said that as Christian’s we need both theology (articulated in clear, common language) and the business skills in our church leaders. So when, in the Diocese of Winchester we think about re-structuring our training patterns to enable this long-term living of the mission of Jesus, are we also going to encourage and enable the tools of community enterprise alongside the theological training ordinands like me are already receiving?

So those are my starting thoughts for the week – not much, but where I’m coming from.

Touch and intimacy – some reflections from my hospital placement

Painting of the crucifixion by Kari Juhani Hintikka (Br Benedict of Alton Abbey) 'How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news." Isaiah 52:7
Painting of the crucifixion by Kari Juhani Hintikka (previously Br Benedict of Alton Abbey) ‘How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news.” Isaiah 52:7

Earlier in the year, part of my ordination training, included a placement with the Chaplains at my local hospital with a couple of days also spent at our local hospice. What follows is an edit of the presentation I made recently of what my experiences got me thinking about:

Now; I’m married to a secondary school teacher, and in the past I have served time as my church’s Child Protection Officer. In both contexts, we are very aware touching people too much, or inappropriately is ‘not a good thing’.

This probably explains my surprise at the emphasis on touch, particularly on my visits to the Hospice, but also observed in my experiences on the hospital wards. I was in fact told by the hospice chaplain that “communication needs to be intimate even if the patient has lost all power of speech,” and that the touch of a Chaplain “is similar, but quite different, to the touch of medical staff.”

It’s probably obvious I am using ‘touch’ to refer to the act of making physical contact with something, in this case another person. ‘Intimacy’ has probably had it’s definition damaged by the overlay of centuries of sexual imagery, but in this context I am referring to it as the human desire to offer and receive the care and closeness of human companions, such as that Jesus sought from his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemene.

Watching the hospice chaplains at work, whether during sacraments or simply talking or praying with a patient, there was a lot of touching going on:

  • As one patient was anointed in her dying hours, the daughter was held gently but firmly about the shoulders by the other chaplain;
  • I was aware of the tenderness required in holding the service sheet so that a respite patient could say the words of the Holy Communion service, and in the gentleness of the chaplain as she anointed his head and his hands – both intimate acts.

At the hospital, movement around and towards a patient felt far more restricted and constricted by the proximity of equipment and medical staff:

  • The table, a medical line and stand meant I couldn’t easily sit alongside one patient to talk in a friendly fashion – when she expressed eagerness for me to pray for her I was unable to get close enough to even put my hand on her shoulder: I felt inhibited in my fulfilment of her request;
  • As I moved to administer Holy Communion one Sunday morning, a nurse grumbled from behind the curtain of the neighbouring patient, pointing out that my physical presence too close to her was why visitors weren’t welcome on wards in the mornings!

My own natural responses were divided:

  • I am by nature a fairly touchy-feely person: I know that part of the way I relate to people is through touch – I naturally want to offer gestures of comfort and care;
  • Yet, I find it difficult to look at people when talking to them: my husband spent many years of our early relationship trying to stop me making an in-depth study of his ears when talking to him! In some situations I still back-slide;
  • My experiences on placement, reminded me of my mother’s final days, of finding repellent the idea of massaging her swollen feet, or feeding her yoghurt she could barely swallow, and yet being glad to manage both as the situation demanded the roles of mother and daughter be reversed.

So I was left dwelling on the hows’ and whens’ of touch in a pastoral context, and whether it is in fact a problem when our own repulsion, or the apparatus of care, dis-able such a physically intimate response. Most particularly, I found myself asking the question, what did Jesus do?

Though Jesus doesn’t always touch those to whom he brings healing, he reaches out his hands

  • to touch a leper and break the religious and social taboos (Matthew 8:2)
  • to raise up Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:15)
  • to anoint with dust and spittle, the man born blind (John 9:6-7)

If Jesus doesn’t use touch, he certainly gains a swift and intimate understanding of those he meets

  • In the Healing at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-15) before Jesus heals, he sees and learns about the man’s condition and it’s duration, and then tests his psychological state by asking the question ‘Do you want to get well?’
  • There is discernment and healing of a different sort offered in the forgiveness given the women with the alabaster jar and the simultaneous challenge given to Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7:36-50.

