Peace, Perfect Peace?

It suits the powerful not to know what people’s lives are really like, so they use all means available to them to make the people they are responsible for, and failing, also ‘not know’ the reality of their rulers’ dangerous incompetence or simple indifference. We call this general state of affairs denial and it is what we are seeing, of course, on the political stage here in the UK right now.

It is also something that goes on in our own lives. It’s possible, as I am finding, to live most of one’s life in a state of denial about the pain of the past, telling ourselves that bad things didn’t happen, that we were being over-sensitive about the contempt our parents held us in, that they really were joking when they laughed about our hair, our choice of clothes, and dismissed our dreams and aspirations, if we dared share them at all. So we learned to put on a state of mind that kept us well below the high tide line of what we might reasonably expect of ourselves.

We try not to expect, or aspire to, too much, especially, perhaps, as we grow older. We have grown used to anticipating failure in every area of life, so why change now? At the same time, we live with contradiction in the need to at least appear to be the person others, or we ourselves, would like to have been. We live in denial, forever trying to cover up our inner nakedness, the emptiness that is the mark of emotional abandonment in early life.

This re-clothing gets harder as you get older, of course. There is less and less of an incentive to put on a brave face, not to deal with the inner pain, or rage, or sense of loss, or abandonment, all of which you have carried for decades. But the trouble with ageing is that as time progresses you are left increasingly alone with yourself, even if you are part of a community, or have a family, or a partner still living. The things that used to keep you awake at night are not the ones that do so now. You believed in a future.  The ones that now keep you awake have acquired an acuity, a sharpness of relief because you have had most of the future and a good deal of it has been spent suppressing a kind of inner rage while telling yourself, perhaps, that, as a person of faith, you are somehow experiencing peace. You are determined that you should experience peace, but you are not. You cannot make peace happen.  

For those of us who have experienced trauma or abuse in early life, where will this peace that we so badly need, especially as we grow older, be found? Or, more to the point, what does it actually feel like?

When I revisit the trauma and abuse of the past, and try to understand it better, I find I have to allow for the black hole the cosmic ‘worm’ to draw me into itself so that I can better understand the context of the trauma and abuse. By that I mean the wider story, the story of the person or group doing the abuse, why they needed to work out their pain on others. I do this, not for myself, since I would far rather let matters be and continue to manage my triggers and associations without putting myself through any more of them, especially given my age, but I must allow the ‘cosmic worm’ to do its work, to make its presence felt, for the sake of those who may benefit from what I am learning by allowing myself, even at this late stage, to journey into it, in order to be able to help them with their spiritual journey in the context of the trauma they, or people known to them, may have suffered. Where there is trauma or abuse, there is always a spiritual journey.

The spiritual, in the context of abuse, is most often worked out through inner anger. In the “Why?” that is directed not only at the abuser, but at the One deemed to have allowed the abuse. There will often be understandable denial in this area as well. Why should we give the One who appears to allow such things and is even indifferent to them, any emotional space at all? And yet it is to that One that our necessary anger should be directed and often is, whether we acknowledge it or not.

I say should because the anger needs to be acknowledged and not denied or allowed to remain internalised. Anger allows us to see things for what they really are. It clears the air so that we can hold accountable those who have harmed us, even if they are no longer living. Anger has a cleansing effect. It empowers and gives voice to the kind of protest that transforms, as we are seeing in the context of the protests going on around us in our society, all of them relating to abuse of some kind, be it of the environment or of human beings. But anger that is carried within becomes toxic if it is not allowed to move on, if its course is blocked. So what are we to do with this terrifying energy? An energy that we have denied ourselves perhaps for a life-time.

I believe that managing the intensity of the anger we feel as a result of emotional abuse consists in allowing the force of this energy to be directed to the only place where transformation is possible, to the only place where forgiveness and real healing are possible.

Human beings cannot forgive grave injustices on their own. They cannot absorb and then forgive unwarranted suffering out of some inner reserve of strength that they have at their disposal. When we are having our flashbacks, or remembering again the event that triggers the ptsd, there is not the means for forgiveness. Perhaps forgiveness is not even warranted. And yet, as some exceptional human beings have shown, forgiveness is the only way forward, the only way through the ‘worm’, the anger vortex, that could destroy us.

 But given where we are right now, forgiveness is probably not something we even wish for, let alone feel capable of feeling or offering. So only one thing remains and that is the will to determine the course that the anger must take if it is not to turn back on itself and destroy us. I would even dare to push the analogy further and suggest that the necessary anger that makes us truthful in regard to the past, and especially in regard to trauma and abuse, flows in a pre-ordained direction, like a river or stream that must, sooner or later, empty itself into the sea. I call the sea the all-embracing love of a God who is passionate about justice and truth in regard to the trauma and abuse we have experienced. The passion, our passion to have been heard at the time the abuse took place, and God’s passionate anger, combine in paradox, in a peace which passes all understanding.

The Trouble With God

            Seldom do the readings set for any one Sunday match the mood of the moment, still less the mood of the person preaching. Take harvest, for example. I live in the country, so harvest is, on the face of it, a quite straightforward topic, even allowing for the fact that it invites more than a passing reference to the death of the planet. But you get used to having to square the circle as a preacher, forever holding in tension what is joyful about any given season and what is not.

            At times it’s a matter of having to ‘filter’ conflicting emotions, in order to be able to focus positively on what is the prescribed mood of the moment. In the case of the current season of Harvest Thanksgiving it is, rightly, one of gratitude and rejoicing, at least where I live. There has not been a crop failure this year, livestock have remained healthy, the summer, though worryingly dry in these latter weeks, has not posed a significant problem for farmers or for the leisure industry. There is much to be thankful for.

