For some years I have played with the idea of SSM (unpaid/volunteer) clergy and their stipendiary (paid clergy) friends meeting from time-to-time in the upper room of a pub where we might experiment with – learn to hold – conversations. The working title for this gathering was to be ‘Chapter & Verse’. It would be an Undergroud Seminary of sorts. There’d be none of the popular ‘theological expert’ speaker stuff followed by questions; instead we’d seek new ways of sharing knowledge, learning from one another, caring for one another, seeking God and reading the signs of the times. We’d aim to retake theology back from the academy and the ‘experts’ (or at least from its specialised annexation from our lived lives) and seek to learn afresh what it means to be stewards of the mysteries of God as Paul rather invitingly puts it [1 Cor 4:1].
Come, ye thankful people, come, / Raise the song of harvest home!
All is safely gathered in, / Ere the winter storms begin;
God, our Maker, doth provide / For our wants to be supplied;
Come to God's own temple, come; / Raise the song of harvest home!
I was driving to the next village for the paper and some provisions when BBC R4 started its Harvest Festival Sunday Worship. I've always had a sense that the broadcasting of church services does not really work. To say its like overhearing other people having sex isn't quite the thing, but has a hint of it. In both cases, I'm happy for them, but don't wish to be an aural partner to the proceedings. And whereas the latter don't (usually) want you to hear, and are not addressing you as an attendant third party, the church gig is addressed to you. They are polite and welcoming, as if you were visiting their house.
Church services are alien events to the majority. The players in broadcast services tend to be keen to talk of welcome (fair enough of course) and also of the ever-present God with whom they are on intimate terms. A common ploy, I've noticed, is to talk of their church buildings as where 'prayer is valid' (cf. T. S. Eliot's Little Gidding) and where the very walls are saturated with it. The implied message is that God appears to be domiciled in churches, and one is left with the impression may not often venture out. But the Gospel is not concerned with what happens inside churches, but what one makes of life in light of the claims and accounts of the man Jesus. And when did you last hear a church service broadcast that featured intelligent, sharp accounts from faithful lay Christians about being the church beyond the building?
I am nearly always inspired by Richard Holloway. I was struck by a particular recollection of his, found in this BBC Hardtalk interview at 4 minutes 22 seconds. He speaks of the shame he felt at having sent his hard-working labourer father a ‘pious’ letter urging him to embrace Jesus, RH remarks (with tears in his eyes) ‘religion gives you permission to perform these discourtesies’. Indeed it can. The whole interview is worth watching.
I was listening to a BBC Radio 4 Sunday service which came from an English Cathedral. The Dean and the Precentor were the emcees, and it all seemed, well, a little too pleased with itself. The worship got close to being worship of the cathedral. It reminded me of hearing another dean from another cathedral say in some TV programme that 'people come to [our] cathedral to find God'. This is not an uncommon line in the discourse of cathedral functionaries and indeed in the narratives a number of cathedrals develop about themselves in print and media. It seems unappealing as well as heretical. Clergy often talk about churches in these terms - people coming 'to find God' there; maybe cathedral clergy think churches only a second best location compared to their own. But it is this notion that God (the God of the institution, clearly) is domiciled only - or particularly - in churches and cathedrals that seems misleading and fundamentally so anti-incarnational. It may be but another manifestation of the narcissism some institutions can - sometimes - develop.
I don’t recall when exactly I became alert to the easy and self-referential use of the possessive, but it was very many years ago. I am perfectly happy with it in some settings: my daughter/son; my partner, my home – though personally I’d use ‘our’ for two of those. I have always disliked the use of ‘my’ when used by people to describe their colleagues - especially subordinate ones. I was once in a lift at the headquarters of the social services department I had just joined, to be introduced as ‘one of my social workers’ by the Area Director. As a rooky I had no business taking offence, but I did.
Is the use of the ‘my’ possessive such a problem? I think so, for it defines the speaker as the reference point of all things. Me. Mine. The human ego is a slippery critter and does much harm. Ownership is one of its favourite claims. Do I have life or does life have me? The latter I think.
I shiver very slightly when people speak of ‘my career’. For two reasons. One is the ‘my’ again; the other is the pretension of it. I’d rather speak of the work I do. I realise this line of thinking – and reacting – goes against the modern grain. The modern grain is concerned with me and mine. The egotistical self, again.
In church circles I flinch at the very common ‘my ministry’ as used by clergy. I had always thought it was Christ’s ministry. And what is wrong with work – the work I do (in the church)? Language defines and too often divides what ought not to be divided. Too many things – phrases, privileges – already separate the clergy from the laity in the life of the church. A trend so entrenched hardly anyone notices it.
But the church is small fry in the scheme of things. The tendency to think and act in possessives – me, mine – harms us all and all human activity - indeed, it is harming our irreplaceable planet. Is it fanciful to think that violence in its many forms is often brought to birth by it?
I was grateful to be invited to address a conference of self supporting (unpaid) priests recently. It was a good day and I met many inspiring people. One of the things I found myself saying was that the church needs more feral clergy - this as an antidote to the dangerously inoffensive, ‘nice’ and only peripherally relevant tendencies of many a Church of England cleric. Feral can mean ‘having returned to an untamed state from domestication.....’.
I have been thinking lately of Alan Ecclestone's pioneering 'Church Meetings' in his Darnall parish and the business of vertical and horizontal relationships in church life.... (follow 'Read More')
I know Christian people who do not attend church because their experience has been that it is predisposed to a model they find infantilising...
In 2010 I wrote a short article on power and clericalism. I went back to it today as part of a continuing interest in why the church-as-institution strikes many as unappealing as an avenue for the adventure of faith. My thoughts keep returning to the idea that our entrenched model of being the church tends (tends) towards the infantalisation of the enquirier. Its something I touched on in the article which you can find here (follow the 'read more' link).