Of course, the Bible also gives us examples of those who reached out to touch Jesus:

  • At birth Mary took the child she had given birth to, wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger (Luke 2:7) – the Mother, ignoring her own post-natal needs in grim conditions to tenderly provide warmth, and protection to her helpless child;
  • When the beloved disciple leans back against Christ at the Last Supper to ask who will betray him (John 13:25) is that the last time Jesus is touched, without betrayal, ridicule, and torture?
  • Some like to depict a grieving Mary holding her sons body when it is taken from the cross. What the Gospel does tell us it is that Joseph of Arimathea takes Jesus’ body, wraps it in a clean linen shroud and lays it in a new tomb (Matthew 27:59) – like a mortuary attendant respectfully caring for a victim of crime; like a loved one taking the hand of a dead partner, making the fact of their death, a reality;
  • Then there is Thomas, who having not seen, needed touch to enable to proclaim the divinity of his risen Lord (John 20:19-29)

If we understand ourselves to be made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), and we apply St. Paul’s teaching that Christ was made in the image of God (2 Corinthians 4:4), then then such intimacy makes us more fully Christ-like.

This theology tells us that the object we look at as an individual human, becomes the relational being we describe as a person, through our interaction with them: our intimacy with them gives them their person-hood. Intimacy of look, focus, concentration, conversation, gesture, prayer AND touch make them, and importantly us, more fully human. The more of these types of intimacy we are able to offer, the better able to fulfil our God-given task.

In a book by therapist Brian Thorne called “Infinitely Beloved” it is emphasised that an environment of trust and such person-centred intimacy “offer[s] a psychological and emotional climate in which pain can be faced and transcended” and self acceptance gained, enabling the patient to be more responsive to their own needs, as well as that of others.

And, when I worry about my own inadequacies and hang-ups, and the constraints of the physical and social environment in which we often have to minister, I know I also have to remember that God has so much more to offer, and will not be forestalled! As I venture stumbling steps to fulfil my potential to love as God loves, I too have to trust him to dwell within practitioner and patient alike “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” and not simply “according to his power that (we are aware) is at work within us”, but to his boundless and “infinite glory, and to all generations”! (ff. Ephesians 3:20-21)

To conclude my presentation I asked my group of fellow ordinands to stand,  to take a minutes silence while standing alone in which we each prayed for the two people standing nearest to us, and then, whatever our normal practice, to join hands and look at each other, trying to catch each others eyes as we prayed THE GRACE over each other.

Questions for discussion:

1. Does look and touch change our experience of prayer, both as practitioner and as recipient?

2. From our own experience and ministry, can we offer ourselves some guidelines regarding our use of touch?

The house that God built – 1 Kings 8 and Luke 7:1-10

All Saints' Church Basingstoke, photographed in 2009 during my Reader Training Placement
All Saints’ Church Basingstoke, photographed in 2009 during my Reader Training Placement

This morning’s sermon was for the occasion of the ‘Friends of All Saints Basingstoke’ annual Eucharist (followed by an excellent bring and share lunch!) (Note: colleagues with whom I might be undertaking preaching practice next weekend probably don’t want to read it – they’ll be hearing something similar!)

Lord, take my words and speak through them,
take our thoughts and think through them,
take our hearts & set them on fire with love for you
through the power of the Holy Spirit,
and in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Four years ago, this church took in a foreigner. She wasn’t from these parts. She came from another place, somewhere outside this town, though not so far away that she couldn’t commute quite comfortably for services and the like.

She was warmly welcomed, challenged about the importance of certain Christian traditions, had her calling questioned, was perhaps healed of certain prejudices, though probably not all of them, and once departed, was invited back.

Then, I was a trainee Reader. Now, I am a trainee priest. This place, and you people, have been part of the journey of this ‘foreigner’, one element of God’s grace visible in my life, and it is wonderful to celebrate with you today as a Friend of All Saints.

“Foreigner” is a rather loaded word these days. It possibly conjures up in our minds other words: on the safe side it might infer “tourist” or as some New Forest folk say when sat in a traffic jam, “grockel”! Less helpfully it comes loaded with words like “immigrant”, or “racist”. Sadly, it may therefore no longer be a word that always holds a welcome.

In our Old Testament reading this morning, “foreigner” refers to someone from outside the Promised Land, an occasional visitor who bore no part in the life of Israel. Meanwhile, the centurion of our Gospel reading was a Roman and therefore presumably Gentile, a non-Jew.

And yet because God’s gifts are available to all who call on his name, the expectation in both cases is that God will act: Solomon asks that God will act according to all that the foreigner asks of him (1 Kings 8:43), and the centurion declares: “only speak the word, and let my servant be healed” (Luke 7:7).