            But even as I write this, and as I contemplate what I might be saying on Sunday, I am all too aware of things that don’t sit comfortably with Harvest Thanksgiving. This morning, for example, I read of the government’s endorsement of the Arms Trade and of how Wales, where I live, stands to gain from being actively involved in the Defence and Security Equipment International Arms Fair (DSEI) event being held in London. A small number of Welsh government officials are said to be going. Whether or not they are going in order to stake a place for Wales in the arms trade industry, for which it is temperamentally and economically unsuited, it is hard to say. It is deemed, at any rate, ‘right for officials to go’. I wonder if they, and more importantly, those who sent them, will be attending any Harvest Thanksgiving services in the coming weeks and whether they will be wondering if God is as pragmatic as they are when it comes to squaring the circle of church thanksgiving services and the arms trade.

            Not being a one hundred percent pacifist, I find it quite hard to square that circle myself. Except perhaps to wonder at the unfathomable depth of the mercy of God, at God’s insistent blessing and infinite compassion for the human predicament.

            We know too much and we want too much. We know how to justify evil if we have to, because it is the only way to stop a greater evil power having the upper hand. The other evil that might gain the upper hand draws on our inability to separate need from want, for those of us privileged to live in affluent and relatively free societies. Both these evils draw on fear, the fear of destabilising the current balance of power when it comes to military defence, and the fear of foreign economic dominion or of outright annihilation, both military and economic.

            All this makes preaching about thanksgiving, knowing full well that we are irretrievably locked into the arms trade and its terrible consequences, an uncomfortable task, but one which is both possible and necessary. God is not a comfortable God and neither does he expect us to be. This is not to say that we are obliged to solve the insoluble quandaries that the world faces, from the pulpit, or from anywhere else, but that we need to own that wherever we look, we are faced with the judgment of mercy. That’s the trouble with God when it comes to preaching at Harvest Thanksgiving services. Whatever we say, we come up against God’s mercy.

            Mercy and judgment go together. This is not to say that we will all be let off the hook in the end, but that we will be judged according to the extent that we make room for mercy, beginning with those we are contemplating on harming (if we allow them to occupy any space at all in our collective conscience) and ending, perhaps, with our own very real need for mercy in the face of the destruction we are also wreaking on the planet, as a result of an innate disposition to violence and the selfishness that goes with it.

            The trouble with God, when it comes to mercy, is that we have to accept the unthinkable, that it is we who are the harvest over whom God rejoices, because he searches for the good in us, and will search until we allow him to find it and to harvest it for himself. Finding the good in us has cost God a great deal, but it costs us nothing to own it in ourselves and be true to it.


Our identifying, even in the smallest measure, with the pain of Afghanistan makes us part of God’s own grief.

Today’s ridiculously outrageous thought: The destiny of the entire world turns on a single chance conversation. This is not a conversation between powerful or influential people but between two or three random individuals who only know one another in passing, or as neighbours who don’t normally have much to do with each other.

I had such a conversation yesterday. I won’t say who it was with, in case the people concerned are reading this blog, but I believe that the ideas, the implicit understanding that was sensed between us may lead to something of historical significance. That is a big claim and all the more so because I have no idea how such a transformation of destiny will come about, and I certainly won’t know I had anything to do with it when it does.

It was one of those conversations which somehow stumbled us into God. From God we moved swiftly on to the state of the world, to governments and to the great question of why does a good God allow suffering? We didn’t attempt to answer that one. If we had, I think the conversation would have ended then and there, because there is not much one can say about suffering really, except that God chooses to be ‘in it’ with us in the person of his Son Jesus Christ.

Then we went back to talking about the anguish we are personally experiencing in regard to the people of Afghanistan, especially the women and girls, and to the evil that is the Taliban. Then we branched off a bit, to the suffering endured by the animals we love and the brilliant but harrowing Hungarian film White God that I watched earlier this week. It’s a film about dogs that is really a coded message about the evils of modern fascism and how easily that can not only justify, but normalise, eugenics.

Then God reappeared and one of the people I was talking with said he wasn’t religious but he did enjoy the peace he experiences in churches. Churches are beautiful, he said, and he likes to just sit in them and experience that strange peace. Not being religious, he wasn’t sure if it really had anything to do with God. I said that the peace was probably emanating from the walls, especially if it was a very old church, which most of them are around here. The peace was, or is, the sum total of the prayer that has gone on in that place over centuries and of which he was a part, just by being there.

            I don’t know how we got back to Afghanistan, but we did start to make some new connections. For one thing, his being in the church and sensing its peace makes him part of that peace and hence part of God, whether or not he thinks of himself as ‘religious’.

Our identifying, even in the smallest measure, with the pain of Afghanistan (see my previous post on the limits of our capacity for reality) also makes us part of God’s own grief. God’s grief is often described in the bible as his ‘wrath’ which is why that word is so often misunderstood. God does not get cross. He grieves passionately.

But to return to Afghanistan; if we hold what we’re feeling about it and about the suffering of those who are fleeing that country, if we feel the fear and pain ourselves, suddenly God is back ‘in it’ with us.

This returns us to the ridiculously outrageous thought I shared at the beginning of this post. We’re now back in God and therefore at the heart of His very purposes. Our anguish, our anger and sense of hopelessness in regard to the horrors going in the world, and in regard to climate change and its own attendant horrors, now become an ‘engine against th’Almighty’, to borrow from George Herbert’s poem about prayer.

We are both the prayer and the solution, which I realise is a ridiculous claim, since how can we possibly prove any of this? The nearest we can come to making a connection between our own feelings and the grief of God is to be aware of the fact that compassion embodies a wide range of emotions, including the right kind of anger, a shared sense of hopelessness with those we are thinking about and a passionate desire for justice and right action.

So I can only say that anyone whose heart is moved in the slightest way in the direction of compassion has already moved into God’s heart. She or he is the very outworking of the engine of love, a love that bears witness to the light and refuses to be overwhelmed by the darkness.

