What’s going well?

Early March is often is my low point. I can no longer pretend that I’m just catching up after Christmas. Holy Week is about to claim the diary completely, and after that there are six AGMs to get through. I would still like to know who decided to put the Annual Meetings of the Church of England in April. It seems an aggressively anti-liturgical move.

There is always danger, therefore, that I will write my annual report in Grumpy Prophet Mode. (The winter has passed, the head-count is over, and we are not yet saved.)  Grumpy Prophets have no place at annual meetings. So I have learned not to rely on my own perceptions.

At our PCC meeting on Monday, I asked for help with the AGM: ‘What’s going well? What do we want to celebrate?’ I knew there were things. Even as I asked I began to remember: conversations about children and communion; the weird but wonder summer produce stall; the atmosphere at the 11.30 service; the rescue of the ancient and lovely purple altar frontal. But the first response from the group surprised me completely.

‘People are talking about faith. Outside of church. People are talking to each other.’

Really? I had no idea.

One of the problems of having six churches is that I never feel like I know what’s going on. I am only there two Sundays out of four at the big church, and even less in the villages. I don’t get to feel the little shifts, the mood changes, spot the patterns because I’m always trying to re-join the community and figure out where they are.

It should not be surprising that people talk about faith, but it is. It’s one of the hardest things to get a community to do. Is it happening? Not enough. Not yet. But I am thrilled that even one person, in one part of the church thinks that it is so.

And the real mark of God is that I have no idea why it should be so. Yes, the Lent Groups are good — but there have always been Lent Groups. Yes, I expect people to talk about God — but I’m sure that’s been true of my colleagues too. But something is changing.

In a small group the other day, someone asked — in genuine curiosity and kindness — ‘Why are you here?’ It was a God question. We’d been talking about gender roles and Christian Feminism, and I suspect my outsider status was showing. What she was asking was, ‘Given the local culture, and given what you believe — what on earth is God doing, putting you here?’

I’m sure that I’m here because it was time for me to receive a gift of kindness — and these congregations give it abundantly. But as for what I give, what I am here to do?  I am still not sure.

But perhaps we are beginning to get an answer. I am here because my very presence upsets the status-quo. I am here because when I say things about God that I think are normal and uncontroversial, they are often seen as surprising.  The gap in assumptions can be hard, but it’s fascinating; so people are talking.

‘Does she really think that?’
‘But I’m sure we were taught…’
‘Do you think it could be…?’

There’s good Godly gossip going on, and that is worth celebrating indeed.





leadership (that makes community)

This is the fourth post in a series on Music that Makes Community

I want to think about the chanted psalm I described yesterday — and indeed the music that we sang in New York, generally — in terms of the sort of leadership that it models in the church.

In the psalm, it was quite clear that there was a leader: one person held the text, initiated the singing and built the foundations for the rest of us.  Our ability to enter into the psalm was based on our willingness to listen to the person leading, respond to him (in this case, him), and accept the premise of a very sophisticated game of ‘follow the leader’.

That’s how it started, at least.  But the leader was improvising just like the rest of us.  He held the text.  He had shaped the idea, and brought certain skills and experience to the task.   He initiated, and we responded — at first.  After a while, though, the flow of leadership changed.  There were times when the leader’s chant began to echo or build on notes that others had offered.  Our ‘echoes’ became his raw data — part of the movement of the Holy Spirit in prayer, the ‘voice of God’ that then filled him and shaped his notes.

We had seen this happen earlier in the day when we were doing a physical improv, mirroring our partners.  After a while, we stole from each other, and the group began to move as one.  In that improv, the experience helped form the group.  Now, the experience embodied God in our midst.

What fascinates me in all this is how perfect a balancing there was between clear leadership and shared responsibility.  We could not have done what we did if the cantor had not given us a clear lead.  He offered us a structure (a chanted Psalm) and a way to engage with it (echo back).  He offered a theological vision (God speaks now, as words jump out) and an invitation to participate in that vision (sing what you hear — share God’s word).  He offered us beautiful chanting that stirred our response and brought energy to the task at hand.

