Sunday, 30 October 2011

Frustrations at the Cathedral

It's been a frustrating week for anyone who longs for the church to break out of the 'private, ineffectual religious club' image that it seems to suffer under in the UK. At just the point when there was a ready made group of people literally on the doorstep of St Paul's Cathedral (what amazing opportunities - quick what shall we do? go and mingle; be seen in dog collars; have outdoor discussions/services...?) the Cathedral closed down, to bizarrely reopen a few short days later. The heavy symbolism of the church shutting its doors just when the action was hotting up was not lost on journalists, who on the whole seem to have shown a slightly better grasp of the many ironies than anyone towing the official Cathedral party line. 'What astute Anglican (...) could look out over a sea of the best behaved civic protesters (...) and see a problem instead of a vast, synergetical opportunity?' asked Lucy Mangan in the Guardian. Astute Anglicans indeed. I don't like to think (and nor did Giles Fraser) of how this is going to end but at least it's shown that the supposed Christian messsage isn't entirely lost on commentators - and when there's a meaty subject to hand, the church has a vital role to play in contemporary life and many rich, if sometimes squandered, opportunities.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

aaaaagggggghhhhhhh, the sermon.

The sermon. 

Long, short, boring or riveting, at some point in an Anglican service the priest is expected to stand up and spout. As an exercise in balancing bible with current events; doctrine with experience, it's pretty challenging. Cardinal sins: too much personal information/too little personal information; too much enthusiasm/too little enthusiasm; for a mother - talking about your children too much, especially if they are unfortunate enough to be in the congregation. Evangelicals like 'em long; middle of the road-ers are happy with 10 minutes; Catholically-minded brethren insist on calling them homilies (?) Increasingly I'm wondering how they sit with education theory and practice which rightly values interactive learning. Didn't Jesus do something along those lines too? I sometimes come home and imagine what would have happened if I had just stood up and asked a whole lot of awkward questions that needed debate, stirred things up a bit. After wanging on for a while and noticing that some are looking at the floor/ceiling/have head in hands (clearly responding in profound repentance so that's okay) I do wonder sometimes....and Anglicans are so polite - you never can gauge a response ('Nice sermon, thank you').
So what are people expecting from a sermon? (Thoughts welcome) and what is the general point of it? (Thoughts welcome) And as for the pulpit - in this egalitarian, de-constructing, post-modern era, is it not a totally anachronistic piece of church architecture? Or am I just stirring things up a bit?

Sunday, 16 October 2011


Being a priest is all about connections. I get depressed about the loss of connection between God and the rest of life that is perceived by society and underlined in the media. And the church can collude - we act like a private club where people who 'are into that sort of thing' can sing hymns, pray, etc., while 'normal' life continues for everyone else.
But some glimmers of light this week - Frank Skinner's 'I don't worship the great God normal' lifted me - and the Radio 2 broadcaster, Janey Lee Grace, a bold positive advert for women, said 'I pray all the time, for everything, big and small. It's a conversation with God - and apparently he listens' (Church Times). Also Jeanette Winterson (she who wrote so scathingly of oppression in Christianity, in Oranges are not the only fruit) celebrated the Sixty-six Books bible- as- theatre project at the Bush Theatre - writing that it was 'an intellectually alive, socially aware challenge, not afraid to explore spirituality in a secular society'.
It is a constant priestly challenge to connect people and God in a two-way conversation about life, hope, fear, sadness, loss, joy. Good liturgy is able to touch someone in that moment, in that experience. Connection is a particular challenge at funerals; this week some more light broke through - literally: I took an ashes interment of a gentleman who was fond of quoting St Matthew: 'The sun shines on the righteous and the unrighteous alike'. At the moment of interment the sun beamed down through a gap in the autumn branches, directly onto the grave - nowhere else - to the comfort and delight of all. It was quite a moment of connection.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

X Factor - love it or loathe it?

It happens every year - I swear I am not going to watch it, then one of the children switches it on and over the weeks I get hooked. So how many other Anglican clergy watch X Factor and what do they think of it? Do Christians talk about it after morning worship? How often does it feature in a sermon? Love it or loathe it, you can't ignore it. Why? Firstly it's about people and stories - preferably an 'underdog made good' story, with tears. This can be moving or mawkish. Then it's about gift, dreams and delusion - some can really sing but don't know it - others really can't but embarrassingly think otherwise. At its worst it's the modern day freak show, like the Victorians with their Elephant Man or Bearded Lady. And it's about mentoring, the judges passing on their expertise to the less experienced who want to grow and need someone to believe in them.
Does all this have anything to say about how we do church? Church is people and if we don't hear each other's stories we're like strangers to each other. It's also about gift - discovering yours and putting it to work. It's about believing, hoping, dreaming, celebrating. So in true X Factor speak, I want to follow my (God given) dream; 'nail it' and put 110% into this thing called church.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Amongst the many images of priesthood garnered from 'worthy' books on the subject (...priest as companion, pain-bearer, witness, risk-taker, pray-er, reconciler...makes you exhausted before you even begin) the only really helpful one which remains for me is Justin Lewis-Anthony's priest as 'Weaver' (from the memorably entitled If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him.) Amid the often disparate and sometimes peculiar things that a priest is asked to respond to in any one week, the picture of the weaver has helped me to try and tie some of them together. Apparent randomness and unfruitfulness (pointless paperwork; house over noisy with 3 simultaneous music practices; no sermon because I had a virus all week) it can feel as though things are falling apart at the seams (to continue the sewing analogy.)
So here's some weaving: this week my own incapacity made me reflect on what it's like for those who daily experience real suffering...meanwhile the hot October sun shed its heat on good and bad experiences alike... and in the garden, the overwhelming fruitfulness of the apple harvest continues to have nothing whatever to do with my usefulness as a human being. It's just sheer blessing.