If all this sounds too vague, or your heart needs a little help to feel the depth of God’s passionate grief, scroll down again through the news with the prayer ‘Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison’, ‘Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy’ in your mind and heart. And watch that Hungarian film – White God. It’s still available on Mubi.

Stay Tuned

We have builders with us at the moment. They’re not particularly noisy, apart from sudden bouts of drilling or a random couple of bangs coming from somewhere unexpected. There’s the underlying radio and chat, of course. It all makes for a general sense of collective noise and activity, not excruciatingly loud, but enough to require constant resistance. So I’ve come to our parish church where the end of the altar and a couple of extra cushions on a chair, along with a jumper and a rug, make for a perfect working environment.

Needless to say, there’s someone mowing the lawn, but that should soon stop I tell myself. So do I wait for it to stop before I start thinking about Afghanistan, about Evia, about climate change and about the lockdown misery being endured by those living through a Southern hemisphere winter right now? Or do I just allow the weight of what is going on in all of our minds, in regard to any or all of these things to compete with the lawn mower noise, hoping, for once, that a vital sense of connection will re-assert its presence.

I say, for once, because, like many people, I look forward to not thinking about the women and girls in Afghanistan right now, the terrified people clinging to a departing American plane, the evil that the Taliban represents on so many fronts, the fact that the West does not understand that tribal society, its politics, or its people. As a result, the weight of our ignorance and of our stupidity in regard to how we have acted there, now translates into what looks like a callous disregard for anything or anyone who is not our problem.

This being said, it is just as hard to understand why our governments seem to be failing to make connections between the problem that is the Taliban, a cruel and massively powerful drug cartel, and the problem that is heroin and its derivatives for our own society. So history repeats itself in a nuanced way.

Once again, we appear to be thinking and acting in the same disconnected way that we did when we bombed the Viet Cong. Bombing would keep things reasonably under control, it was thought, until something better came along, whatever that was going to be, even if we destroyed villages and innocent civilians along the way. Viet Nam was an open-ended holding situation with no real plan B. That is about as far as I can go with comparisons, and in giving shape to the moral crisis we are now in in regard to Afghanistan, given my own ignorance. The problem is that I don’t trust the powerful in the West to be a great deal more knowledgeable than I am about these things.

All of this is meant to provide a background to what many of us in the West are probably thinking and feeling right now. What should we do? What should we say?  We know so little and yet we experience a great heaviness of soul for the Afghan people, especially for the women and girls. That is when depression kicks in, making itself feel more significant than anything else, threatening to take us over so that all our emotional faculties are exhausted by trying to stay on the right side of the brink, and by guilt, telling ourselves we have no reason to feel this way when others are enduring such terrors.

But we do have a reason. In fact stoicism and denial are as out of place in regard to depression as they are to the crises that surround us.  So none of this is to suggest that we should cease to take whatever medication we have been prescribed. In fact, it’s important to make sure that these are up to date and working effectively. When depression is properly managed it becomes possible to stay tuned to the reality of what we’re feeling and see it as an extension of what Afghan women and girls are enduring right now. Our depression is suddenly revealed to us as having meaning and purpose. Their suffering becomes ours if we will let it.

So now, as we stay tuned to Afghanistan, we begin to see our own feelings in regard to the suffering of others begin to take shape. We can sense them acquiring meaning and worth. There is a connection. All human suffering is of a piece. Everything is held or contained in the moment, provided we own that possibility by allowing our own depression or particular grief to be mobilised in this way. When we do this it becomes a lament for those whose pain we are carrying right now. To lament it is not to feel sorry for people, still less for ourselves. It is to take the sum total of suffering, of the weight we all bear, into the heart of God, a God who yearns for us to allow him to make it his own.

Too Much Reality?

            The latest fires have come a little too close to home for us, or almost home. Evia island is the only place we go to for a holiday.  We know its contours, its olive groves and beaches as if they belonged to us which, in a sense, they do. We know the hotel. It’s pink walls and little private enclosed gardens, its terrace. Most of all we know the people who own it and who we count as more than friends.

            Watching the footage of Limni beach on fire, from the vantage point of the departing ferries with their load of bewildered and terrified tourists and inhabitants, I remember that ferry crossing well.  I know Limni too, and the monastery just around the corner of the headland where the monks, we are told, are refusing to leave. Reality hits hard when you are not there and can only feel for a place and a people you love. Perhaps my feeling with them helps a little. We know that our friends in Greece are grateful for the many messages they receive through social media, so there is a connection there, a mutuality of suffering allowed by love.

            But what of the realities others, people we do not know, are facing, in places we have never visited? What of Afghanistan, for example? Can we also connect with the woman whose two sons have been hacked to pieces by the Taliban? Or with the woman herself, now completely alone without shelter or any means of subsistence?  Or with the father whose seven-year-old daughter went missing a day ago and has not been seen since?

            All of these situations find a home in our hearts, when we let them, and therein lies the problem. It’s not just a matter of feeling something, and perhaps even doing something as a result, but of coming to terms with the ‘plasticity’ of the human heart. The more we allow into them, the bigger our hearts, or our capacity for loving, become. This, as we know, can prove costly. There is a danger that we could also be overwhelmed by so much reality. Even so, having allowed for it, we must continue to ‘make space’ for it.

            If we are to make space without collapsing under the sheer weight of other people’s suffering, we have to allow more love to take hold of us. ‘Look up’, Jesus says ‘when all these things take place, for your Redemption is near’ (Luke 21:28). He is not talking about the end of the world (or if he is, that isn’t the point), but about Redemptive Love taking hold of us.

            When we understand this truth, the mind can move on to other realities that need to find a home with us. The fires in Evia belong with the devastating floods and landslides in China, with the injured man being hauled to safety across a raging torrent by two of his friends. The mind and the heart are immediately taken to the moment when a man is lowered through the roof by his friends so that he can be healed by the Christ. Before he is healed he and his friends are told “Your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). If we transcribe this moment back to the man in China, we hear the same words spoken, not to the man himself, but to all of us who are holding his situation in our hearts. It is our sins that are being pronounced forgiven from the moment we care to notice the man in China, or the beach at Limni, and allow space for them in the place where we are most vulnerable, our own hearts.

