Priests make poor researchers. Discuss.

1 05 2009

Part of my training for ordination involved being exposed to some social science and anthropological strategies for getting under the skin of whatever setting one finds one’s self in. Those modules encouraged us not to just trust our hunches and superficial impressions but to dig deep into the culture of the places in which we find ourselves exercising our ministry. In my current MA too there has been a substantial module on designing a research project. That partly informed my current strategy of immersing myself in different contexts for a concentrated, though short, period of time.

Ethnography (an anthropological discipline) is the technique that informs my engagement with these placements where I come as a participant observer. I haven’t come as an out and out researcher. I have come as a priest. And I have come into my current setting – a primary school in the centre of Portsmouth – offering some input that I have developed as I have reflected on the nature of spirituality and how people, especially children might be encouraged in their own sense of connectedness with themselves, each other, the wider world and ‘the transcendent’ (however they name that). I have also come as a learner – offering simply to be another learning and growing presence in the school.

I’m not here as a researcher in the official/explicit sense. That would have required a different conversation seeking permission to be here than the one I actually had. But I am here to learn, and to understand this community and maybe reflect a little how the church might celebrate, support, contribute to its life. So I am informally using some ethnographic strategies to help me in that process. That’s all a very long preamble to the point I want to make…

One thing that is identified in all the books about research is that ‘going native’ is something to be avoided, though it’s an ever-present draw in research settings. Basically researchers are supposed to avoid identifying too strongly with their research subjects because it distorts their findings. But as I said to the headteacher today, three days into this placement, I could very easily find myself being a passionate advocate for this school and its work.

So that probably means I’m a rubbish researcher. Well I can’t say as I care much about that, though it may make my MA dissertation a little more tricky!

Maybe it’s just down to my personality. I remember feeling similar feelings of admiration for the nurses I was interviewing for my pre-ordination placement. But maybe it’s also got something to do with the nature of priesthood too. Going native might be the bête noïr of the world of research but I wonder whether it might be precisely what a good priest should be about: identifying with people; celebrating with them; calling out the joy and hope that is evident even in the most trying of circumstances. These are certainly an aspect of the calling of a priest. There is also, undeniably, a call to relate the stories out of which that celebration emerges to the narratives of faith. How that works in this setting, I am a long way from working out. Certainly it would just be crass, arrogant and rude, to go round the place saying ‘it’s all thanks to God, you know!’ (That’s just so obvious it probably doesn’t even need saying.)

But maybe again it is just about who I am in this place and who I am known to be. Maybe my presence as a priest, subtly and gently raises the prospect that there might just be a bigger dynamic at work here than just the indomitability of the human spirit, impressive as that is. But it doesn’t force that interpretation down anyone’s throat. If anyone wants to explore it further they can ask me. If it unsettles them, they don’t have to be confronted with it in a challenging way. That leaves everyone’s dignity intact and makes no threat, I think, to the properly multicultural (and secular?) nature of this school.

I suspect this obsession with God is quaint and amusing for some who might now be reading this blog, but I hope you will allow that as a priest in the Church of England it’s a subject I might just be reasonably expected to think about!

[This post has been cleared with the school’s headteacher.]


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3 10 2009
Spiritual discernment in pioneer ministry. « the Pompey Pioneer

[…] I don’t approach these places as a research student but as a christian priest. I’ve written elsewhere on why that might tend to make one a poor […]

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