Sunday, 30 June 2013

All Curates great and small

Christchurch, Oxford, Petertide, already 3 years ago
It's been Petertide. In the Anglican church people have been getting ordained. It's nearly three years since 'my' cohort came through, and some of us are already moving on and leaving Curacy behind like a sloughed off skin. 

For a long while after I got ordained I used to get very nervous in and around large groups of clergy. Is this what we look like? How odd. Am I really part of this group? How on earth must we come over to outsiders? I'm slightly better nowadays, though I still maintain a possibly unhealthy desire to appear 'normal' at all costs, whatever normal is.

The shock of a female in a dog collar, such that the unsuspecting villagers of Dibley received on the arrival of the fictional yet iconic Geraldine Grainger, is wearing off.
Female clerics can still sadly be seen as 'problematic', though some traditional folk seem genuinely delighted with the development: once on being introduced in the parish to an older gentleman, I was given a visual once-over and greeted with the words 'ah ha.....considerably better looking than the last one'.

We come in all shapes and sizes these days. Eventually the media clergy stereotypes (elderly, male, ineffectual) will give way to something much broader and more interesting.  Beyond Belief; Barriers and Bridges to Faith Today, published by LICC, is already ten years old, and even their research indicated that the person on the street with very little church connection is aware of old churchy stereotypes giving way to something new and exciting. 

There is some statistical evidence that the Myers Briggs personality 'types' of clergy have traditionally been towards the introverted and 'feeling' end of the scale, away from extrovert and 'thinking'. Perhaps that is changing.

The recent media interest in Notts vicar Rev Kate Bottley (left) who joyfully led her wedding couple in a disco dance after their vows, perhaps wants to celebrate the face of young, female extroversion in the church, a church which is still sometimes ill at ease with what is perceived not to be suitably restrained or 'dignified'.

Splendid at Ascot
So we're extrovert, we're introvert; we feel, we think; we're idealists, we're pragmatists. Some of us are shy and retiring; some are loud; some are blonde and curvy; some are scatty and scruffy; some are, frankly, splendidly sartorial. Is there a place in the church for the distinctly eccentric? I hope so, but the selection process being what it is, I am not so sure.

I have been wondering about longevity in all of this. As colleagues get new jobs and map their calling and their (for want of a better word) 'careers' together in a complex theological and practical web, I wonder what we need to maintain joy and spontaneity at the core. One of the worst clergy stereotypes
Clapped out clergyman in Pinero's
'Dandy Dick'
 is of the old timer - world weary, been at it for too long without significant encouragement; seen it, done it. He (or she? less likely) is not a good advert for the church. One of the scary things about being a 'professional' christian is the feeling it all depends on you. It can feel a bit draining. And is probably completely misplaced. 

So I'm a Curate (still). But I'm also me. Ordinary. Entirely dispensable. And off on retreat tomorrow to prove it. 
Happy Petertide.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Pondering Priesthood

Two priests outside Church House on day of Synod vote on women bishops
I had two main problems with the call to ordination in the Church of England. Well, actually there were multiple problems - the course of vocation never did run smooth - but two main intellectual ones. And they were big. They kept me thrashing around in the bible and Christian tradition for about six months before I dared talk to anyone official.

The first was some formative church experience where women as teachers and leaders were at best absent and at worst disallowed. This reflected a conservative theological reading of St Paul where Eve's deception in the garden of Eden, and the perceived creation hierarchy, were cited as reasons women cannot hold authority over men. I needed to know if I shared this view or rejected it. With something of a tussle, I rejected it.

Second, and more pressing, was the problem of priesthood. If you are ordained in the C of E, after a preliminary year you will be a priest. What did this mean? Was it legitimate in terms of the New Testament's 'priesthood of all believers'? Could I come to an understanding of 'ordination' that felt, not  so much comfortably numb, but comfortably mine?

So much hangs on language. If you are brought up non Conformist it's hard to even say 'priest' with any real meaning. To my ears 'priest' sounded male and it sounded Roman Catholic. It also sounded Old Testament. The female equivalent was worse - cult-ish - in a bad way - priestess of the cult of Diana or Astarte or something. My meetings with those that prepared me for selection were all around this problem. 'What do you understand by priesthood?' To which I would mumble something about 'the priesthood of all believers' and the patient response would come: 'yeeees, but what do you understand by priesthood?'

And so I was stuck, grappling with something that was fundamental, and yet excessively difficult to pin down theologically, which has furthermore been the cause of so many divisions within the church. Only men can be priests. Only the priest can 'celebrate'.The priest is representative. The priest is one of the people. The church can do without priests. The church can't exist without priests. Anglican orders are null and void. There were no priests in the the early church  There were priests in the early church. Ordination is indelible. It's just setting you aside for a function. Only the Bishops' hands. 'Tainted' hands.