            Let’s not balk at the idea of sin and human suffering being twinned in this way. What we are seeing in Evia, as in China, in North America, in parts of Canada, and in London is the consequence of sin. It should be quite plain by now that the suffering we are witnessing, which is by no means limited to that being experienced by human beings, is the consequence of short-termism, greed, selfishness, power-lust and sheer folly that has accumulated over centuries and is now being visited on people and places we know and love.

            So, to use another old trope, what would Jesus do? Or say? Or feel, in all these situations? Or perhaps these are the wrong questions for me to be asking on this blog. Perhaps I should be asking if we cared what he would do, or say, or feel? It is a question that can only be answered, if it can be answered at all, from within the heart of the human person. And this returns me to the dangers of plasticity, because if we allow our hearts to be opened for even a second in regard to the plight of another person or place, Love Himself immediately slips in and is a very difficult guest to remove. ‘Love bids us welcome, guilty of dust and sin’, to borrow from the poet, George Herbert. The poet knew who he was talking about.

            Suddenly we are in a position of having received something which was unasked for, for which we are unprepared and, in regard to the devastation we are wreaking on God’s world and people, undeserving. Suddenly we are given the means to love and suffer with those who are suffering as a result of fires or other cataclysmic events. Given the enormity of this realisation, it is often far easier to carry on agonising about what we can’t do or give to ease their suffering, looking the other way when we perhaps can do something. But Love insists on making His presence felt, if for no other reason than that there are Afghan men, women and children who number among those seeking refuge on our shores right now.


Heat is the prevailing circumstance right now. Everything else will evaporate under its impact.

I wonder if all writers experience the purgatory of titles, by which I mean being presented with an endless string of widely differing subjects but having absolutely nothing to say about any of them. Perhaps it is the natural hubris that comes with the work we do that persuades us that we should always have an opinion to hand, no matter what the circumstances.

Take ‘heat’, for example. Heat is the prevailing circumstance right now, as I see it. Everything else, even the most serious and demanding issues facing us, will evaporate under its impact. Heat lends urgency to the moment, so the necessities of life take precedence over any thoughts or ideas that we writers, in our hubristic way, think will benefit the reader out there. It’s more important to get those two bits of ironing done before 8.30am, so that you can break the monotony of only having two garments to wear that are remotely suited to these unprecedented temperatures. Ironing takes precedence over thinking about anything, let alone writing about it. The same goes for walking the dog and unloading the dishwasher, even though the dog would probably be happy to remain cross legged until 10pm, but my conscience qualms at the thought of letting this happen to him.

And now that I have finally sat down, the moist heat is building, like a kind of tsunami. I will tell myself, for another hour or so, that it’s not that hot, that I should be thankful I don’t live in a city and should just brace up and get on with it, but I know I will run out of stamina and focus quite soon, an excuse to call up to my husband for one of his iced coffee frappés.

The whole creative process seems subject to the weight of the heat. The struggle to think is not a struggle with nothing. It is a struggle with the overwhelming nature of everything right now. It might be easier to put off trying. But if a writer stops trying in the belief, perhaps, that there is nothing to say or, if there is, that someone else has already said it better, then fear very soon takes over.  The writer fears that the ‘gift’, or whatever it is that magically allows us to string together a few ideas in a coherent fashion, will be withdrawn, perhaps as a kind of punishment for not trying hard enough, for not sticking at it. Perhaps, when the heat subsides, there will be payback time for all those mornings we’ve skipped, telling ourselves to get the ironing done, the dog walked, the shopping done, before it gets too hot. Writers live in fear of retribution, even ones who, like me, pray quite a lot.

When it comes to prayer and creativity, we are always swimming underwater. We are in our element, but also desperately coming up for air. We wait in the deep blue world, but there are no fish and no mesmeric changes of light, just blueness pressing us down, as the psalmist puts it; ‘You press upon me behind and before. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.’ (Ps. 139:5)

And yet we are invited to reach for this knowledge, if ‘reaching’ is what we do. We are being invited to reach deep for the wisdom that is beyond human grasping. So we reach and we wait, along with the millions of creative people who are reaching for an idea, too often making the mistake of thinking we will find it within the narrow confines of our own acquired skills or learned knowledge. And, as with the creative process, we often try too hard. Things happen when we stop trying and wanting. That is when the light breeze makes itself felt.

To live prayerfully is to live creatively, to go with the rhythm of the day itself, especially the ponderous rhythm of unending heat. To live prayerfully is to go with the rhythm of God, to be always ready, to wait but also to reach deep, to do nothing, but to be ready. By this I don’t mean brace yourself for an experience of some kind. We do not experience God when we pray. We simply allow ourselves to be known by God and that requires patience on God’s part, as well as ours, and a certain courage. You never know what might happen next.

A Response to the ‘Myriad’ Plan

‘Preach the Gospel. Use words if you must’ writes a wandering friar, in the 13th century. What would happen to the Church’s vision and strategy for generating 10,000 new churches, along with the million young Christians it dreams of catechising, and growing exponentially, if these words were to underpin all of its outreach activities?

            From conversations I have with my non-churchgoing friends, the institutional Church is of marginal relevance, not because it is failing to evangelise, but because Christianity, as it is currently marketed, has lost its hold on people’s imagination. Many of them would also add that given the way the Church treats its own people, it has also lost touch with ordinary human decency. The people I talk to are, for the most part, neither agnostic or atheist. They usually have a faith, but it is a private matter.