And then, once we’d begun our task, he mirrored it back: listening to us — hearing God’s word there — echoing it so that we could hear it too.  He followed our lead, and led us forward again into the word of God.

There are times when the energy in a room rises, the air becomes electric, and you know you are on Holy Ground.  This was one.

One cannot manufacture those moments.  But it is still worth noting the circumstances:

  1. The leadership was clear: in vision, role and offering — the leader provided the context for our song and prayer.
  2. The leadership was fluid: the group recognized and established the leader’s authority by risking doing what he asked and responding to his song. The leader recognized and established the group’s authority by listening and responding to new leads, and building them into his own work.
  3. God’s word was free to move around the community  —  we moved beyond the human constructs of ‘follow the leader’ into a game of creative response to the initiative of God.

The trust involved in improvising a psalm together is huge.  We had to trust the concept, trust the leader, trust our ears and our voices, and trust what God was doing.  That sort of trust might come easily — if the group is already well formed,  the relationships are secure, and it is generally a trusting group — or it might feel like climbing to the very end of a high and flimsy branch.  Once you are out there, though, swinging on that branch, it is a glorious and liberating thing.

Part of what makes Music that Makes Community work is that we are all out on a limb together.  It is risky for a leader to step out with a text and a drone and to make something up.  It is risky for a congregation to join in, and speak or sing aloud in response to the nudging of God.  And crucially — as we get used to being in that place of risk, we get closer to others who may have to take risks to join us.

And that takes us back to what happened in St Paul’s, when people who came to remember 9/11 found themselves in the midst of an all singing all dancing eucharist.  Tomorrow’s post: the riskiest risk-taking of all.


flags, founders, and blessed floundering

This is the first of a set of posts on Music that Makes Community

Overhead, light was dancing. Morning sun, and bright bulbs tossed by old crystal.
‘Just breathe…’ she said, willing us all to calm.
‘Breathe’ I repeated to myself, wishing I’d taken off my shoes.
Above: red, whilte & blue flags and crystal chandeliers. Beyond: George Washington’s plush chair, in an old box pew. Below: the rumble of trains– and of founding fathers, rolling in their graves.

Somehow I think the founders never planned on this: 40 people, stretched out on the floor: breath, then sigh. sigh, then hiss. hiss, then breath, then sing. But however strange it felt for me, St Paul’s Chapel had seen it all before: pews filled with sleeping firefighters, then pews giving way to beds. This was the place where the saints of New York slept as they searched for survivors, bodies, some tangible memory of those who were lost when the towers fell. So, a bit of morning warm-up was nothing, however odd it was for me.

I had gone to New York for a Music that Makes Community worship, run by All Saints Company. All Saints are probably better known in Britain as ‘the people who founded St Gregory of Nyssa’ or ‘you know: the crazy place that dances?’ I’d been reading about them for years, and finally it was my chance to see.

The idea behind Music that Makes Community is that community forms better when we are all able to participate fully — whether we read music or not, whether we grew up on the hymnal or have never been to church before in our lives. The idea, also, is that community forms better when we are willing to take risks: when the leaders and the congregation are dependent each other, when we create something together and trust the liturgy to hold the uncertainties that risk and creativity bring.

Now, you know I believe the theory. Indeed, a lot of the conference felt like an articulation of things I’d been working towards for many years. But I am as risk averse as the next person — and lying on the floor, hissing next to George Washington’s pew pushes me well out of my comfort zone.

But that was the point. For three days, we were pushed so far beyond what we thought we could (or would) do, that anything became possible. One woman said (after composing her first piece — a glorious riff on Marx, with a Christian addendum) “in the past two days, I have done so many things for the first time, I figured ‘why not?’ ”

‘Why not’ indeed.
But St Paul’s added another dimension. It’s one thing to ask a group of 40 people who have signed up for a music conference to sigh and hiss and sing. But what happens when that same group is imrovising a chant around the euchastic prayer — or being taught a call and response Hosanna — and passers by are invited to join in?

