Wednesday, July 22, 2020

On Success in Ministry

It was my own University Chaplain who first pointed out that I was addicted to achievement. After January exams in the third year, I showed him my back-of-an-envelope workings-out of what I would need to score in each of my final modules and my dissertation to get a first. He was less impressed than I had imagined he'd be. "You've spent the last three years aiming for the next set of exam results" he said, "what will you do when you can't measure success by numbers on a piece of paper?"

A good question. But, of course, I found ways to do just that. Graduating from University, my shiny new PA job was a dream for my tendency to give myself big fat ticks. I made long to-do lists.
Print papers for my managers' afternoon meeting. Tick.
Phone the head of HR's PA to chase actions from the Strategy meeting. Tick.
Book my manager onto that conference, put in travel requests for the train and hotel. Tick tick tick.
God, I loved looking back at those ticked-off lists. I had achieved all I had set out to do in my working day. It may have only been a little job, in a little corner of the County Council, but I was acing it.

Do you know one of the scariest things about ministry? It's not like that at all.

Of course, we can still build ourselves artificial success criteria.  'Bums on seats' is the classic, and while we would be churlish to jealously sniff at big, growing, thriving congregations, it is a truth that the size of the congregation is not the only indicator of health and that some ministers are called to small congregations. I've been privileged to be a part of two very well-behaved, mature Clergy Chapters, but I've heard of clergy who can barely get through the door of a Chapter meeting without telling their colleagues how many hours they've worked this week, how many late nights ploughing through emails, how many funerals taken. Overloaded clergy of course need to get these things off their chests sometimes, but as indicators of 'success' in ministry they are false. Numbers are only part of the story.

I suppose this topic is especially on my mind at the moment because of the season my ministry is in. Chaplaincy is a funny old animal, because many of those moments as a Curate when I could pretend I was succeeding have been stripped away. I can't fall into bed at the end of the week, telling myself that I have been a busy Priest, for I have taken 2 funerals, 3 school assemblies, done a wedding visit, and a baptism visit, as well as rushed around several Churches on Sunday morning. Many of my Parish friends are in the unenviable position of having a vocation that should counter-culturally lean away from the world's lies that busy/sucessful=worthy, and yet are in a role where they are forced to juggle overloaded diaries. As a University Chaplain, the reality is that I do have a bit more time than I would do if I were, say, the Priest in Charge of a benefice of 5 rural parishes. I have a small congregation of students, staff and members of the public who physically gather for worship in term-time only, and a larger group of students and staff who seek pastoral care, also mainly in term-time.

A global pandemic has added to this. I can't even busy myself with the tidying of the vestry and the organizing Freshers week that would normally define my summer season.

Of course, the right response should be to celebrate. In an ideal world, a Priest should not have a busy diary. I repeat, in an ideal world, a Priest should not have a busy diary! It should not be unreasonable to expect time each day to read the Bible and to pray, to look out for those golden unexpected interruptions where we may end up entertaining angels unaware.

But a quiet diary still scares me.

There are a number of fantastic books on this topic. Emma Percy's 'What Clergy Do (Especially When it Looks Like Nothing)' is a must-read for clergy who struggle with precisely this sort of thing. WH Vanstone's 'The Stature of Waiting' looks at the Godliness of inactivity, as seen in people in seasons of disability, older age and worklessness, and is a real challenge for those of us, lay and ordained, who can't imagine what we'd be without tangible achievements. Henri Nouwen's 'In the Name of Jesus' rallies against the idea of the Christian minister as someone who succeeds and achieves, using Christ's rejection of the temptations of bread, fame and forced Kingship to hammer home his point. I've lent it my copy someone at the moment, but in one of the most striking lines, Nouwen asserts that the Priest should strive through the world empty-handed and "irrelevant." Crikey.

I woke up this morning with all this in my head, and smiled when I opened my app for morning prayer. Today the Church celebrates St Mary Magdalene. Of course it does. Her sister hurried about with cooking pots and brooms, ticking things off her list, because these things have to be done don't they? But Mary sat at Christ's feet, having chosen the better part. I'm a natural Martha, and maybe you are too. But I'm looking to nurture my inner Mary. Yes, there's lots of admin to do, emails to answer, and some of it must be done out of professionalism, a responsibility to my people, and a respect for those who need a response. But life's not a set of things to be achieved, tasks to be completed. At the root of all those tasks is love for God, for neighbour, and for self. So I suppose it's about seeing those tasks upside-down. And before, after, and intertwined with it all, the better part is the moment we look beyond our own activity and busyness, knowing that all activity springs from that place. Christ's feet are still there to be sat at.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

This Is A Man's World?