            When the subject of faith and church does come up, it’s fairly clear that they are also not sure if the Church has much to say to them about life in general. They see going to church as a niche activity for a certain kind of special interest group. If they do have a faith, it is not something that they necessarily want to talk about, still less do they want to join alot of other people as part of a captive audience that manifests its religious feelings through public worship, whatever the style or provenance. Added to this, the sermons they hear rarely hit the spot for those in search of a theology fit for the times we live in.

            If they do connect with what has been said, it will be because the emphasis has been on the abiding presence of Christ in their lives and of his particular love for them, and on the manifest evidence of it in the person preaching. Good preaching requires training and experience in prayer, theology and human empathy. We dismiss such training as ‘too costly’ at our peril and at the expense of those we seek to attract to Christ. 

            The scenarios I have described suggest a need for a re-thinking of the nature of mission and evangelism and of the Myriad vision itself. How a church comes across to people is not simply a matter of friendliness, or of attracting the theologically like-minded. It is about the extent to which those who may be coming to church for the first time recognise the living fire of God’s love at work in that place and in the people around them. They will be unlikely to recognise it if there is too much noise, anxiety and general activity going on, especially when these give rise to a loss of focus in prayer and in the receiving of the grace which ought to be made available through good preaching and through the sacrament of the Eucharist.

            This begs a further question, ‘does coming to a particular building and conforming to specific norms and expectations (liturgical or otherwise) constitute being part of the Church in the fullest sense? Does it make the alienated individual who is deeply distrustful of institutional religion feel that they not only belong, but are in a uniquely deep communion with others and, together with them, with God? These are questions that need to be asked before embarking on any more planting, or vision strategies, not because church planting is inherently bad, but because, as any gardener knows, you need to be sure of the suitability of one particular stock before you start grafting it onto another plant. It takes at least two healthy compatible plants to make a new one grow. In terms of the life of the Church, assuming the ‘plant’ is not incompatible with its new host, all parties to the graft, need to surrender what they most cherish in order to leave more space for growth, the kind of growth that comes when the love of God is allowed to travel between them and so make for a perfect match and a richer life.  Trying to graft two wholly incompatible plants will end up killing one or both of them.

            There is another lesson that mission action strategies frequently miss; plants do not worry about growing. The parable of the lilies of the field makes this quite clear. (Matt. 6:28) So the idea of there being no ‘passengers’ in the churches of the future is, at best, misconstrued. It is certainly misleading, and quite off-putting for anyone who might still want to find a sense of the sacred, a place where they can allow God to bear the burden of the things that weary or defeat them, a place of valid and enduring prayer and of clergy and people who are simply available to listen in a church context. Cathedrals are very good at providing these kind of services which is perhaps why they have seen a rise, rather than a fall, in their numbers at least until the onset of the pandemic. Cathedrals, on the whole, do not expect people to get busy doing things from the moment they step through the door. They seem happy to have them as ‘passengers’.

            I think the way Cathedrals model ministry also suggests a better way of doing mission and evangelism. It has something to do with the apophatic, with the not doing and not knowing which may yet allow us to learn more deeply from each other. If Jesus is to be ‘let out of the church’, it would suggest that it is we who need to be evangelised through those he chooses to indwell once he has been let out. The time may have come for learning together with those we believe we are evangelising,[1] so that our mission and theirs become two aspects of a single way of being with them in a koinonia of silence, a common willing of new life, a determination to live in hope.

[1] I owe much of this thinking to a paper given by Bishop John Saxbee and to his book Liberal Evangelism: A Flexible Response To The Decade, London, SPCK (1994)

What is the Church For?

            I feared, when I offered to give this paper, that I had spoken too hastily. Should I have waited, before putting forward the suggestion that we reflect on what the Church is for? Should I have perhaps paused to ask myself, and all of us, whether there is a Church at all, at least one that fits the heading of Church as we have grown used to understanding it? At the same time, I sense that there is little to be gained by going over these questions, which are being rehearsed if not always publicly, then almost certainly in the minds and hearts of believers and non-believers alike. The closure, or partial closure, of so many churches during the pandemic afforded us with plenty of time and opportunities for wondering about these things.  So I am going to begin my own discussion of what the Church is for by inviting us all to reflect on what Sundays have felt like for us during lockdown.

            Those of us who are used to taking an active part in leading worship on Sundays will have experienced a range of feelings beginning perhaps with a sense of unexpected ‘recess’, an unanticipated holiday from the habitual round of parish duties that fall to us on Sundays. But in time this feeling of relief, if that is what it was, will have become something else. Once the pleasure of not having to get up in time for the eight o’clock had begun to wear off, some of us will have felt a sense of loss, the absence of something unique and irreplaceable. The hours we would have spent taking services, or perhaps going to them, are not so easily replaced by walking the dog or reading the Sunday paper, or even by spending more time in personal prayer. Furthermore, I think it is safe to say that for many of us, the absence of Sunday, as we normally experience it, rendered the week that followed even more monochrome, in the context of lockdown, than it might otherwise have been. What is it then about Sunday, and about church, that we actually missed?

            It would be easy to say that we missed the community, even if on a normal Sunday we spend little time engaging with it after the service is over. We could also say that we missed the habit and rhythm of either taking services or attending them, of filling that particular slot in a day which may otherwise feel just like any other day, as it came to do for many of us during the long months of lockdown. But I think there is something unique about church, and thus about the idea of the Church as the wider body, as ekklesia, as the worshipping community, that we missed without perhaps realising how uniquely it pertains to the experience of church on a Sunday.

            I would hazard a guess that what we were missing was the pull of God, the pull of the Holy Spirit drawing us to a certain familiar place. The Holy Spirit acts on us, I believe, in a way that is not dissimilar to the moon’s pull on the oceans. From what I sense in conversations with parishioners where I live, there is something irresistible in the tidal pull of God on a person who is in the habit of going to church on a regular basis, even if that person rarely mentions the word God at any other time of the week. Where there is an interruption to the particular ‘pull’ that the Holy Spirit exercises on us through our local parish church it would suggest that the Church (with a capital c) has ceased to be what it is essentially meant to be.

