Saturday, 29 November 2014

Advent Eve: Review of the Year

I saw a tweet this evening that suggested that, at the end of a liturgical year, we should take stock spiritually of the year that is coming to an end. This has been quite a year, so here goes:


This time last year, I was crying down the phone to a friend, feeling useless as a mother, a priest and a person. I was working too hard, and had very nearly burnt out.

The last straw was being told off by my son's secondary school for not making sure he did his homework. 'In what time is this meant to happen?' I thought. 'In the hour and a half between picking up the younger ones from after school club and going to an evening appointment? That hour and a half when I also have to get tea, do the washing, and normally shout at the kids because I'm also frantically trying to print out the papers for PCC, or prepare the materials for a baptism prep session?'

I couldn't see how I was meant to do my job and be a parent, especially if doing the homework of three kids - or standing over them to make sure they did the homework - was also part of my job description. Was I going to have to resign to be a decent mother?

I struggled through Christmas, and then completely hit the wall in February. After a few sessions with a counsellor, I have made some sort of peace with my inner child, and got rather better at pacing myself. I've realised that a large part of the problem was adjusting from the pace of university life (10 weeks of exhausting sprinting, followed by four or five weeks of recuperation) to parish life (you don't get the recuperation breaks, so you have to go at a steadier pace). I was working at the sprint level - anything else seemed lazy - and was simply exhausted.

Now, at the cusp of a new liturgical year, I hope I am better at pacing myself for the long haul. I think so. I'm also better at dealing with criticism - kindly receiving it, and then laying it at Jesus' feet rather than taking it into myself and letting it eat away at me.

Spiritually, the experience has made me much more conscious of my total reliance on God. Psalm 23 - 'thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me' - has a new, deeper resonance for me now: I imagine myself walking across the hills relying on God's walking poles! 'With the help of God, I will'.

In the wider church:

The other thing that has shaped the year for me has been the final stages of the Women Bishops saga. This time last year, we were beginning to be hopeful that this new version of the legislation might actually get through Synod in a reasonable timescale. Just a year later, I can hardly believe that long, exhausting journey is finally over. (Well, nearly - we haven't actually had a woman appointed yet...).

July was great - tears of joy, and of relief, in equal measure. It felt like a weight being lifted from my shoulders when that vote went through - at last, no need to fight for this any more! The promulgation in November was much lower-key, a legal formality, but still a good moment.

But all this has brought a new and unexpected source of stress - I had no idea how draining all the speculation about who might be the first women bishops would be! I also had no idea that any of that would involve me personally. It seems ridiculous that people are naming me as a potential candidate - I know I am not on any official lists - but what was initially rather amusing is now becoming a serious embarrassment.

When the legislation first went through in July, a male colleague tweeted that he was pleased women priests would now have all the hassle men have with well-meaning parishioners asking if they were about to become a bishop, and I thought he was joking! But every woman priest I know has been saying the same thing in recent weeks, and it is all getting rather wearing.

Still, that is a small price to pay for the feeling of having played some small part in the major achievement of the Church of England opening all three orders of ministry to women on equal terms to men - hallelujah!

Spiritually, this is making me reflect on the nature of vocation afresh, and reminding me of my initial sense of calling to be a priest. Looking back on that initial experience from the perspective of twenty years later, is proving really interesting.

In the parish:

In the parish, I will remember this as the year of thinking and working on the concept of Shared Ministry. The best meetings of the year have been the evenings I've spent with the small task force convened to plan how best to go about implementing a Shared Ministry plan.

We prayed together, planned together, dreamed dreams together, and went about things slowly and steadily (NOT my natural modus operandi!), and we are finally being commissioned by Bishop Paul as a Shared Ministry Parish next week.

Spiritually, this has been a wonderfully affirming experience: I think we all felt the Spirit moving and guiding us in our meetings together, and I feel excited about what is to come as I begin to work with the new Shared Ministry Development Team that has been called.

What a year! I will remember it with exhaustion, with head-shaking wonder, and with - I hope - quiet satisfaction that it was a year that laid really solid foundations in God for the growth that came in later years.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Diversity Debate: Evolutionary Theology?

Last week I took part in one of the Oxford Faith Debates: 'What kind of unity is appropriate, nationally and internationally? How can diversity become a strength?'

You can listen to a podcast of the debate here:

Oxford Faith Debate on Diversity

My main points were:

1. 'Diversity' is a value-laden term. We use the word diversity to refer to differences that are morally neutral or good, differences we are prepared to tolerate or want to celebrate (and it often has a mildly patronising undertone). We don't use the term 'diversity' for differences that we consider unacceptable. We can conjugate this:

I am different, I stand out from the crowd. 
You are diverse; you bring interesting colour and variation to the scene. 
He is deviant. 

2. The Biblical images of diversity-in-unity - a vineyard, a body, a building - are all about unity of PURPOSE, or FUNCTION, rather than any more abstract idea of unity. The best example of this in the churches in recent times is perhaps the Jubilee 200) campaign. We may best find unity in action rather than belief?