On my first full day of parish Curacy, a rather formidable older member of the congregation looked me in the eye and said "I don't have a problem with you now. I will this time next year."

I shuffled on her sofa in my brand new clerical shirt. I had known in advance what to expect from this lady - the one member of the congregation who vehemently opposed women's ordination. That was the reason I'd decided to visit her on my first morning, to get off on the right foot. But I was caught off guard by the artful placement of the most recent magazine from the traditionalist organization within the Church of England which supports those who don't accept women Priests, between us on the coffee table.

She herself was a strong female leader. She'd had a long career as a manager in an industrial setting. In that first, honest conversation, she made it clear that although she had no problem with me being a Deacon (most CofE Priests are ordained Deacon for their first year), and she had no problem with me preaching or reading the gospel in Church. It was the sacramental function of blessing, absolving, and - most importantly - presiding at communion that she did not believe was a woman's role.

I could have argued. I could have told her that it was painful to know that she didn't agree with my calling. A calling that I'd made a number of sacrifices to follow because I believed in it.

I didn't argue. I resolved to visit her often, and if she could never see me as a Priest, at least she might see me as a pastor and a friend.

Views around women in ministry are complex, and I don't pretend to understand the nuances. There is the traditionalist view - the official view of the Roman Catholic Church (although not all its members) and some of a Catholic tradition in the Church of England, such as this lady. That's the view that the sacramental role of Priest is especially given to men, as evidenced by Jesus' calling male disciples, and the ordaining of Bishops and Priests by the laying on of hands, from St Peter to the present day. Then there is the Biblical-literalist view, with its oft-quoted verse 1 Timothy 2:12 "But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over a man, but to be in silence." I've had this verse quoted at me a number of times, including by students.

These traditions are far more complex than this, of course. But that's my understanding of them in a paragraph. It's also important to note that, while some people accept these views without questioning them because the Church they go to have told them they are true, very many more people of these traditions have prayed about them and wrestled with them, but stuck with them.

There are plenty of arguments that one might make against both views. You could argue that Jesus called plenty of women and gave them a voice. You could argue that Paul's letter to Timothy was written to a particular church in a particular context at a particular time, and it is a leap to take this sentence as a universal truth, especially when we know Paul was, at the same time, giving positions of authority to women like Phoebe, Priscilla and Junia.

But... should we be arguing in this way?

I'm writing about this today because Anglican Twitter has yet again erupted over the consecration of two Bishops in the Diocese of Chichester. One, a woman. The other, a man with traditionalist views. Their consecrations are going to be done separately, which has angered many who campaign for women's equality in the Church. Of course, it isn't as simple as it first appears. The Covid-19 crisis has put a number of restrictions on the consecrations and could be to blame as to why a better solution can't be found than two separate services. I don't know. For me, it is a pity the services have to be separate. But it is also a pity that Christians are once again at one another's throats on social media. And it's a pity that these arguments have overshadowed the celebration of finally consecrating a woman Bishop in a Diocese which I am told is not famed for its gender inclusivity.

I think there is a time for arguing and campaigning. Of course there is. We wouldn't have women Priests in the Church of England at all if courageous people hadn't campaigned for it. But as Christians, I think we're called not to sling cheap mud. We are called to model our interactions on the Trinity. To listen and properly understand someone's point of view, expecting the same love and friendship back.

Is that painful? Of course it is. But it's the best, kindest and sometimes the quickest way to move forward.

I visited that lady in my congregation regularly. We got to know one another. When I was ordained Priest, true to form, she found it very difficult. She made this clear to me. She sat in her designated pew and did not come up for communion whenever I presided for 10 months. I felt awkward. The congregation felt awkward.

And then. Just before Easter, she summoned me to her house. She had been praying for many months. She had decided she was ready to take communion from me. She asked for a Priestly blessing then and there. I held myself together until I got to the car.