            The Church, at every level of its life, is meant to be a tent of meeting, to put it in scriptural language, a place where all those present will in some way know the presence of God, experience that tidal pull, even if they never speak of it or even, perhaps, acknowledge it to themselves. Their local church may be a vital place of encounter for them with the living God, even if they appear to prefer a protective kind of anonymity in regard to their faith and their particular faith journey.

            A person’s faith is ultimately secret, something which the Church with its enthusiasm for mission and building its own Sunday attendance numbers often fails to take into account. But it is, nevertheless, the Church’s job to nurture this tentative response to the pull of God that people, clergy included, associate with being in a church, whatever other reasons they may have for being there.

            Furthermore, I do not think there is any real distinction to be made between what a person who attends church on Sunday may be experiencing of God, and the kind of transcendence experienced by the casual visitor who visits a church or cathedral, ostensibly to admire its architectural lines and stained glass windows. A church is a sacred space which exercises a certain ‘pull’ on people. If this is so, we cannot get away from the fact that the idea of Church (with a capital c), is associated in the minds of many people with this Godward pull, even if it is an unconscious association, a sort of instinct.  This would suggest that there is a powerful connection to be made between a church building, and the often small gathering of people who turn up there on a Sunday morning, and the idea of what has come to be known, somewhat pejoratively, as the institutional Church.

            The institutional Church is that facet of the universal Church (the Church that spans the centuries) that is made visible in such a way as to allow God to connect more deeply with people. Those who are called to serve in this visible capacity are therefore called to be the interface that makes this connection definable and real. For this to be possible, they need to be what Kay Northcutt in her book Kindling Desire for God describes as sacramental, ‘an embodied image through whom God attracts’.[2] They need to be a certain kind of person, rather than an individual who has acquired certain skills.

            It is the embodiment that makes the sacramental meaningful. And here is where the confusion lies when it comes to what the institutional Church signifies for many people, whether or not they attend their local church on a Sunday. The institutional Church does not, on the whole, appear to embody anything that attracts people to God. The reason for this does not lie in lack of skills among those who work for it, still less in any particular defect of character. It lies, rather, in a general fearfulness about what the Church is called to be and how its representatives do, or do not, fit its purpose – to facilitate a tidal pull towards God.    Two areas of concern emerge from these considerations: The first pertains to that greatly over-used word ‘mission’. The idea of mission is now all but subsumed under managerial goals and objectives all of which return us, ultimately, to the question of how to keep existing structures of governance in place without closing too many churches. It is not hard to see where the institutional Church, which now thinks of itself increasingly in organisational terms, feels its priorities lie. Skills have now replaced gift in the Church’s increasingly secular mindset when it comes to selecting and deploying clergy.

            Ever since the Harries Report was produced in 2012 the emphasis has been on ‘streamlining’ and centralisation. The Harries Report saw the dismantling of the parish system and the centralisation of ministry and finance as the only way forward for the Church of the future. It also, incidentally, emphasised the need for a complete overhauling of the existing hierarchical system of governance and with it, presumably, its arcane line of authority.

            The move to streamline and centralise has, inevitably, met with a great deal of resistance from people living in the countryside, especially among those who have given years of time and effort to support their local church which they see as a focus for the community. It also, at the time of writing, could not have anticipated the radical changes that may yet take place in rural areas as a result of an increasing number of people working from home on a permanent, or semi-permanent, basis in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic. The local church, serving the community in diverse ways, and not only as the place for Sunday worship and life-transitional events, could become a vital cohesive element in the life of changing rural communities. But all of this is made difficult when decisions must be approved by a remote body of managers who rarely visit the churches they control or take the trouble to get to know the communities who serve them.

             In short, the effect of such an increasingly managerial mindset lies in the creation of the worst form of idol. An idol is a lifeless thing that enslaves people by persuading them that they cannot survive without it but which, in the process, also kills off whatever motivated or inspired them to buy into it, or into the organisation it purports to serve, in the first place. This, as Lauren Berlant argues in her book Cruel Optimism can happen in almost any context.[3] The idol can be food, money, success or, she might have added, the managing of people into controllable entities that will deliver what is asked of them, including money, on time and without question. The Church is becoming one such entity.  Hence, the apathy created by bureaucracy and the dead hand of managerialism is death to the spreading of the gospel.  It also distances the organisation from the people it exists to serve, and on whom it relies for its own continuing existence. What we have then is a situation which runs counter to the idea of a Church founded on the principle of love which runs on the unpredictable but life-giving dynamic of the Holy Spirit. So how might this situation be reversed?

            This brings me to the second area of concern in regard to mission. Management requires certain skills. Mission and the building up of a Church which embodies the Spirit of Christ requires the deployment of gift. The two are not incompatible, but they must work together, with gift taking precedence over skill. Skills can be acquired with training. Gift is what it says it is. It is a given. By gift I mean those aspects of a person that make him or her transparent to Christ and so enable them to be a theotokos, a Christ bearer, to God’s people. Gift is not limited to age, gender, sexual orientation or churchmanship. It is something which informs and defines what a person is and thereby works itself into, and possibly through, any skills they may have. The Church is much in need of gifted persons at every level of its life. But where will such persons be found? What gifts does the Church need in order to become something more than an organisation, to breathe life and hope into a troubled and angry world? Where are the people of vision? Where are the holy leaders?

