Cirque d’humanité

8 06 2010

Am I a weirdo? Does anyone else feel moved, almost to tears, when watching a circus? I remember watching the main show at the Millennium Dome (now the O2) and weeping.

I think it was something then about the sheer beauty of it. The Moscow State Circus on Pompey’s Southsea Common didn’t quite have that same quality. But it was breathtaking at some points. I think what moves me is the humanity. Human potential is on show in the most awe-inspiring way.

The performers are like superheroes. The feats they perform are phenomenal. And yet. They are clearly human beings. They aren’t superheroes. They sometimes get it wrong. And there are moments where you can just tell they’re as unsure they’re going to pull it off as the audience members are. Or at least this one is. These are ordinary people who have been willing to work tirelessly to develop their strength, stamina, suppleness, balance and co-ordination to a very high degree.

Some of these things will be on display in the beautiful game over the next few weeks, of course. But though I love football and I’m really looking forward to the World Cup, I don’t remember being moved to tears by the sheer humanity of the display. There are tears when you support England. But they’re not for that.

Maybe it’s because I know that football players are paid obscene amounts of money. It’s as if the humanity and passion of it is sullied to a large degree by filthy lucre. I don’t doubt these circus performers would like to be rich. But I’m pretty sure they’re not. They’re travellers. People of the road. There’s something about the fragility of the economics of a circus and the performers who work in it that makes the humanity of it all the more poignant.

They’re a small community, living and journeying together and doing things with their bodies that you wouldn’t think possible. But possible they are. And so they communicate something to me of the beauty of human potential. (Dance often has the same effect on me.) They inspire and confirm the thought that each and every person I meet is amazing and has the potential to do amazing things.

It inspires me to disbelieve the things I know children in some of the schools I work in say about themselves or have said to them (not by the schools but by the wider culture). They feel that they’re no good. They’re not. The enormity of their potential makes me weep.

And yes, I am cast from that same human stuff. So I too am encouraged to strive to be more than my last post suggested I thought I can be.

I probably have booked a place in pseud’s corner with all that, but to be honest, I don’t care. I’m happy to be thought pretentious. Whether this makes sense to anyone else or not, I don’t think I can stop myself from shedding the odd tear at the circus. Where are the clowns? Send in the clowns, etc.





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.





Getting all arty-farty

9 11 2009

anomie1The day I came back from the consultation in Salisbury, my colleague Alex and I went to see an avant garde theatre production at the New Theatre Royal in the centre of Portsmouth.

‘Anomie’ combined music, dance and video to weave together the narratives of alienated individuals living in an urban environment. It was presented by Precarious – a company from… actually I don’t know where they’re from. But they seem to have generated some interest at the Edinburgh festival with this one-act piece.

The first surprise was the theatre itself. Though Alex and I had spoken with the theatre director about our work in the city and explored possible connections, I hadn’t been before. I think it’s a great venue with a real intimate feel to it. It struck me as a place with a lot of potential, though I’m not sure I can say for what. I can just kind of imagine doing… stuff… there… I’ll let you know if anything more concrete occurs to me.

The second surprise was the performance itself. I really expected to like the mix of multimedia and dance. It was well done and imaginative but I think it was actually at its strongest when it was just the movement. And that applies to the speech in the piece too. The words reminded me of artist’s statements I’d heard – artists statements I’d written – at art college. Just trying a bit too hard to be meaningful. Again, the scenes where the movement was allowed to speak for itself were the strongest.

I think they’d invested quite a lot of effort in the intellectual content. There were layers of symbolism that I think I was supposed to engage with at a cerebral level. But trying to figure all that out got in the way. When I abandoned that mental effort and just allowed it to engage me at a more visceral level, I got much more into the performance. I think some of that content crept back in, but in a more subconscious way.

The narrative strands were drawn together in such a way at the end that I think I became more consciously aware of them retrospectively than I had been during the show. That struck me as an interesting metaphor for our own lives – individually and collectively. Do we only find narrative integrity in retrospect? Or is this something we can experience or expect along the way?

I would have liked to have seen it with my wife, Barbara. She’s less pretentious than me. I would have been interested to see whether she would have loved it or whether she would have thought it was all a bit affected. For me, it was both. I haven’t seen much dance in my time, but I think the human body in movement is one of the most profoundly poetic art forms. But there was a sense in which this was trying a bit too hard. It had the feel of a student piece that hadn’t been edited enough to find a pure and profound voice. A work in progress/development, rather than something finished. But then maybe that’s more appropriate for a postmodern audience. Maybe that gives the audience to be part of the performance, to continue to form and process the ideas-in-formation that we’ve encountered.