So, reeling and tripping like an amateur ice skater, I came to the night before Ordination. We were holed up in a small chapel for the final Eucharist. I must admit I found that last Eucharist as a 'lay person' very hard. It had an awesome sense of the Holy. In fact I had taken my shoes off. It's the only time I've ever taken the bread and wine in bare feet. It felt like the final ascent of a high mountain. The lower slopes had been manageable but I feared failing at the last few metres. I desired yet drew back from the summit. It was like when you can see the bank on the other side of the water and you really need to get over there but there's a huge jump.

Three years in and I am no closer to defining priesthood. It grows to encompass many things, but with an expanding breadth of meaning it tends to get diffuse. President, intercessor, conductor, enabler, sign, presence, shepherd, witness, leader, visionary? 

I felt decidedly weird on the day of
'Ontological instability'?
Ordination, but this had a lot to do with getting up too early, being nervous, being hot, being photographed a lot, being told what to do by multiple Church of England officials and being first in the alphabet. At the end of the day a friend wondered facetiously if I was suffering from 'ontological instability'. I thought 'how clever, it must be that'. But was anything ontological really happening, or was it more a rite of passage, with all the attendant  feelings of liminality, uncertainty and unique spiritual opportunity? 

Recently I was challenged by reading a former Bishop in Australia reflect on the phrase 'ordained ministry':  'The notion of the ordained ministry suggests an ontologically distinct order within the ecclesia into which certain persons are inducted. This generates the entirely fictitious idea that those whom the church calls to the office of deacon, priest and bishop, are, in the first instance, being relocated to a different metaphysical realm, that is the ordained ministry.'* 

So I don't know...My gender and background keep me from identifying wholly with a position which makes me 'Christ's representative'. Yet it has to be more than just the 'charism' of leadership taken to its logical conclusion. Maybe its
meaning will always elude me. Maybe it doesn't matter day to day. Maybe the more you focus on priesthood the less you remember you are still just an ordinary Christian trying to be obedient.

I suppose the bottom line is this is where I seem to have come, this is where I am now, and this is where, with God's grace, I'm going.

*Stephen Pickard, Theological Foundations for Collaborative Ministry, p. 21, my italics. 

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Holding on. Lightly

It seems fitting that it's Robert Powell, aka Jesus (without the beard) from Roman Polanski's Jesus of Nazareth, that is holding on for dear life to the hands of Big Ben, Saviour-like, in the 1989 version of John' Buchan's The Thirty Nine Steps.

Because holding onto things has strong resonances in the Christian tradition.

I'm no fan of John Lennon's Imagine: 'Imagine there's no heaven, above us only sky...imagine there's no countries...nothing to kill or die religion too'. 

No justice or passion? People floating around in white drapes saying 'peace' when there is no peace? No thanks.

In contrast, Christians are encouraged to 'Hold fast to what is good' (Thessalonians) and to hold on tenaciously when things are tough. But holding on can also be negative. Holding onto people who need to be let go of; holding onto memories which need healing; holding grudges. Perhaps it's a question of what to hold tightly and what to hold lightly.

Holding on tightly or lightly is a conundrum for the selection process in the Church of England, but also for anyone who's ever needed a bit of divine guidance (you know, that nudging, that prompting, that hunch). 

Here's the conundrum: You think God might be calling you to do something. You approach your parish priest and they listen to you stumbling through a badly articulated explanation of a feeling, that might be a hunch, that might be a 'calling', say to Ordination, then they tell you to go away 'and when you're sure, come back and see me.'

But when will you be sure? Months, even years down the line, when you have started to articulate this feeling/hunch/nudge a bit more fully, they send you off to a BAP (Bishops' Advisory Panel) where for three days you are watched, assessed and 'interviewed' by various CofE 'experts', lay and ordained, to see if they too can 'discern' a calling from God.

The advice you are given by those preparing you for the BAP is 'act naturally'. Don't come across too sure. But not too unsure either. Great. No problem. 

On one level you must hold onto this sense of calling very lightly because if you don't, you're in for a tremendous disappointment when that 'sorry, it's a no' phone call comes through. Ideally you want to respond with a happy shrug and the words 'ah, no worries, I'll go back to teaching. Thanks. Byeeeee'. At the same time, how can you not hold tightly onto something that's so potentially life changing if, as it turns out, you had the right, as opposed to the wrong, end of the stick.

