I’ve just got back from a weekend away with some members of the St Luke’s congregation. We had a mixed programme of sharing meals, simple acts of prayer and some sessions beginning to map the personal trajectories that have brought us together and the shared direction we might find for the future. Some of the material I prepared worked well, one or two bits didn’t work quite so well. That’s to be expected. But the most important outcome was that I think we had fun, got to know each other better and drew closer together as a result.
One of the sessions that my colleague, the Revd Alex Hughes (Priest-in-Charge of St Luke’s) ran was about preparing a personal mission statement. You can find the material here. Now generally speaking I’m not in favour of mission statements. Particularly for a parish church. I think it’s much better to work from a set of values and be open to all kinds of possibilities, not close them down. But on this occasion, as a personal exercise, it was a really inspiring. It helped me to clarify what I’m about.
Here’s what I ended up with:
My mission is to promote human flourishing by playfully and creatively encouraging the search for meaning, connectedness and community.
It’s a snapshot, or distillation, of where the conversations I’ve been having about working in other people’s space have taken me.
But what does it mean?
I hope ‘human flourishing’ might speak for itself. I believe in the unique and irreplaceable value and potential of every human being, no matter what limitations they face. To flourish we must each find a good degree of satisfaction at each level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This would include his late addition of the realm of ‘self-transcendence’ (what I would want to call spirituality). I think there’s a lot to be said for those critics of Maslow who find his hierarchy spurious whilst accepting the range of needs he described. In fact I often find myself saying to people that spirituality isn’t an add-on or something for the leisured and monied classes alone. It goes to the heart of our humanity. In other words, it’s not the thing you attend to once all the other ‘lower level’ needs have been met.
Our current economic and global situation suggests the reverse. Material abundance for many in the West has not led to human flourishing. Our spiritual poverty in comparison to much of the Global South is now evident. We must be careful of romanticising the Global South, of course. Its people suffer more than their fair share of violence and injustice.
A robust spiritiality can be seen to enable people to bear privations in some other areas of need. That doesn’t mean that it should anaesthetise people to their own suffering or that of others. (Marx called religion the opiate of the masses.) Quite the opposite. Spiritual flourishing will help people give voice to their suffering and to protest injustice and so inspire people to strive for peace, justice and well-being for all.
That’s implicit in that idea of ‘connectedness’. It us takes beyond seeing ourselves as an isolated individual, at odds with the world. It’s a recognition that our existence and worth is connected to other people, to the environment we share with other creatures and to ‘transcendent reality’. That’s what the theist calls God but something I think an atheist might recognise in their experience of awe and wonder in the face of the universe. An agnostic too will also recognise the experience of moments of connecting with something bigger than ourselves without wanting to be explicit about where the experience comes from.
‘Meaning’ is about finding a sense of personal and communal identity, worth and purpose. It’s about how we find and derive our values. I was talking today to someone responsible for the housing, care and education of socially excluded young people. I was suggesting to her that ‘spirituality’ is not peripheral for the young people she’s working with but that finding a sense of identity, purpose and worth is absolutely fundamental to their finding a place in the world as much as any practical skills they might need.
‘Community’ is perhaps already implicit in the other two words, especially ‘connectedness’. But it helps me to focus on the most important context in which that sense of connectedness can be realised. I don’t just mean community in terms of people in our locality but in the sense that we all need to find ourselves in a close-knit group. We are relational creatures. We need community. ‘Connectedness’ returns here as an important value if that close-knit group is not to become claustrophobic and tribal.
Those are all things that I believe are inherent in our common humanity but there are other drives and structures in the world that conspire to crush the human spirit.
It is therefore not irrelevant for there to be people who work to awaken and encourage each person’s latent spirituality. That’s what my faith motivates me to do and that’s very much my personal sense of vocation. I’m increasingly convinced that this search requires a significant degree of cognitive openness and imagination. That I see most evident in children and in the creative arts. Adults have then, so much to learn from the open, exploratory, learning and playful way that children approach the world. I want to work with children both to enable them to flourish as human beings in their own right but also because I have so much to learn from them for myself and on behalf of others.
So what. Why should you be interested in my personal mission statement?
I am a big old show off but even I feel a little embarrassed about parading my values in this public space. But this is about recording the process of discernment and that must surely include any developments in my personal sense of vocation. In fact I think it would be hard to separate the two. Writing my statement had been for me a moment of crystalisation of what I think I’m all about and so what I think my work might end up being all about.
Some Christian colleagues and friends reading this might find it a bit vague and woolly. It says nothing about wanting to preach the gospel or grow the Christian church. Partly that’s a result of finding myself increasingly drawn to arenas where proselytisation is expressly off the agenda. I don’t think the Church should withdraw from engaging in those public spaces — that’s what pioneer ministry is about (as is chaplaincy often too).
But have I completely given up on any desire that people would hear Jesus’s call to follow him and so become part of the community of his followers? No. But that doesn’t mean I have a covert agenda. It’s following Jesus that motivates me to work for human flourishing and spiritual awakening. I will not be hiding the fact that I’m a Christian priest. The resources I have to draw upon are the riches of the Christian spiritual tradition. And I can’t imagine (though this makes me think that I haven’t actually asked) that people responsible for the places I’m asking to work in would object to me honestly responding to questions about my own spirituality or even helping genuine enquirers to discover more.
I do think it can be a good thing to find Christian faith. I don’t think it automatically makes you a better human being. History tells a different story. But maybe that’s because Christianity hasn’t always been very true to Jesus, as the Church’s many casualties throughout the ages and today can testify…