It has set me thinking about liturgy for postmodern worshippers/spiritual explorers. Alternative worship that I experienced or that I have been involved in creating has that sense of trying too hard, of throwing too much in, of words that are stretching for profundity. But maybe again, that’s okay, because in its failure and its self-indulgence it opens up a space for those engaging with it to find their own voice…

…or am I now trying too hard?! 😉

Alex suggested that my Sunday night conversations could be enriched if the people taking part were sharing experiences together in this sort of arts space. I have to say it set the juices a-flowing. Watch this space…





Beer, Bread, Bible, Boosh

10 07 2009

BBBBThis was the liturgical shape of the Safespace gathering I was privileged to be part of. It was intriguing on both a literal and metaphorical level. What do I mean? Manuel, let me explain…

BEER
The evening began with a shared meal. Mark and Lou had provided some of the food but members of the community also brought food and drink too. So the space for and the staple basis of the meal were provided by the Berry family as hosts. But the final form and content of the meal was shaped by those gathered. As well as sharing food, this was the point where people shared their stories – just the ordinary events of their lives in the past week, including how they were trying to make sense of faith within that. There was a sharing of beer too. It was interesting because that seemed to be about trying new things. The beers on offer weren’t standard. It wasn’t about having your ‘usual’. It was definitely about exploring the unusual. I particularly enjoyed a welsh dark ale. Kind of like my usual Guinness and yet different. 🙂

BREAD
Following the meal, we shared bread and wine. Mark presided over that sharing. They had a really nice earthenware chalice and paten set, embossed with the cross of St Brendan. So this moment was special and charged with symbolism. Could we call this Holy Communion?

Technically, from an Anglican standpoint, we should call it an agape meal. The words of the prayer before the sharing and the words at the distribution were quite close in some ways to what would be recognisable in a trad church setting as a eucharist. Technically, I should be more worried about the distinction than I am. But lay presidency is a whole can of worms. It’s one of those issues that exposes fractures within the Anglican Communion and would test our relationships with the wider (small ‘c’) catholic church. But it’s also one of those issues that means very little to anybody outside the church or even to a lot of people within it. That doesn’t mean I think we’re free to just ignore all that churchy stuff and just go with the flow. But neither can we provide each and every little missional community that emerges with a priest to administer the sacraments – certainly not with our current models of ordained ministry.

Actually I wonder whether other people ever lead the bread and wine ritual. If not, I will definitely be needing to pull Mark’s ordination-skeptical leg.

What I do think is that sharing food levels and unites us (as long as we don’t create special places at the table [arguing against myself here?]) and is therefore essential to true community. And I think that the symbolism of bread and wine can function in [at least] two directions. I see those expressed in two shared meals from the gospels: Jesus feeding the 5,000 and the passover meal with the disciples (note it’s that broader group of the disciples, not just the apostles as is so often pictured). In the first, the table is open for the crowd and is abundant and reckless in its generosity and welcome. In the second, there is a sort of special recognition of the place of the apostles and a preparation for the crossward road: the way of uncompromising surrender to love’s agenda.

So maybe we need two sorts of symbolic meals. If we want to call the first agape and the second eucharist for the sake of ecclesiastical expediency, well so be it. Both re-member us in Jesus – one in his profligate welcome into God’s kingdom and the other in our inherited apostolic connection to his call to sacrificial discipleship (lived out in mission). The first could and should be shared regularly in each little gathering. The second on those occasions where we’re getting into the (small ‘c’) catholic vibe and presided over by those whose ordination puts them in the place of representing the apostolic inheritance.

At this point I really need to apologise to those I know who read this who aren’t in the least bit churchy. Bear with me. I know this seems like a whole bunch of flimflam. It is. But it is important at some, highly churchy, level. 😉

BIBLE
Next – or was it before bread and wine? – anyway, at some point there was a Bible reading and reflection. It was one of the lectionary (set) readings for the day and it was from the book of Genesis. It was the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac. Mark gave some space (accompanied by chilled, ambient music) for people’s own quiet reflection and also offered some input on this reading. Again, I wonder if others sometimes lead this sort of reflection, or whether Mark or the others in the community see this as his role.