            One of the main impediments to the discernment of potentially holy leaders, or of gifted people to the service of the Church, lies in the selection process itself and the structure and culture of deference on which it depends. The latter is an area of particular concern. A hierarchical system based on outdated understandings of obedience, rather than on collegiality and shared responsibility, is an impediment to growth, as it would be if such methods were still being adopted in secular organisations. Furthermore, one could be forgiven for thinking that the selection of people to the ordained ministry is predicated on secular objectives. We seem to be looking for competence at the expense of holiness. This is not to say that the ordained clergy do not try to fulfil the traditional role of pastor to the people of God, but the growing amount of administration, not to mention the legalities that surround issues of health, safety and pastoral relationships place huge demands on them personally. This is not to deny the need for safeguarding measures, but it is important to understand the level of stress that clergy endure in an effort to comply with the regulations, or even to avoid inadvertently falling foul of them. As a result of this, anxiety now drives much of the Church’s life. Ministry has become a job which, like any other job, a person is in danger of losing if they make mistakes or fail to fall in line with whatever is required of them by the higher authorities.

            Much of this anxiety would be dispelled if the idea of the episcopate and of the priesthood itself could be uncoupled from that of power and status. Power and status belong together in the Church and are as strongly associated with the role of the ordained as they ever were. It is just that the magic and the mystery of yesteryears has simply been replaced with the goals and objectives of modern marketing speak, ostensibly linked to mission but worked out in centralising agendas that defeat that very purpose.

            So it is at this point that we need to re-address the question of what the Church is for.  If its primary purpose is to bring the Good News of the abiding presence of Christ in the world of today, as I believe it is, then some re-ordering of priorities, and even structures, needs to take place. Perhaps we could begin by filtering out all those notions that we associate with success from our language and thinking.

            Managerialism is geared to success, although this is usually referred to as ‘growth’. Churches that do not grow are therefore deemed to be failed churches and will either be closed or subjected to some form of cloning, usually the colonising of one church by another more successful and ‘vibrant’ one. But if we are serious about making known Christ’s presence among us, then we need to look to the places or situations where he has always been present, where love has been genuine. These were seldom ones we would associate with vibrancy and success, with the need to ‘get on’ at any expense. They were often quiet one-on-one encounters with individuals in desperate, sometimes embarrassing, circumstances. They ended in the ultimate place of failure and rejection, although that was not, of course, the end of the story.

            In other words, Christ is to be discerned and known in places and situations where love is genuine, where people make time and space for one another, in churches which are not driven by the need to survive but by the need to present holiness of life as something to be desired in the world of today. Those who serve in such churches will know how to preach and minister to the world in ways that enable wisdom, which is the deepest level of discernment attainable, at all levels of life.[4]

            You may wonder how this could be possible, how such great things could be dreamed of, given the steady decline in church attendance and the financial pressures churches are under.

            Here, I am reminded of a visit I made to Taizé many years ago. On arrival, there appeared to be a central altar in the middle of the large tent that we were gathered in but half-way through the worship, the entire congregation turned 180 degrees so that those who had been at a distance from the altar were now near the front. This happened three times during the course of the service until we were all back to facing the original altar. To me, this summarises what the Church should be. Nobody should be at the back. All should be close to the heart of the Church’s life. At Taizé, they do not dismantle one altar in order to focus on another. They introduce another altar alongside it, and then another, and another. This in no way compromises the worship. It strengthens it, because every single person in that space can identify with the central altar, in one place and in every other place, as it were, simultaneously. The key to understanding what makes this work as a model for being Church lies in the small child who, when I visited, was led by Brother Roger, then the Abbot of Taizé, to the centre of the space. This was more than a liturgical statement. It was a model of leadership for the Church today.

            The crucial factor in regard to how this example of truly common worship might serve as a model for the Church lies in the fact that were it not for the thousand or so people who were there that morning, there would be no worship. There would be no church. Altars and clergy, no matter how splendidly gilded the altar or church, or good at their job the incumbent cleric or bishop, do not make the Church. The people make it. Clergy and bishops exist to love and serve God’s people and to model the love of God in their own distinctive personhood, one that is transparent to the person of Christ. The child being led into the centre of the tent by Brother Roger served as a model for this kind of transparency.

            This suggests that if the Church is to endure in the dangerous and hard-edged world and society we now live in, its structures and methods of governance must enable, rather than constrict, the free movement of love between those who have power in the Church and those who do not. A top-down hierarchical system, remote from the people it is called to serve, will not do this, but wise, broad, consensual decision-making, and the actions that stem from it, might.

[1] A paper given for Modern Church Forum 31st May, 2021

[2] Kay L. Northcutt Kindling Desire for God – Preaching as Spiritual Direction, Fortress Press (2009) p.29

[3] Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism, Duke University Press (2011) Introduction p.1

[4] Maggie Ross, Pillars of Flame: Power, Priesthood and Spiritual Maturity, Seabury Books (2007) p.107 ff.

Is QAnon the New Religion?

‘The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by the good people’ memorable, but by no means new words spoken by Martin Luther King Jr.

I want to reflect a little on those words against a backdrop of St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 6: 1-10) in the context of the rise of the ultra-right group QAnon in America and of our own sleep walking into neo-fascism here in the UK.

 You may think that I am implying that all the people who do not align themselves with extreme conservatism of one kind or another, whichever side of the Atlantic you live on, are automatically the ‘good people’ who are remaining silent. I would not want to make such a hasty and all encompassing judgment, but I would want to say that we, the people in between, the much disparaged ‘wokes’, the fair minded thinkers, the powerless and the voiceless (powerless because we don’t know how to use the democratic powers we still have and voiceless because we don’t know what to say) are still in bed and asleep long after the alarm has gone off. Also, because I am generally thought to be a ‘religious’ person, I’m particularly struck by the way QAnon in the US is being compared in size and impact to a mainstream religion.

It needs to be said here, that neither of these tendencies, the American or the much vaguer UK one, bear any likeness to good religion. Religion, as the word suggests (from the Latin ligare) is what binds people together in a common love for God, worked out in and through a love for all people and for God’s world. Love is the operative and the definitive word when it comes to good religion. This being said, I still want to try to look at bits of the letter to the Corinthians from the kind of religious standpoint that these misguided movements and political tendencies are either openly espousing or privately harbouring.