I want to write more about this over the next few weeks, but for now, I leave you with this question:

If you had come to St Paul’s to look at the 9/11 memorial — if you had come, perhaps, not even realising that it was ‘still a church’ — what would you do if you found an all singing, all dancing eucharist in your midst… and were asked to join in… and were shown the way how?

familiar story

I have finally read Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church. I dared not read it sooner, lest it struck too close to the bone. But it was time now, and worth doing.

Her work has always felt familiar. Despite her fame, neither her sermons nor her writing seem so very different from what a lot of us do. I find delight and surprise in her words without thinking them impossible to have conceived or to have heard elsewhere. (I guess I expect rather a lot from preachers and writers.) And so it was with this. There were times when the book left tears burning, and times when I had to hold myself in place as my instincts rebelled.

What jarred most was this: there was grief, but no void. There was choice, but no real vulnerability. She makes much of the lessons of being unemployed, and what she says about finding life in the spaciousness of it makes so much sense to me. But the moment she realised she needed to leave her congregation, she received an unsolicited call from a college president asking her to teach. She had three months off before going to a job that was hers and that she wanted. It is not always like that, and there were moments when the weight of it didn’t quite ring true.

I was jealous at first, I suppose. But in the end, I was glad for her. For her it has worked. She was given a path; and that path has helped a lot of people. It is good.

Then I realised that, while I would love to receive the phone call she did, and would love to have a next step, a clear goal, a job — I would not actually trade my place for hers.

Years ago, on retreat, I consciously ran from the question ‘are you willing to give God everything?’ Last year, on retreat, I went back to that question, and still wasn’t sure of the answer. The nun I spoke with (both times) said, ‘but is that not what you did in ordination?’ Maybe. Yes. It’s what I thought I did. But most of us who are ordained have plans and visions too. They are about God. And often they are of God. But they are not always about giving God everything.

When I sat down to pray with that question last Spring, it led me to a path I hadn’t foreseen. I seemed to say ‘no’ all over again. I hadn’t the energy to try to give God everything. I wanted space for God and a room of my own; the possibility of silence and space for creativity; a life of self-offering but also a life that was not constantly eroded by the failure of dreams in the face of reality. I wanted out of Nineveh. But I tried going back. God gave me a bush, showed me how not to take myself quite so seriously, and then cut me free to choose life where I could find it.

I have found it, in many many ways. Silence and creativity. The blessing of a door to close. The freedom from constant demands; time and space to find myself again; time and space to fall in love with God all over again, and with people too. I was never not. But there is more space for it now — a space full of friendship, rivers, arches and the smell of rising yeast.

So, I understand Barbara Brown Taylor’s choices. I can sense freedom in stepping outside the church, pitching your tent elsewhere, broadening the vision. There are even moments when I am tempted to do that, and I realise it might be both wise and necessary to get on with it.

But I seem to be called to folly. Priesthood does not go away just because it becomes difficult. I stand further from the altar than I used to, and further from the altar than I would like, but that is where my vocation is centred, and where I know most clearly who I am in Christ.

‘Are you willing to give God everything?’ I’m not sure I will ever be able to answer, but I am willing to give God this: I will stand in the place of hope and vulnerability, trusting my vocation. I will hold to the belief that I am called to fulfil my vows as a priest through word and sacrament, through joy and sorrow, through life and death, no matter how much easier it would be to walk away from them. I will push at the door until there are no doors left, or until God shows me another way. But I will only push when it feels like the right door: a door wide enough for silence and creativity; for private and public space; for relationship and solitude; for prayer, communion and community. I will choose life, and choose church, and trust that both can thrive together.

I will keep asking the question, and let God to turn each no to yes.