This is a hugely problematic text. I thought Mark’s take on it was quite ‘straight’. I wondered if in a gathering that is seeking to challenge itself, a more critical reading could have provoked a deeper reflection. That’s not to criticise Mark. Maybe I just like throwing hand grenades too much, but I would have wanted to question the appropriateness of Abe’s response to YHWH’s request to do his son in. It’s interesting to compare it, as one contributor to Start the Week did recently, to the Abe that is pictured arguing with his deity about YHWH’s proposal to nuke Sodom and Gomorrah. No such unquestioning obedience on that occasion. Which is the more faithful response? (Clue: Israel means ‘contends with God’).

BOOSH
Finally, after all that, the conversation somehow turned to Stuart Hall and Jeux Sans Frontières. That led to us spending the rest of the evening watching clips of British comedy, in theory for the benefit of a Texan student who was also visiting. We took in Blackadder, Python and the Might Boosh along the way. The last of those proving somewhat challenging for our visitor and some regulars but hugely entertaining for those of us unhinged enough to appreciate the frankly lunatic humour of the Boosh.

None of these liturgical moments – and I’m being serious here – was any more important than any other. The common feature of all these moments was sharing and all, in their own way, offered a challenge; a moment, an opportunity to move out of our comfort zone and grow. Good times.





What if an atheist approves?

26 06 2009

Last week I caught up with one of my closest and longest-standing friends. We met for lunch at his house and I enjoyed his fantastic cooking in his fantastic garden. It’s always a bitter sweet experience for me meeting this friend. In lots of ways we are very alike — personality, interests, politics, taste in music, values and sense of humour. That’s all save for one regard. He is a convinced atheist. I am a Christian priest. That has actually made our friendship hugely valuable. I am the priest I am today thanks to working with this man for over eight years and reshaping my faith in the face of his robust yet compassionate questioning. It was quite a crucible!

So it’s not bitter sweet because I’m harbouring some disappointment or resentment about his convictions not being the same as mine. It’s bitter sweet because sometimes as I travel to meet up with him, I am slightly anxious about what it’s going to be like when we talk about my work.

I needn’t be. He’s always gracious and gentle, though sometimes I can tell that he’s working quite hard to refrain from explaining why I am a mentalist!

He can kind of cope with what I do all the while I pursue my quaint delusion in a way that doesn’t get in anybody else’s face. So maybe I was a little more anxious than normal as my mission work has really started to bear fruit and I am definitely getting in people’s faces.

But when I explained about the open spirituality work I’ve been doing in schools and even about the more creative worship we’ve been engaged in as a congregation alongside the people of Somers Town he seemed to be genuinely intrigued — approving even.

‘That all sounds really good to me,’ he said.

I think the idea of encouraging deeper reflection on life through hands-on engagement with visual and material art was something he could connect with and see value in, even if it is motivated by religious impulses that he thinks are bonkers.

So if what I’m doing is inoffensive to an atheist, does that mean there’s a problem with what I’m doing. I guess that for some of you that’s an issue. But for me it’s not. For two reasons. First because this particular atheist is a thoughtful friend whose judgement I value. Second because if people are required to adopt a religious conviction that they find problematic before they can access the sessions I run or the worship of our community, how will they ever be able to find the space to reassess their view of that religious conviction?





T800: infiltration unit

14 06 2009

christian_bale_says_i_ll_be_back_in_new_terminator‘I’ll be back!’ So says John Connor in Terminator Salvation in a scriptwriter’s tongue-in-cheek reference to the famous Arnie line.

Barbara and I went to see the latest film in the Terminator franchise last night. The critics are right to say it’s no T2 but I really enjoyed it. Partly because I am a sucker for sci fi and special effects and partly because I like Christian Bale as an actor (tho’ less so since his ridiculous outburst on the set of this film got out on t’internet).

Like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and other films I grew up with, Terminator is not just a film, it’s part of my psychic landscape. So I was a bit nervous about going to see another installment if it was going to shatter my boyish enjoyment of the fantasy world that had so gripped my imagination in my youth.

I scoured online reviews beforehand. They were not encouraging. I shouldn’t have worried though. The reviews were mainly griping about the weakness of the plot but generally I’m such a visual person that I notice what a film looks like more than I notice the narrative. And this did look stunning, in a gritty way — maybe not as stunning as Star Trek — but it had some breathtaking moments, even if it occasionally looked a bit ‘domestic’ in scale.