‘On a day of salvation I have helped you’, Paul writes, quoting Isaiah 49:8. They see themselves as agents of salvation. This is their religion. But, unlike Paul, who was appealing for reconciliation with God and confidence in his love and mercy, theirs is simply a way of capitalising on two of humanity’s most primal fears, the fear of loss and the fear of abandonment. They do this by openly or covertly advocating violence and by promulgating a deep distrust of others, especially leaders and democratically elected political parties who they oppose.

Paul, in his letter, lists the kind of tribulations he and other Christians have experienced in their ministry, but he is not making spurious capital out of being seen as a victim. Much of the violence that we see coming from QAnon is the result of perceived victimhood, notwithstanding the fact that many genuine victims of poverty (although the majority are white, it should be noted) are caught up in that movement. Right wing extremism appeals to the poorest. Its proponents are therefore seen as agents of salvation and the parties or leaders they oppose as responsible for abandoning the poor and the vulnerable.

In contrast to QAnon, Paul goes on to remind his readers of the real strengths that come with what we call grace. These include patience, kindness and genuine love, to name only three, but they are words that carry little weight if you are trying to make your mark as a revolutionary movement. They only begin to carry weight when you ‘slant’ them slightly so as to allow you to introduce them into the elements that make people truly afraid. These are the elements of loss and abandonment.

Material loss speaks for itself. We all fear the day we might wake up with no means to pay the bills. We also fear abandonment, that we are being governed by incompetent liars who, as is being revealed in the UK, may have disastrously lost control of a now rudderless ship and that there is no one in sight to take over – except the extreme right. I would hazard a guess that the former fear is especially strong in the US where one in seven Americans live below the poverty line[1] and the latter prevails just beneath the public consciousness here in the UK. The US is blessed with its new President, although it will take nothing short of a miracle for him to fully realise his fiscal ambitions. We, in the UK, are not so blessed. We lack both visionary leadership and the competence to run a country which is fast becoming one of Europe’s worst casualties, in every sense of the word, of the current pandemic.

            This leads me back to the second great fear that pseudo-religious movements can pander to, the fear of being abandoned, the primal fear of loneliness. Extreme right movements use this fear to give their followers a spurious sense of belonging which comes with ideas that will shore up their leaders’ equally false sense of purpose. What we then have is tribalism. Tribalism can very easily replace good religion and, in doing so, can supply a kind of religious alternative which far from confronting and seeking to change what is wrong with society (what we call sin) uses that to further strengthen its hold on whole nations by appealing not only to the poor, but by taking full advantage of the inertia of the good people who Dr King was referring to in the words I quoted at the beginning of this post.

We saw something like this happening in the run-up to the Second World War. Are we seeing it again?  


The Resurrection of Christ

One of the things I like best about my husband is his way of prefacing the neutral, or the plain disappointing, with the words ‘but the good news is…’ There is always good news to be discovered if you look hard enough, for him at least, and that is something I love about him. But make no mistake about it, he is not an incurable optimist. He is a realist, not given to constantly affirming the positive in the best of all possible worlds.

I have always felt that optimism, when I encounter it in others, and when I resort to it myself, is fundamentally dishonest. To be merely optimistic about life is to start from a place that we have to invent for ourselves before we can begin to actually live from it. And when we do try to live from it we very often find that it rests on rather shaky foundations.

The season that we have now entered, the season of Eastertide, is not a reward for optimistic persistence in the face of troubles and difficulties, or even of death itself.

If we consider the great Easter moment, it does not promise very much. The empty tomb which has presumably been robbed, is, if anything, an emphatic signal that death is indeed final and that endings are often far from happy. The grief of the woman who discovers it is profound and raw. It does not take much imagination to empathise with it.

But what is extraordinary, I find, about this story, is that it does not take any imagination at all to understand and experience what happens next, when she hears her name called by a man who she presumes to be the gardener. There is something so ordinary about this moment and, in the light of what follows, it is probably one of the only moments in the bible when we can actually laugh, if we engage with it fully. We can laugh at the ordinary almost colliding with the extraordinary. It is a truly funny moment, when you think about it.

Like all really funny moments in life, they are best when there is more than one person laughing at them. Humour is a collective thing. It is prompted by a shared experience, or perhaps a shared memory. There is something of the absurd in them, although this is often too subtle to record accurately. The juxtaposition of impossibles is usually what makes for the absurd; a woman and her friends come to anoint a dead man. They wonder how they’ll get in to the tomb (had they not asked themselves this before?), but find it empty, with two outlandish looking strangers crouched inside (they are exceptionally tall) telling them the obvious, that the man is not here, and then a conversation with the gardener who turns out to be .. well, we know who he is.

But what does the woman who has stayed behind to grieve actually experience in the moment of this encounter? A mixture of incredulity and fear would be an understatement – or perhaps an overstatement. It would be to say too much about something that defies description. Perhaps we can only do justice to the moment by laughing with the two of them. Because the moment of recognition would have been marked with laughter and, not surprisingly, with a desire to hug, but that is forbidden, as it is in these hugless times. It is forbidden because, the woman is told, he has not yet gone to his father, who is now her father too.

So hugging is forbidden in this particular moment because there needs to be another encounter, one which encompasses and consummates every kind of love that will ever be known, on earth or in heaven itself. It is the loving embrace of the Father with the Son.

In a sense, that is to look ahead to the end of all things, the end of the Salvation Story, as we understand the word to mean, and we are not there yet. We remain, for the foreseeable future in this now moment of joyful encounter. We remain with the laughter. And that leaves us with yet more of a mystery, that somehow with all the mess and pain that we might be enduring in the moment of reading this, there is underneath it all a deep laughter, something that refuses to be defeated by cynicism, hatred or despair. Some will dismiss it as pious whimsy, others will call it mere optimism. I would call it faith.