Perhaps surprisingly, but in common with all the people of Israel, once in the land of their covenant promise, the foreigner of Solomon’s prayer is only expected to pray towards the house of God’s name, the new Temple in Jerusalem. It is being in the land and honouring the authority of God’s name that is important.

And in this version of the healing of the centurion’s servant, the centurion doesn’t enter Christ’s presence in person, but rather in his humility sends representatives to speak on his behalf. The centurion sends the Jewish elders to seek Jesus’ healing for his servant, because of what “he heard about Jesus”. It is God’s authority heard to be active in Jesus, that is so attractive.

Much as there is a building involved in both these stories, the Temple made by Solomon, and the synagogue funded by the centurion, it is not the buildings that attract the faith of those outside of these places of worship, it is what they have heard of God. It is God’s name, “his mighty hand and outstretched arm”, and God revealed in the person of Jesus, that in words of our Psalm this morning have the authority to “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvellous deeds among all peoples.” (Psalm 96:3)

Solomon after all, despite, or almost because of his Temple building exploits, was about to prove that unfaithfulness destroys the people of God, rather than attract people to faith. Solomon suggests that the Temple honours the covenant that brought the people of Israel to the Promised Land, and the promises that brought about his kingship. But he’d built it not in partnership with his fellow Israelites, but with Israel’s indentured labour and foreign craftsmanship and materials.

If you read on through 1 Kings, Solomon will also show his lack of understanding regarding his responsibility to the land God has covenanted to Israel, through his sale of twenty cities as a gratuity to the timber suppliers. The intention was that the name of God prayed over the Temple should highlight God’s presence, making it a listening post and sounding board for God. Instead, the list of Solomon’s prayers surrounding this mornings passage, makes it seem that he’s put God in a box, like some performing animal, required to do tricks on cue!

The centurion on the other hand, was a seeker whose synagogue honoured what St. Paul would later describe as his “unknown god” (Acts 17:23), and which celebrated the faith of a conquered people. He had built a relationship with the Jewish community that led him to hear about Jesus. All this had brought him to a point where he could proclaim with humility the healing purposes of God revealed in Christ in a way many Jews couldn’t bring themselves to acknowledge. Unlike Solomon’s shopping list to God, the faith of the centurion had integrity.

So, when we build a house of God, it isn’t really the building, however formal or ornate we make it, that proclaims the authority of God to those who may contribute to, or see it from a distance. Rather it is the integrity with which we show ourselves to be “living stones, being built into a spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5) that proclaims the authority of Christ “as the chief cornerstone in whom the building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph 2:20-21).

Today, it is probably better to think about the “foreigner” as the “stranger in our midst”. Though it might not fit his spirituality, there is the famous quote of W.B.Yeats that “There are no strangers, only friends you have not met yet”, which holds within it a note of God’s mission to the world, in which we are called to collaborate by reaching out to the stranger and the stranger’s need, in a way which names our faith.

Though I don’t subscribe to the doom-merchants of church statistics who proclaim the decline of faith in God, it is very easy to slip into the habit when thinking about mission, of measuring its success by the statistics of bums on seats! Solomon’s prayer, for all its faults, asks the question of our modern context: do we expect too much by wanting the strangers who know the name and acknowledge the authority of God, to enter the churches we’ve constructed to make his name visible in our communities?

Although it is right to celebrate and proclaim his name in worship and fellowship within God’s house, we know God’s authority and commission stretches beyond the walls of our churches. I believe that the success of such projects as Street Pastors is because they are done in God’s name, by his power, and that his name used wisely still has an authority that people trust.

Then again, Luke’s account of the centurion’s humble faith, begs the question: who are the representative voices of our communities, and what are the stories of distress and pain that they are trying to share with us? Our communities are often transient and encountered only briefly in their births, deaths and marriages. At the same time it seems that even if the passing strangers of our car parks and alley ways are daily visitors, there is no means to share their pleasures or understand their pain without translating their graffiti or picking up the broken glass of their lives. Who are their spokespeople, and what are their concerns? Does their individualism isolate us from attending to God’s mission?

When I read this morning’s Gospel, I am left wondering about the Jewish elders who spoke up for the centurion who built their synagogue. They honoured the giver, the stranger in their own land, by leading Jesus toward him. They heard the testimony of his friends who met them on the road, proclaiming the centurion’s faith that God was at work in Jesus Christ. I wonder if, when they returned together with his friends to the centurion’s home, they too believed?