I do not think we would have got to that point if I'd argued at her. She knew all the arguments in greater detail than I did. What she needed was to be listened to and loved. She has died now, which is why I feel able to write about it. And I think I have no better example than hers of someone genuinely and faithfully trying to do what is right, but having the humility to concede that theirs might not be the only view. I hope I have that much humility when I'm in my 90s.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that campaigning loudly is a good thing, on a local and national level. Especially when it comes to issues of inclusivity, we in the Church must be prepared to say what we think. Not just on the issue of women's ordination, but on all those other issues of inclusivity, we have a responsibility to people who have historically been excluded, and who continue to feel deeply hurt by the Church.

But we must be prepared to follow it up with a conversation. To look into the eyes of someone we don't agree with, to try to understand how they came to that viewpoint and to try our best to show Christ's love. For some this will be impossible - for individuals in historically-excluded groups who feel vulnerable, it should not have to be their responsibility to start that painful conversation. The rest of us need to step up and speak. But speak in love with the expectation of a real, mutual conversation. Knowing it might be a long road.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Does Licking it Count?

It’s been blimmin ages since we were last able to celebrate Holy Eucharist in one of the University Anglican Chapels. Ok, I did a naughty live stream from St Luke’s on Corpus Christi, but it felt lonely. At present, I’m looking out of the window of my home office and I can see the stone bellcote of St Luke’s Chapel. Actually, that’s a lie, I can see a rapidly rising construction site building luxury flats, but I know from experience I’d be able to see said bellcote if it wasn’t there. I used to be able to see the clock tower of Northcote House from my back window, and could imagine the identical red brick of the Mary Harris Chapel beyond and below it. But there are student flats in the way of that now too. Ho hum, people have to live somewhere. And perhaps the tantalising glimpses of forbidden fruit are best avoided at present.

Yes, as I write my Chapels are still as off limits to me as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil were to the primary human couple. Gosh, saying my Chapels is pompous isn’t it? They both belong to the University really, one being on a long loan to a charitable Foundation. But I’m the licensed Priest, so I feel some sense of responsibility. I feel like the only Priest in the Church of England not to be furiously cordoning off pews to maintain social distance, or erecting hand sanitising stations, posing for Facebook pictures with an outstretched wafer and a visor. Of course, I’m not the only one. Plenty of Priests are self-isolating or shielding family members, and some won’t be imminently opening their Churches for public worship or even private prayer because the congregation are too vulnerable, the rules too plentiful and the resources too scarce. And then there are Chaplains like me who dance between the rules of the Church and the Institution. So for now I’m like a small child in a psychological experiment. “If you don’t eat the marshmallow when I leave the room, you can have two in 5 minutes time.” Or like Adam and Eve with a juicy pomegranate. Does licking it count?

(Note – I don’t want to lick either Chapel. That’s definitely not recommended under the current guidelines. I’m indulging in metaphor).

I do understand the University’s approach. Universities are complex places with resident and non-resident students, employed and associate staff doing all manner of tasks from complex research in labs, to office work, to portering stuff around multiple campuses, to thumbing through literally millions of books. And sites as eye-wateringly lovely as ours have thousands of visitors too – to walk and do sculpture trails, to visit the libraries, the museum and the exhibitions, to relax in coffee shops and take in the views. Added to that, most staff can work remotely, and of course summers are quiet anyway. This slow, cautious moving walkway is the one I’m on. So Chapel doors remain closed, candles untrimmed from when they were extinguished in March, and I sit here and do ministry online, slowly expanding through a combination of pregnancy and snacks (realistically, it’s quite a lot of the latter).

I’m reassured by that bit of the Bible where the disciples said “hey look at the Temple and its cool stones” and Jesus responds by going “yeah, fair enough, but the stones will fall down at some point, and then what?” (Luke 21:5-6, paraphrased obvs). I know he was preparing his friends for the Romans literally pulling the Temple down, which I assume isn’t something that’s imminently going to happen to either University Chapel, but it’s a good point that faith is housed in more than stones. At the moment I’m finding it in the Bible, in the ancient Collects and Canticles of daily prayer. Even in Zoom. At least, the familiar faces I see on Zoom.

Resist temptation! Keep those keys in your pocket! For everything there is a season, and a time for everything under heaven. And don’t eat the marshmallow!

Ok, I’ll be good.

On Success in Ministry

It was my own University Chaplain who first pointed out that I was addicted to achievement. After January exams in the third year, I showed ...