How soon is now?

26 10 2009

themozmeisterIt was a disaster. Except that it wasn’t. I should have checked a bit more carefully. Should have been a bit more pushy. Should have made sure. Except that I didn’t.

The invitation to the opening never came and I never visited before tonight as I knew I should. So when I turned up tonight at 6:30 p.m. to the city centre pub I had been touting as the new home of my Sunday night conversation and found it more than a little closed, I wasn’t very much surprised. Disappointed, yes. Especially as this week I’d arranged for a thousand postcards to be printed advertising this as the venue for a conversation for spiritual people who don’t do church. Oh foolish boy. If only you’d checked.

So I hurriedly had to revert to my former venue. Posting a temporary notice at the advertised venue, I decamped to the Fleet. Only to find it was quiz night. Not a very conducive environment for ‘spirited conversation and skinny ritual’ as my postcards and event on Facebook had promised.

But still there I was. After one of those hugely enjoyable ‘are you a real priest?’ conversations with a group of quite inebriated young women, I found that four people I know had joined me. And, bless them, they really engaged with tonight’s topic: how soon is now?

Strangley (in)appropriate given Mozza’s recent poor health. But we began with the ‘skinny ritual’ that was in danger of fattening those who participated. A bowl full of large, dark, chocolate buttons. I invited my guests to eat one. I joined them. I commented on how we’d all munched them up quite quickly and then invited them to join me in just letting one melt in the mouth.

The point? I referred to the notion from the Christian Tradition of ‘the sacrament of the present moment’. We talked about how much our work and the education system pushes us ever onward; forces us to feel inadequate – underachieving. It was a cycle we all found hard to break and yet was ‘complemented’ in a strange way by a common capacity for distraction and idleness. Neither frenetic, pressured busyness nor indolent distractedness enabled any of us to be present to the here and now: something we all desired, especially as we’d all had little tastes of it from time to time.

We all reported moments of ‘flow’, when deeply engaged in an activity it had seemed that the flow of time had been suspended and we’d entered an eternal, deep present moment: like Fry’s state after 100 cups of coffee in Futurama. These moments were a rare treasure.

We touched on the scope for self-forgiveness and celebration of achievement over failure and the frustrations of unrealistic expectations – most especially those we placed on ourselves. Perhaps a key to this was the ability to see today – now – as a new moment of opportunity where past failures and future pressure was forgotten in favour of what we might achieve and be in the here and now.

It was deep man. And good. I enjoyed it. I hope those who came did too. I think it might have done exactly what it said on the tin.

Here are the discussion topics for the next few weeks:

  • Who wants to live forever?
  • Why does it always rain on me?
  • What’s going on?
  • Who’s in the house?
  • Is there something I should know?
  • Where is the love?
  • Wouldn’t it be good?

All I need now is the right venue…

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A pain in the neck?

3 07 2009

Last week I had a fantastic visit with Mark Berry, pioneer in Telford. One of the key values of his little community is hospitality. Mark and his wife and their son certainly lived that out as they made space in their home, their life and their community for me.

I followed Mark about a bit and got a bit of a sense of the place and the relationships he’s working with. But most valuable were our conversations.

collarParticularly challenging was a conversation Mark and I had about ordination. I was relating to Mark that I find it important in my work to be identifiable as a priest and so I wear a clerical collar wherever I go. I knew this might be provocative as Mark was featured earlier in the year on the Fresh Expressions Podcast expressing his doubts about the whole idea of permanent ordination. We probably don’t know each other well enough yet for the conversation to be as robust as it could be. I think Mark was quite gentle with me!

Still, he did make a point about the collar representing a power bid that I didn’t find easy to deal with at the time and cannot easily set aside now. And his assertion that ordination perpetuates an unhelpful identification of ‘the Church’ with its clergy instead of the whole community is similarly persistent. I’ve always felt it important to be identifiable in that way, so that when people meet me they know who I am. But do they know who I am? Or do they identify me with a role or a mis/understanding of the role or the wider church. As a ‘lay’ minister, Mark doesn’t have that issue. The only resource he has is himself as a human being. And that’s quite a strong suit.

So actually, as Mark was saying, the collar and the role it represents, could well be an obstacle to people knowing who I really am. Even if the aim is for people to know where I’m coming from, it could still be more likely to evoke misperceptions than a true appreciation of my take on the Christian tradition. And if I wear a ‘uniform’ and am clearly identified with a particular role, isn’t that always about making a grab for some sort of privilege or even power?

Think about people who wear a uniform in public life…

Maybe you thought about police officers or members of the armed forces, or nurses. All roles that confer power and/or authority.

But what about school uniform? Doesn’t that in fact represent a distinct lack of power and authority for those wearing it? Doesn’t it instead mean that those wearing it are identified with a particular community and are bound to some degree by the ‘rule’ of that community – its standards and way of life. Or maybe it’s more like the markers of religious affiliation that various faith communities adopt to express their identity. This is what I was saying in a conversation in a meeting where I was introducing myself to a Somers Town parent forum. I think probably it’s about all of those things.

Within the faith community, there is a degree of authority that is conferred by ordination. As I was saying in yet another conversation about this at the weekend, there is something about the ordained priesthood that is meant to represent, stand for, the catholicity (universality/oneness) of the church. The one, holy, catholic and apostolic church is incarnated locally but hasn’t spontaneously erupted into being in different localities. It is there because of the handing down of its shared story and its shared sacraments. The ordained priesthood is (meant to be) there to make that ‘sharedness’ apparent. That can be awkward at times. It can be really frustrating to be reminded that if we are to remain authentically ‘church’ we can’t just do whatever we like. We’re part of a bigger (though somewhat dysfunctional!) family.

It’s obviously much more problematic if the collar represents authority in public space and particularly as one is building relationships in those settings. At one time the established church did have that sort of public authority. Now of course, it does not. Much as people want to lament that, I think it’s a good thing. I have found in practice in public space that being identifiable as a Christian priest does not, by and large, convey any special power or authority. Indeed at times it has the opposite effect. It evokes suspicion and so means one needs to negotiate one’s presence in the public space.

There’s no denying that the collar is something to be gotten over. It can be a pain in the neck. But maybe there’s something important about that ‘getting over it’. It is in some sense an obstacle or trip hazard that can only be overcome as people really get to know me (and I them) but the church and even faith itself is similarly something to get over as I build relationships with people. Those things (the christian community and its faith) and my being set aside to represent them cannot be conveniently put out of the way. Their persistent awkwardness is part of who I am and what I’m about.