3. The second part of the question provides us with the direction for answering the first. Diversity becomes a strength when it produces resilience, adaptation, flexibility. So the kind of unity that is appropriate is one that facilitates resilience etc. 

4. In agricultural terms (following on from all those biblical vineyard and field metaphors), diversity is opposed to monoculture. Using the insights of evolutionary biology (if God has chosen to create the world using the medium of evolution, God is presumably in favour of it as a method), Bio-diversity is generally seen as a strength because it is more resilient to changing conditions. I wonder if we can understand theology (and indeed culture), as well as biology, as evolving? If so, this would involve random mutations and a certain amount of adaptation to niches. The current clashes between theologies that have adapted to different niches around the world and within cultures might be analagous to the threat to biodiversity that human expansion is causing. 

I only had 5 minutes so I didn't say this: The future is uncertain - do we artificially preserve strands of theology that would otherwise die out in a 'survival of the fittest' battle, rather like the captive breeding of pandas or the preservation of steam trains? On the other hand, are we happy to simply allow theology red in tooth and claw to fight it out and let the collateral damage take care of itself? 

Can we learn from biological models? And can we step back enough from our own interests and beliefs to think about what might make for a resilient church?

The concept of 'mutual flourishing' draws on this bio-diversity model. It is in danger of being hijacked and turned into 'my right to demand what I say I need for my own flourishing': but it is still, I think, a concept that has some promise here. Ideally, it would result in something like 'three sisters' agriculture, in which all three crops flourish better and crop better as a result of being grown together. This doesn't work, of course, if the other crops are poisonous, or if their growth stunts our own: not any three crops can be grown together!

One person, in conversation after the debate, pointed out that what we all skated around was fear: fear of being threatened, fear of being the one to be stunted, fear of competition, and fear, I think, of the soteriological implications of all this.

Because the big question if we use an evolutionary model for theological diversity is: does it matter if we are right? Evolution inevitably produces dead ends as well as adaptation, since it is driven by random mutation. If we take the idea that God works through evolution seriously, what does that mean for salvation? Either we need to go for a Calvinist double-predestination, or we need to accept that being on the right end of evolution (biological or theological) isn't necessary for salvation. Food for thought?

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

5 Things I miss about being Laity

Don't get me wrong, being a priest is wonderful. It's a privilege, its an awesome vocation, and it is quite a responsibility to live up to. (I've always been very grateful that the vows at the ordination service are couched not as 'Yup, I will totally nail that' but as 'With the help of God, I will'.)

But there are always some things you miss about your old life when you change it, aren't there?
Here, in no particular order, are five things I miss about being a member of the laity:

1. Kneeling to receive communion.
              I guess this may vary from church to church, but wherever I've been I have usually been the only priest 'up front', and it is therefore me who is presiding. Sometimes I receive communion from a server, and sometimes I may even get to kneel, but I miss the experience of going up the altar rails and kneeling down and receiving communion as a guest rather than the host. In my last job I used to nip across to the cathedral for a lunchtime eucharist once or twice a week, but even just being a couple of miles further out that stops being a practical option. Very occasionally I have been able to do this in my own church, and it is wonderful. But even with only two churches, it is surprisingly rare.

2. Distributing the chalice.
            Staying with communion for now. As a lay person, I loved being on the chalice rota. There is something about it - the silver of the cup, the lights reflected in the deep red of the wine, the careful attentiveness to the communicants that is needed to see how each one intends to handle taking the cup and whether you are pouring too much down their throat or not letting them get to the wine if you are tipping it yourself - that speaks deep within me. But in big church services, the convention is that the priest distributes the bread, while the lay chalice assistants do the wine. I secretly love the tiny little services that mean I get to do the wine too!

3. Being able to miss things.
            OK, this and the next one on the list are more about being the vicar than being a priest per se. But as a lay person, even when I was very involved in the church - on PCC, on deanery synod, or when my husband was a churchwarden, for example - if we were on holiday, or ill, we simply didn't attend the meetings that happened that week, and other people did the stuff that was needed. Or if we really didn't fancy a particular church social event, or were knackered after work that day, we didn't go. As a priest-on-the-staff, though, that just doesn't seem to be acceptable. If I am on holiday, the meeting gets rearranged for a week when I am free. If I have a headache, I go to the pie 'n' pea supper anyway. This is exhausting.

4. Having a staycation.
          Living in a vicarage is many things, some good, some bad. One of the really, really bad ones is not being able to have a holiday in your own home. Maybe some people manage it, but I find it really hard to switch off, even if I shut the study door (which isn't really practical if I want to do anything else that uses the computer, like write my novel, or google the opening times of an attraction). The whole house is a symbol of my work. A holiday in it is not really a holiday. This is tough on the rest of the family, who would love to just lounge around at home - it is also tough on the budget, as holiday cottages are expensive if you use them for 5 or 6 weeks of the year!

