Joining the apologensia – or why you always wait ages for a post and then they all come at once.

20 01 2010

Blogging inevitably involves apologising from time to time for having gone silent. I’ve done that more than once on this blog and I’m sure I’ll do it again. I hope I don’t have an overblown concept of my own importance but I do know some of you personally who have said that you read my blog. So, for all of you, sorry I haven’t posted anything in the last 25 days. It has felt like a phenomenally busy period. But if I get out of the habit of reflecting on what it is I’m doing, not just with colleagues but with ‘the world’ (alright maybe I have got an overblown idea of my own importance!) – if I get out of that habit, then without the chance of encountering correctives from a variety of sources, there’s the potential for drift.

There is actually a lot to bring y’all up to speed on, so rather than trying to write a mega post that will never be finished, I’ll post a few shorter updates. So like the clichéd buses, you’ll have waited ages and then several will come at once…





New Year’s resolutions

10 01 2010

It’s amazing how often a break from work gives you the opportunity to think more clearly about work. So it was in the Christmas break for me. I took the week after Christmas off.

I was in the shower… actually it’s remarkable how often these soughts of moments (epiphanies?) occur in that small cubicle. I’m not a utility showerer. That bathroom is a bit of a retreat for me. I do often catch myself sort of on pause — you could call it daydreaming — while the water streams over me. Anyway it was one of those moments. It occurred to me that if I am to stand any chance of completing my MA dissertation by the 11th May deadline, I really can’t afford to take on any new projects.

And I did have some plans forming.

I was planning a sort of rolling guerrilla happening for Lent. I had it in mind to make a kind of portable sacred space with a shed on pram wheels — it would be part soapbox go-cart, part outbuilding and part mobile confessional. The plan forming in my mind was that that I would tow the thing around the city centre behind my bike. It would pop up each week in unexpected places, like the Guildhall Square, the train station concourse, in front of the law courts, on the footbridge by the university halls of residence and the car park of the city centre academy school.

As I write now, I’m still gripped by the romance of the idea. It would be fun. It might generate a buzz. It would be arresting. (Actually without the right permissions in place, I might be arrested!) It’s a good idea (even if I do say so myself). I would feel very satisfied if I managed to make it happen.

So too would I if I managed to create some sort of weekly drop in – dare I say sanctuary – kind of sacred space in the city centre academy school. It’s a great moment as the academy establishes itself. It could work. It’s a good idea. I would feel very satisfied if I managed to make it happen.

But any satisfaction I experienced would be inevitably spoilt by the constant nagging feeling that something else significant I had already committed myself to was being left behind. Namely, my unwritten MA dissertation.

Now my own personal satisfaction isn’t the final arbiter of what I should and shouldn’t do. But that’s not to say it doesn’t come into it at all. Of course it does. I’m a human being. I can’t honestly pray the prayer for generosity of St Ignatius of Loyola. Can you? And St Ignatius himself, describing the process of discerning God’s will talks about doing what brings you consolation and not doing what brings desolation. Again, that’s a much deeper question than what brings satisfaction or dissatisfaction. But neither is it wholly divorced from all that.

What seems clear to me is that there are moments when you have to say no to good ideas – other people’s or your own. You have to leave aside things it would be really good to do, at the moment that might seem in some ways the best moment to do them, because you simply don’t have the capacity to take anything else on without giving up on commitments you’ve already made.

That’s what I, with some degree of regret, am resolved to do in the first part of this year. It’s tough for a pioneer – a natural initiator – to move into a holding pattern. But the MA dissertation has to be my primary project if it’s not to be abandoned altogether.





The News: Church gets room at the inn for chat about faith

8 01 2010

Nice article about Sanctuary in the News today and comment in the leader column. The News is Portsmouth’s local newspaper. Now I know we’re not doing anything particularly earth shatteringly new here, but it’s nice to get some positive coverage.





Of regeneration and resurrection.

6 01 2010

Tonight, with my sons, I re-watched David Tennant’s last ever(?) outing as the Doctor. I’m never quite sure whether it’s great telly or utter twoddle. Maybe it’s both.

This was the first time though, as many other commentators have said, that the Doctor has approached his regeneration as a kind of death. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Russell T Davies’ writing is intelligent — this is light entertainment after all — but this was certainly a new spin on a familiar event in the ‘Whoniverse’ and it got me thinking.

It took me back to some significant conversations on the subject of what might follow this life.

It’s less common these days to encounter people who would answer that question: ‘nothing’. There are all kinds of weird and wacky ideas out there. I sometimes feel I have more sympathy with those who have the integrity and directness to give the ‘nothing’ answer.

It was interesting recently to deal with a funeral where for one close relation that clearly was their answer. I am a Christian priest and so I will always want to talk about the hope of resurrection, but I wanted to do so sensitively in a way that recognised rather than obliterated this relative’s conviction. People often talk about how the loved one will ‘live on’ in the memories of those left behind and in particular in the way they have been influenced and shaped by their lost loved one. At this funeral, I said that would be enough for some or all they could honestly believe but that just for one moment I wanted to invite them to imagine the possibility of something more real and tangible — that there is some sort of real life beyond what we experience now. On the other hand, I always want to gently resist that desire to say (quoting a poem actually penned by a clergyman) ‘death is nothing at all’.

It might seem strange for a character that can cheat death and be ‘reborn’ after a fatal injury to be afraid of that process. But though his next incarnation will still be able to say ‘it’s me’, it won’t be this me. It won’t be exactly the same ‘me’ that is contemplating his end. It will be a new form that remembers exactly what it was like to be each of his previous incarnations but there is still a sense in which the tenth Doctor ceased to be. That thinking entity met its end. A new one came to be. There was a sense or continuity but only after a real ending; a real dying.