I had to go and see the Principal in my second year of Theological College. Turns out I was right about the original calling but I'd had a further hunch about my vocation and now wished to slant my training towards 'Pioneer Ministry', which was the new sexy at the time. By now I knew the kind of words to use: 'I've had time to reflect....just want to be obedient...'

The Principal had the nicest study in Christendom. The Principal was wise. The Principal was a good listener. He listened to my articulating how I felt drawn to be a Pioneer Minister. He said of my conviction: 'I think you have the right combination: you're holding it firmly but lightly.' So far so good. It wasn't in his gift, I knew that; but he would support my application. I continued to hold onto it firmly but lightly. Actually I didn't manage the lightly bit very well. At the end of the month my application was turned down. I was really upset.

And in ministry day to day I still struggle to hold some
things, some people, lightly. I don't have a problem with the tightly bit - I have a good memory for faces and names and can hold situations in prayer for years. It's the lightly bit. But when people get ill, when they die; when they move away, disagree, can't be bothered or are too tired, make mistakes and let you down; when our plans seem such a good idea and our programmes so very important to mission that we're thrown into confusion when they don't 'work'; that's when we have to learn to hold on. Lightly.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Unapologetic about apologetics

I have had some epiphanies down the years, during bible studies. In 1988 I realised Christians can declare they believe in something without considering the emotional effect it has on someone whose experience of life is very different. 

So, I walked out of a bible study where remarriage was being denigrated as unbiblical. No one taking part in the discussion in a small lounge in a small seaside town came from a background where divorce and remarriage had figured. Except me. It was dark outside, and windy. I cycled home home in disgust, feeling suitably self righteous whilst also regretting the lost opportunity for coffee and biscuits. 

Ten years later I was in another small lounge, different town, happily discussing 'the questions you might be asked' by unbelievers, to which you will need to be able to give a thought out answer. I was in my early thirties and already had two children and a mortgage. It wasn't as if people were stopping me in Sainsburys every other day demanding to know: 'But what exactly is the evidence for the resurrection?'

I suddenly realised, in that bible study group, that no one was asking me 'apologetics' questions any more. It had been about twelve years since anyone had engaged me in an intentional conversation which required an intellectual defence of my faith. Everyone I knew was talking about endowment policies, nappies and nursery schools. If no one was asking about this stuff any more, what was the point sitting around talking about it as though everyone was still at University? Shortly after this epiphany we quietly and amicably left the bible study group and joined a village church where no one had heard of bible studies. 

I never thought about 'Apologetics' again until, bizarrely, we had one random lecture on it at the end of three years at Theological College. It felt like we had fallen back into the 1980s, where evangelism meant your church put on an evening with 'a speaker' and you all cringling-ly invited your two non Christian friends to come and hear him (it was always a 'him') put forward an intellectual defense of Christianity, point by point, topping it off with an altar call, during which everyone tried not to (but secretly wanted to) look round and see if anyone had 'responded' (i.e. magically turned into a Christian).

And then I came across Francis Spufford's Unapologetic (2012, Faber and Faber), subtitled  'Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense'. In his clever (nay brilliant) way, Spufford has taken apologetics off the remotest shelf, dusted them down and given them a poetical reworking for the 21st Century. Though he says in the book he is not engaging in apologetics the net effect is of giving a defense, but an emotional, not intellectual one. When writers such as Julian Barnes are saying 'I don't believe in God but I miss him', this would seem to be a good idea. 

He begins with listening to a Mozart clarinet concerto and 'feeling' the mercy. He walks into a church and tunes in to the 'inhabited' silence. He considers 'the crack in everything' and 'the human propensity to f*** things up', both ideas readily related to by most human beings. He is not interested in presenting the 'facts' of faith for a cold assessment to take place of their validity; he wants to say how it feels to believe. As he puts it 'You can easily look up what Christians believe in. You can read any number of defences of Christian ideas. This, however, is a defense of Christian emotions - of their intelligibility, their grown up dignity'. He continues: 'The book is called Unapologetic because it isn't giving an apologia, the technical term for a defense of the ideas. And also because I'm not sorry' (p. 23). 

It's a must read for anyone tired of being put down by endless sniping and/or ignorance from the 'new atheists' and the media combined. Traditional apologetics may have their place in academic debate still. I would be delighted if hordes of unbelievers tracked me down each day to test me out on theodicy or the reliability of the New Testament manuscripts. But till then Francis Spufford has become one of those writers you go to for wisdom when you can't quite remember why it is you do believe. Or just feel a bit defeated by it all. And to be encouraged by the fact that not only does Christian faith make sense in the light of the historical fact of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; it also still makes surprising emotional sense.