Recently our elder son commented on Facebook: ‘I wonder what would happen if we all gave up #breakingnews for Lent? For me, #slownews epitomizes the season of pause and reflection’.
This struck a chord with me, for there is so much pressure in our preaching during Lent constantly to emphasise discipline and austerity, something which, if you are an Anglican, our printed liturgies and prayers reinforce. Nothing wrong with discipline, so long as we recognise that it is needed all year round, not just in Lent. So long as we realise, too, that it can turn into a kind of reverse arrogance: ‘If only I could make myself a better person, I would be in better standing with God.’ Do we really suppose that we would ever reach perfection? If we persuaded ourselves that we had, would this not constitute pride, which can be guaranteed to lead us away from God towards our own self-preoccupation?
I was reflecting on these issues when I came across a passage from Martin Smith’s A Season for the Spirit (a title which is as good a description of the essence of Lent as one might wish). He says that hat we should give up is
‘resistance to the One who loves me infinitely more than I can guess, the One who is more on my side than I am myself. Dwelling on this thought of letting go, and handing myself over to the Spirit will bring me much closer to the experience of Jesus than the word “discipline” which so many of us have been trained to invoke at the beginning of Lent. It should help us smile at our anxious attempts to bring our life under control, the belt-tightening resolutions about giving up this or taking on that. What we are called to give up in Lent is control itself! Deliberate attempts to impose discipline on our lives often serve only to lead us further away from the freedom which Jesus attained through surrender to the Spirit, and promised to give’.
The hardest thing about Lent, and about the life of faith in general, is to accept the depth and breadth of God’s love for each one of us, to avoid what I would call ‘Yesbuttery’ You know the sort of thing: ‘God loves you’; ‘Yes, but… – I’m not a very charitable person / I don’t love God enough / I’m not grateful enough’. It’s as if we want to arrive at Easter entitled to give ourselves a pat on the back for what we have achieved on the way to self-perfection. Our lives will not be transformed by deliberate self-focused discipline, but by accepting that however much resistance we put up, nothing can separate us from the love of God.
I’m reading at the moment Eric Stoddart’s Theological Perspectives on a Surveillance Society: Watching and being Watched (Ashgate: Farnham and Burlington, 2011). Stoddart rightly recognises the legitimate anxieties most citizens harbour about surveillance, but also emphasises that surveillance can be undertaken for purposes of care. I was reminded of this at a recent meeting of the diocesan Ministry Development Review Supporters. Words like ‘review’ or ‘appraisal’ often evoke resistance among those on the receiving end, clergy being no more immune to this reaction than those who work in academic institutions, which is the environment I know best.
Review is often initially perceived as intrusive and threatening. My own experience of MDR, however, both as a review supporter and as a reviewee, suggests that the dimension of care is in practice uppermost. What struck me at the meeting in question was the degree of concern for the isolation experienced by clergy, especially full-time stipendiary clergy, and the unremitting nature of the demands made on them. A particular issue which is often overlooked, both by congregations and by church authorities, is the sense of bereavement that clergy are bound to experience when they retire from a ministry to which they have dedicated virtually all their waking hours. Sensitive application of mechanisms like MDR can be helpful, among other ways, in assisting clergy to prepare for retirement, and to develop (or recover) a life which is not wholly consumed by service to a congregation.
At the meeting, I announced that I wanted to retire from the role of MDR Supporter, one of several ‘ancillary’ ministerial jobs that I am gradually relinquishing. I did so in the belief that the care of ministerial colleagues demands a level of commitment and energy which I am finding harder to maintain as I get older.
Scottish Episcopalians worry a lot about declining congregational rolls, and understandably so. It is sobering to reflect that even the established Church of Scotland counts as regular worshippers only 9% of the total population of Scotland, and that Episcopalians constitute 10% of that 9%.
As a bit of encouragement to reflect on our strengths, which go well beyond numbers, you might like this.
As a non-stipendiary assistant, I find myself in demand to cover various vacancies and absences in the Diocese, and will have been away from my own church most of the summer. Mostly I enjoy this. There is the freshness of new experiences, different environments and worship styles, and one always gets a warm welcome from congregations who are very appreciative of the opportunity to have the Eucharist, which otherwise they might have to forgo.