Throughout the week, whilst working through these passages, I’ve been reminded of an old nursery rhyme and cumulative tale, about the house that Jack built. You may recall it from your childhood, as I do from mine. It doesn’t tell the story of Jack’s house, or even of Jack who built the house, but instead shows how the house is indirectly linked to other things and people, and through this method tells the story of “The man all tattered and torn”, and the “Maiden all forlorn”, as well as other smaller events, showing how these are interlinked.

As we worship in and quite rightly celebrate this house of God a gift of promise to the people of Basingstoke, we remember today Solomon and the centurion who each built houses for God, and for his people. But perhaps we too need to remember that unless we engage with people outside of the building in the name of Jesus, then we aren’t really engaged in the mission of God that makes us the living stones of the Kingdom, to which Jesus Christ brought healing:

If, this is the house that God built,
then these are the chairs a little bit worn,
that seat the people who worship the Christ,
and make up the house that God built.

Here are the streets that carry the strangers,
who mutter in pain and worry and fret,
but don’t see these chairs a little bit worn,
that seat the people who worship the Christ,
and make up the house that God built.

Here are stories of God in action,
that name the faith which proclaims and heals,
hid from the streets that carry the strangers,
who mutter in pain and worry and fret,
but don’t see these chairs a little bit worn,
that seat the people who worship the Christ,
and make up the house that God built.

Here’s the hope of the people of God,
who only return to restore their strength,
with some of their stories of God in action,
that name the faith that proclaims and heals,
out in the streets among the strangers,
who’d muttered in pain and worry and fret,
but don’t need the chairs a little bit worn,
that seat the people who worship the Christ,
who are the house that God built.

 

Here endeth my Reader Ministry

Today, Pentecost 2013 marks the end of my Reader Ministry.

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Ramtopsrac: Church of England Reader – 3rd Oct 2009 – 19th May 2013

The different diocese of the Anglican church are not known for their consistency in approach to patterns of, or peoples development through, different ministries. But in the Diocese of Winchester the rule is normally that if you are a Reader selected for ordination training, then you are asked to surrender your license as you start college.

The idea is that this change of status marks and somehow enables the change in that slightly nebulous, unexplainable, but very important element of ordination training that goes by the name ‘formation’. I have to say that this has seem a rather odd idea which I really haven’t understood.

The observant or regular follower of this blog will note that I’ve completed nearly a year of my two-year ordination training, and yet I am only surrendering my Reader License today. The intention was that, agreed by my vicar and Diocesan Director of Ordinands (DDO), by keeping my license I could continue to take funerals and therefore support that element of ministry within my parish; funerals were the only thing I couldn’t do as an ordinand that the Reader License enabled me to do. Except, I haven’t in fact taken a funeral since about last July – it’s just the way things worked out.

However, being asked to surrender my Reader License today, suddenly feels very significant.

Partly, it’s because I know how important my Reader ministry, and funerals in particular, were to my discerning my calling to the priesthood. I may have said before, but I had to be a Reader to understand my calling to the priesthood.

However, despite retaining my license till today, I have (at the request of my DDO) undertaken so little ‘ministerial’ practice in the parish (I’ve not preached since August last year) that when I led our Ash Wednesday service at St. Peter’s, some people were surprised because they thought I’d already left the parish!

And I’ve hated that. I’ve hated not being able to, or allowed to, do those things that were so important to me as minister, and so important to my discernment process. Not having the chance to preach has been like having a limb cut off – I’ve not engaged in-depth with individual chunks of Bible for months!

Equally I know that the advice was probably sound; I have struggled so much academically this year that the additional load of active parish ministry would probably have been the straw that broke the camels back. (I’ll try and explain that better in another blog post soon.)

What I’m wondering now is that, since this comes at the end of a week of sorting out with my tutors some academic niggles, and actually falls just a fortnight before I do at last preach again but as an ordinand, finally surrendering my Reader License will after all mark a significant turning point in my emotional engagement and the confidence I exhibit in myself, within in my ordination training.

When I wrote about my licensing in 2009 I talked about things feeling ‘right’, and in God’s timing, and about starting out on a fresh new journey, again. Possibly surrendering my Reader License is something I should have done months ago, but actually it’s something that feels ‘right’ for now, for a point where I’m finally getting some grip on what it is that I can realistically achieve academically in ordination training, and at last feel some sense of excitement as to what God has in store for me within that, and within the active ministry that will follow ordination next year.

“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.”