I think this has some resonance with the Christian idea of resurrection. This has often been confused with ideas of an eternal soul or spirit.

Jesus (according to the Authorised Version of the Bible) does say: ‘For what is a man (sic) profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?’ Indeed throughout the Bible the words ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ appear. But I’m very doubtful whether when speaking in Hebrew or Aramaic, Jesus or anyone else had in mind the wafty ‘ghost in the machine’ suggested by those English words. There’s no sense I think in the Hebrew tradition of a person’s being ending up in some way detached from their physical existence. That’s not what resurrection is about. I don’t think Jesus would recognise what all those hellfire preachers were talking about when they asked people about the destiny of their eternal soul.

So I guess I’m of the monist persuasion when it comes to Christian anthropology. We are holistic, embodied beings. That’s my best guess anyway — what do I know really?! I don’t think that who I essentially am can be sensibly distinguished from the physical stuff of my presence in this world. I think that’s more biblically authentic and more readily reconciled with what neuroscience tells us about ourselves. The clincher for me is that the personality of brain injury patients can change so radically that they seem to be a wholly different person. If there’s some whispy stuff that is the real repository of our essential self, what could we realistically say is contained there? Nothing that makes any sense in terms of how we human beings relate to each other. And if our essential being utterly transcends how human beings experience each other and relate to each other then any disembodied continuance of that essence would be so strange as to render it incomprehensible to what we are now. It wouldn’t evade the continuity question I pose below. One might ask how such an existence could be deemed human at all.

It seems to me that the idea of resurrection is about the re-embodiment of a previously embodied psyche — by which I mean an emergent property/pattern of the brain. To talk about a disembodied part of us that is untouched by death makes us immortal rather than mortal. So if we are instead a holistic embodied being then death really is an ending. We do truly die.

The horror of this is that I will end.

Socrates the Greek philosopher (a believer in the soul in its ghostly sense I think) approached his death calmly. Jesus the Hebrew faced his end in agonies of sadness.

Resurrection is about a re-embodiment. The thing that sometimes keeps me awake at night is that even if a new being comes to be that can remember exactly what it was like to be me, do I really go on? Is there experiential continuity? The Doctor saw an end of himself coming, even though a being called the Doctor would still exist in the Universe. That’s just a fiction of course. But I know how that character feels.

The thing that has offered some comfort has been to ask myself where the 5-year-old or 10-year-old or 15-year-old me has gone. There’s a real sense in which those children are gone from the world. My growth and learning has changed me so that the experiencing and thinking person I was at those ages does not exist anymore. And yet the sense of continuity with those people that I was is so strong that they are still alive within me. Maybe resurrection feels like that. Maybe the very different form that will exist eternally in the presence of God will be so profoundly identified with this me now that there will be a continuity with this experiencing self. But maybe in an even more beautiful way because it will not just be the ‘me’ as I am at the point of my death that is resurrected but the whole of me as I have been throughout space and time. That would truly be a much more profound existence than that offered by the regeneration of a Time Lord.





Sursum corda

5 01 2010

With my colleague’s permission, I’ve posted a copy of a brief email exchange we had over the liturgy for Christmas Day. As we had no Christmas Day service in the Sunday Sanctuary, I was presiding at St Peter’s. We were discussing the opening lines to the Eucharistic Prayer, known as the sursum corda. It is optional in Common Worship, the Church of England’s authorised liturgy whether to start with either:

  • ‘The Lord is here’, to which all respond: ‘His Spirit is with us’; or:
  • ‘The Lord be with you’, to which all respond: ‘And also with you’.

Here’s wot I writ:

I’ve generally preferred ‘The Lord is here’ because I’ve wondered whether the repetition of ‘the Lord be with you/and also with you’ through more catholic liturgy that I’ve experienced doesn’t focus attention on the priest and the people responding to her/him rather than on God and her presence with us. Any thoughts?

Alex responded:

With a catholic theology of the sacrament, to say ‘The Lord is here…’ immediately before the prayer of consecration seems a little previous…! That’s why I guess Protestants prefer to score the opposite point by saying that the ‘Lord is [already] here’, because they think that nothing actually happens to the elements in the eucharistic prayer (there is no ‘consecration’). Though of course all agree that the Lord is here always.

I think for me ‘The Lord be with you’, usually used at the start of the mass, before the reading of the Gospel, before the Eucharistic Prayer, and before the blessing, has an almost contractual – or better ‘covenental’ – function in establishing that the Lord is present in the whole community of God’s priestly people gathered for worship, but who collectively acknowledge the particular role of the ordained priest to preside on behalf of all in the Lord’s name. The ordained priest begins, as it were, by saying that the priesthood belongs to everybody, then everyone passes it back, so to speak.

Why should any of you reading this be interested in the finer points of Anglican liturgy. I guess if you are, you are and if not, then this isn’t going to set your heart-a-racing! And why am I posting this on a blog that puports to be about mission at the cutting edge? Well because that mission, as far as I am involved in it, is still Anglican mission. We can’t escape questions of liturgy, even if we’d like to. Personally, I wouldn’t like to (escape questions of liturgy). If anything they’re all the more pronounced when we’re outside the familiar territory. Because as much as I’m not in the business of fostering worship-shaped church, but mission-shaped church, that doesn’t mean there’s no worship!

Anyway, this little exchange helped me to understand the eucharist and priesthood from a more catholic perspective. Something I’ve explored quite a bit in my training but there‘s always more to learn. I’d welcome anybody else’s thoughts on this…