That said, there were some weaknesses in the story. I won’t post any plot spoilers here, but if you have seen the film, I wonder if you thought there was a pretty major ethical question that was just glossed over at the end. One of the main characters makes an offer that should surely be refused on ethical grounds but is just accepted by everyone in that scene.

It’s tempting to look for religious parallels in any film that uses the word ‘salvation’ in its title but actually the idea of self-sacrifice to save another is in all the Terminator films, even the fairly weak Terminator 3.

I did wonder whether there was any mileage in seeing the church in mission as an ‘infiltration unit’. One is tempted at times to think that some Christians are only pretending to be human! But this did get me thinking as I reflected on the story of St Paul in the Areopagus in preparation for Sunday morning’s service. I have been encouraging the congregation to think a lot about how we might be called to give up our spiritual preferences for the sake of others. In this episode from the book of Acts we read how one moment St Paul is distressed and even outraged by the plethora of idols he sees in Athens and the next he is talking about his spiritual common-ground with the Athenians. We shouldn’t underestimate what a big stretch it was for this conservative pharisee to recognise the spirituality of these liberal pagans. But does that mean St Paul is some sort of gospel Terminator – an infiltration unit, pretending to be like people he’s actually not like at all? The letter to the Corinthians (one of the undisputedly Pauline epistles) might suggest so, at least at first glance, as St Paul writes  ‘I have become all things to all people’. But does that mean that he, and we following his example, should pretend to be something other than ourselves in order to win people over to the Christian gospel? That would surely be dishonest. It would be a subterfuge. It would be ethically unacceptable to deceive people in that way and it would be damaging to ourselves to live with such ‘cognitive dissonance’.

I was saying to a friend recently that there’s a difference between self-denial and self-sacrifice. I know that in the synoptic gospels Jesus calls those who would be his disciples to ‘deny themselves’ but I’m using ‘deny’ here in the psychoanalytic sense. As I explained it to my friend, it’s one thing to pretend to yourself and others that you don’t have a particular desire, preference or wish when really you do. It’s quite another to acknowledge your desire, preference or wish and yet willingly give it up for the sake of others.

I think that it’s long been a part of the Christian tradition that the latter of those courses of action, paradoxically, is not a self-denial but a self-realisation. In willingly and knowingly giving up our ‘self’ for the sake of others, we open ourselves up to the possibility of growth, of becoming more than we were before, of becoming more fully ourselves. Self-sacrifice does not diminish us, therefore, but helps us to become ourselves. That I think is the experience for St Paul, as it was for others, such as St Peter when he moved out of his cultural and religious comfort zone and was willing to recognise Gentiles as brothers and sisters.

So I think the Christian community won’t lose its identity in mission (as some seem to suggest) but find it. We should be ourselves and become ourselves with and for others. And here in Somers Town where people are so often disparaged, denied and abandoned, to be able to say with conviction: ‘I’ll be back’ will be crucial. People need to be able to trust us. They’ll only trust us when they know us. And they’ll only take the risk to know us when they feel convinced that we will be back. Again and again and again.





‘Bring on the Linvoy!’

9 06 2009

Linvoy Primus

I was privileged to be at the last Pompey home game of the season. It wasn’t a very exciting game in the first half. The second was more entertaining. What was the most amazing thing about this game was the huge love going out to Linvoy Primus – Pompey’s longest serving current player. He has been injured for quite a while and is geting on a bit now as professional footballers go, but the crowd were basicaly chanting for him to come on for much of the second half and the cheer that went up, not only when he finally did come on, but every time he got near the ball was something else.

Why is Linvoy so loved? Maybe it’s because he’s such a genuine, likeable character. He is a committed Christian and I think that’s where his genuineness comes from. He’s also what the real Fratton Park faithful are: Pompey ’til we die. That’s what Harry Redknapp never understood. No matter what he did for the club before, to leave for Tottenham, even though in one way that wasn’t as bad as his dalliance with the enemy down the road, showed that he wasn’t so committed to the club that he could only be removed in a box. It’s entirely unreasonable to expect that, but that’s the depth of commitment the true fans have and that’s what they expect from everyone involved. And that’s what they see, rightly or wrongly, in Linvoy Primus.

It was one of those shiver down the spine moments, being there to see all that love going out to Linvoy and to be part of its expression. It was very close to worship. But in a good way. 😉