5. Using my gifts and talents in the church.
          But aren't I doing? Well, sort of, yes. But being a lay person meant I could really be me in the church - I wasn't responsible for a whole raft of stuff getting done, with any personal flourishes being an add-on at best. As a lay person, I did what I did well - ran a massive community passion play for the millenium, or a parish panto, for example. As a priest, anything I do that I am doing because I am me seems to instantly draw accusations of being distracted from my 'real job'. Even if I do it in my day off, or in my (theoretically) one-free-session-in-three-per-day, it is seen as time that I clearly could have spent visiting more people, or doing more church stuff, since I was 'free'. I particularly resent the (often well-meant) line 'Oh, we know you can't do more, you've got a family': the implication being that if I didn't, I should be working 24/6 for the parish. I try to tell myself that the point of being ordained was to set me, in all my particularity, aside for God. But I miss the freedom to be myself for God that I probably never fully appreciated when I was a layperson.

What about you?

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Magic, Sparkle & Penguins: Some thoughts on Christmas Ads

I've just watched the M&S Christmas ad on twitter - #followthefairies. And yesterday I watched the John Lewis 'Monty the penguin'ad. I'm a vicar, so perhaps I should be railing about the fact that they don't once mention Jesus, the nativity, or even peace on earth and goodwill to all?

In fact, both brought a tear to my eyes. Yes, I am that soppy. And that is of course exactly what was meant to happen to someone who is solidly part of the ABC1 middle-aged comfortably well-off target market of both retailers.

Its an interesting phenomenon, this ad-designed-explicitly-to-go-viral-on-social-media genre. As someone who used to work in brand management and commissioned a few TV adverts in my time, I can make a guess at the huge resources that have been put behind these mini-epics.  And I admire them as pieces of creative work, and - yes - very good marketing campaigns designed to make us spend more. I'm not going to knock them for that - its their job.

But what of the 'real meaning of Christmas'? What of Jesus' birth?

Perhaps most important for us who try, in the church, to communicate to these same people the message of Christmas - WHY did those ads make me cry? What bit of me were they touching?

(I am deliberately stepping back from the next question hovering on the tip of my tongue, and perhaps on yours - how can we exploit that ourselves? Because if we move from 'yuck, how can people simply use Christmas as a commercial opportunity to exploit?' to 'how we can use those ideas to exploit it ourselves?' we are on a very slippery slope indeed. Let's not go there today.)

But my main reaction to those ads was NOT outrage, or annoyance, or dissatisfaction. It was a tearful sentimentality, a sense of joy and upliftedness. And yet I'm a Christian - I'm a vicar, whose job is to get people to think of Christ at Christmas. Should I be embarrassed to have been so manipulated? Should I be condemning these ads?

Actually, I don't think so. Lovely as it would be if such major advertising budgets happened to publicise my own agenda at the same time as their own, telling people the Christmas story is our job as Christians, not the job of the M&S or John Lewis advertising agencies.

In fact, I think I'd be more concerned if one of those ads used the nativity for its own purposes. Wouldn't you? That would cause more of a problem for us, I think - and I give them credit for probably having thought that one through, and decided it would be unethical to use the sacred story of a religion for their own ends.

So why was I moved? In the John Lewis ad - #MontyThePenguin - the bit that got me was the end, when the little boy is revealed to be so pleased to have received another penguin soft toy, almost exactly the same as the one he already has. OK, OK, it is about buying more stuff for the kids that they don't 'need'. But I have a little boy like that, whose best present ever would be another teddy bear, identical to the one he has, because he loves it so much. Its not really about endless stuff its about knowing your child, and giving them the one thing that will really delight them. Its the thought that counts.

The M&S ad is a lot more cold-bloodedly commercial, and rather less moving for that. But the moment at the end when the fairies switch off the TV and avert the incipient tantrum by making it snow is every middle-class parent's dream - and the little bit of romcom at the end was the perfect finishing touch.

So yeah, I'm completely soppy, easily manipulated, and LOVE Christmas - magic, sparkle, penguins, the lot. And do you know what? I think all that cultural excitement around our Christian celebration helps, rather than hinders, our proclamation.

They aren't doing our job for us - but they are doing a very good job of building the excitement, the anticipation, of Advent for us.

People want magic, sparkle, sentiment; they want their children to be happy; they want joy, anticipation, a sense that the humdrum everyday is not all that life is about.

If we can't build on that to make our message heard, we need to look closely at what we are doing as churches, rather than moan about the warm-up act.

Last year someone came to my church for Christmas, and admitted slightly embarrassed to just be there for that one day that she came because you do Christmas properly. I think that was one of the highest compliments Ive ever received.

So I hope we dont hear a lot of Christian grumbling about the commercialisation of Christmas this year. (If you want to grumble, do something practical instead match your spend on Christmas with your giving to a charity like Christian Aid).

Instead, lets concentrate on doing Christmas properly. Celebrate, tell the story, show how that magic/sparkle/joy (Ok, perhaps we cant offer penguins) isnt just a commercial confection for one day only, but is available to us all because of what happened that first Christmas.