And yet, doubts are beginning to arise. Am I becoming a ‘Mass priest’, parachuted in at short notice to do the stuff that others are not licensed to do? It’s true that I’m developing a rapport with congregations I have visited more than once, but I miss the deep continuous immersion in community that one gets from being in the same place relating to the same people over time, the empathetic awareness of who is troubled, who is at odds with whom, who is displaying gifts which have potential for the building-up of the fellowship of faith.
Over and above my own personal anxieties, however, there are urgent questions for the whole Church about future patterns of ministry and worship. Is it realistic to assume, as our recruitment and training practices and our territorial organisation seem to assume, that the traditional model of a congregation led by someone in presbyteral orders is going to continue indefinitely? And if not, how soon are we going to get to work on evolving alternative patterns of congregational life?
I spent most of last week at a very stimulating conference in St Andrews, devoted entirely to Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. As a non-specialist who doesn’t know Greek, I found a lot of it was above my head. Why, I thought from time to time, are we spending 30-45 minutes at several points in the conference analysing two words of text, or an obscure Greek particle? When I was doing my Master’s at St Andrews, exegesis was of zero interest to me, and in my essay on it I was far from covering myself with glory. Indeed, I had a friendly disagreement with the relevant lecturer, insisting that I couldn’t see the point of detailed technical exegesis for the kind of work I was doing at the coalface of ministry. I don’t think we managed to convince each other.
Yet there were moments of real illumination during the conference, when things suddenly jelled, and the relevance of this meticulous approach became clear. For example, a good deal of time was spent on the phrase pistis Christou, which can be read either as ‘faith in Christ’ or ‘the faith of Christ’, depending on whether Christou is taken as a Subjective Genitive or an Objective Genitive (things well known to New Testament scholars, but news to me). Just at the point where this was threatening to become mind-numbing, it struck me that this has far-reaching implications for faith, for pastoral care, and for preaching. ‘Faith in Christ’ can take one in the direction of requiring assent to doctrinal formulae as a qualification for membership of the Christian Church. ‘The faith of Christ’ seems to me to be more open-ended and spacious. If it means our sharing Christ’s faith, his trust in God even in the midst of apparent rejection, continuing to trust despite not being able to see the future, then it is more congenial to the notion that God is always doing a new thing, and that the working out of God’s intentions will take us further than we can possibly imagine now. The implications of this for opening up new understandings of those parts of the Christian tradition which have, for example, oppressed women and stigmatised gay people are profound.
So I came away convinced that the jobbing pastor needs to understand the relevance of this highly academic work to the everyday task of accompanying his/her flock in their journey towards and with God. And yes, I shall make an effort to learn Greek.
I spent last weekend in Northern Ireland to attend the funeral of an uncle, someone for whom I have always retained great affection, as I have for all his family. As is often the case with funerals, perhaps especially in Ireland, it was an opportunity to meet relatives I don’t see very often, first, second and even third cousins, their spouses and children. With most of these people I have very little in common, in terms of shared memories, shared interests, work background, or life experience. Yet it was a reminder that once lives touch each other, however briefly or glancingly, some sort of bond is established, if only because awareness of difference can encourage us to discover and affirm our own individuality. We do not make ourselves, and, for better or worse, we are shaped by those we have related to in any way in our journey through life. Moreover, the experience of meeting again after a long time can be rendered poignant by the sense of regret that the passage of time, and the fact that our lives unfold along different trajectories, have too often made it impossible to get to know our extended families in any significant depth, or to be enriched by their distinctive personalities and gifts.
Coincidentally, I have also recently re-established contact with people I last saw on our graduation day nearly fifty years ago. It is a reminder that we never cease being part of a community which is greater than our immediate or most cherished relationships. No human contact ever goes to waste: ‘this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me’ (Jn. 6:39).
Old Swedish woman,
whose name I shall never know,
whom I had never met,
and shall never see again:
as you approached,
gently and reverently
to drink from the chalice,
this moved stranger
felt the full weight of priesthood
and the universal reach
of the love of God.
Glöstorp, Göteborg, 5 September, 2010.