Here I Am

Almost every year for almost two decades Maundy Thursday has seen me gathering with clergy colleagues at St Paul’s Cathedral to renew our ordination vows.

We come from parishes, chaplaincies, church plants, the cathedral itself – wherever God has sent us to live out the Gospel of love, challenge and healing.

We are a wonderfully varied bunch, though not nearly varied enough on some key measures. We come, as John Legend would say, with our ‘perfect imperfections’, to offer all that we are and all that we can be in the service of the One who holds nothing back in the pouring out of divine love in the world.

I have attended this service as a young curate, as an associate vicar, as a Mum with very young children in tow, as an advocate for female clergy, and now with that deeply disturbing label of ‘venerable’.

All that any of us can bring is the unique mixture of gifts, passions, scars, experiences and fragilities that makes us what we are. And that is what God asks of us. All of it. Received and held in Love.

Here I am.

The Fragrance of God

Preached at St Luke’s, West Kilburn on Passion Sunday

When I saw that this morning’s Gospel reading was the anointing of Jesus at Bethany my heart leapt because I love this story, and the two similar stories of a woman anointing Jesus which we find in Matthew and Luke. Some people think they all describe the same incident, some think they are separate occasions and different women. Either way the three stories hold various things in common.

In each of them a woman does something surprising and unexpected, something which comes straight from the heart. She does it with a passion and a certainty that this is the right thing to be doing. In each story the thing that the woman does is shocking to other people: to Judas, to all the disciples, and in Luke’s version to the Pharisee in whose house the anointing occurs. And in each story Jesus challenges those who judge the woman, putting them straight, pointing out what they could learn from what they have witnessed if only they would wake up what is really happening.

So what could they have learnt – and therefore what can we learn – from this woman and her encounter with Jesus?

Firstly, she is astonishingly vulnerable, trusting and open towards Jesus. As she pours the oil and wipes Jesus’s feet with her hair – and in Luke’s version even wets Jesus’s feet with her tears – she holds nothing back, hides nothing of what she feels.

Are we willing to open our lives and our whole selves to God as this woman did? Do we trust God enough to bring all that we are, all that we feel, all that we worry and care about to him? Or do we edit our prayers and our conversation with God, fooling ourselves that we can hide the parts of ourselves that might shame us from the One who made us and knows what is on our hearts even before we do?

The woman’s trust is not misplaced. She finds it matched by Jesus’s unquestioning acceptance of her gesture – and therefore of her. Here is God’s total and unconditional embrace of everything that we bring to him. It’s always worth the risk of coming before God naked and it seems that Mary knew that.

She also risked – and experienced – being criticised by other people who were present. But the risk of their disapproval didn’t stop her from making this very public gesture. From bringing all that she was into the room.

Are we willing to risk bringing all that we have and all that we are when we meet together as followers of Christ? Or do we hide the parts of ourselves that we think others will judge, dislike or just not understand?

We are all made uniquely in God’s image. We all reflect that image in the world differently. There is a part of God which will never be fully expressed in this community unless you bring it, because you each have your own gift to offer. If you hold back on sharing your experiences of life, your understanding of what it means to be human and to love God, your fragilities and questions as well as your strengths, then this community – and any other community of which you are a part – misses out on something that might speak to them of God.

The woman was wholly open to Jesus and wholly able to be herself in the presence of others and Jesus was able to use what she did to teach others something about God.

In Luke’s story of anointing Jesus teaches them about love and forgiveness. In John’s story, the one we heard this morning, the lesson is about priorities. Judas objects to what the woman does because the expensive perfume she has used to anoint Jesus could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Though in reality Judas’s first priority was not the poor at all, it was himself – he was the treasurer and used to help himself to what was in the money bag.

Jesus says to Judas: The poor will always be with you but I won’t. And it’s a response which shocks us at first. Jesus’s whole life expresses God’s deepest commitment to the poor and vulnerable: so it sounds almost selfish when he says: This is fine, this perfume was meant for me.

But the point is that he has some inkling of what is soon to come. The Pharisees are plotting to arrest him. Jesus has a sense of where this is all going. So the woman has anointed him in preparation for his death. At this moment in time to use the perfume for that purpose is the right thing to do.

This lesson about priorities speaks right into the complexities of our own lives here and now: who and what should we put first in any given moment of our day? Who or what in this particular season of our life should get our fullest attention? We find those questions hard because often there are equally important demands on our time and we just don’t know where to turn first.

Perhaps the lesson of this story is that in making decisions about who to love, how to respond to the needs of the world, where to focus our attention we must always stay close to Jesus. Because it is in his presence that the dilemmas about what we should be doing with our time, our money, our lives, begin to shake down and the answers become clearer. If, like the woman we can stay close to Jesus, consciously bringing our questions and dilemmas before God, we will know, as Mary did, that our deepest passions and instincts will lead us to the right decisions. We may be surprised sometimes, as the disciples were, by what Jesus tells us our priorities should be.

One of my favourite lines in John’s account of the anointing is when he tells us: ‘The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume’. When we live close to Jesus and with generosity and kindness the fragrance of our love and God’s love reaches surprisingly far. And it can be in the simplest of ways. One of the Mums I chat with in the school playground when we’re collecting our children works in a local coffee shop. Every time I go in there I am struck by the difference that woman makes to other people’s lives by the way that she serves them: her smile, her cheerfulness, her human warmth are the fragrance which fills that place.

She is Muslim and has a strong faith – and to me it seems that what she offers in such a simple but profound way is the hospitality of God. How can we offer what comes straight from our heart in a way that will be a fragrant gift to others and to God?

The final lesson we might take from this story is the importance of encouraging one another. By his words to Judas, Jesus makes it clear that Mary has done the right thing. How often do we tell one another: You have done the right thing? When someone has made a difficult choice and is struggling with the reaction of other people do we have the sensitivity and courage to say: You have done the right thing?

By our encouragement we can make all the difference to one another as we try to stay close to Jesus, to bring the whole of ourselves to him in honesty and vulnerability, to reflect his image in the world in the way that only each one of us can, to make our choices according to our God-given priorities and passions, and to fill our world with the fragrance of God’s love.

When thou tookest upon thee

Sermon for Evensong at St Giles-in-the-Fields, London

28th February 2016

I’ve been asked to preach tonight on a verse from the canticle known as the Te Deum: ‘When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man: thou didst not abhor the virgin’s womb’. As a teenager I had a somewhat difficult relationship with these words. I was incensed by the thought that wombs – and by implication women – were something that God would even consider abhorring, or ‘shrinking from in horror’ as the Latin word can be translated.

However, I hope that my theological understanding is a little more sophisticated and nuanced than it was back then, and that I may have a bit more to offer you than just my adolescent outrage. The Te Deum is a text written by one of the bishops and theologians of the Early Church – possibly Ambrose, possibly Augustine, possibly Nicetas. That goes some way to explaining the particular phraseology of this verse: it has to be said that the Early Church Fathers did have some odd ideas about women, many of which of course can be put down to their cultural context and understanding.

But I don’t think, actually, that the writer was making a point – either positive or negative – about women. At least not deliberately or directly. I think what he’s saying is that when God chose to ‘deliver humanity’ the way that God chose to do it was to become fully human in every way: no compromise, no cheating, no pretence, no avoidance of the risk of childbirth and the sheer vulnerability of coming among us as one of us in every way.

Melanie Marshall, Chaplain of Lincoln College, Oxford, writes in The Church Times that when, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, God wasn’t ‘fixing’ human nature, as though the essence of human nature is somehow wrong in itself. Rather, God was ‘reconciling human nature to divine nature, showing us that the two are not distinct like apples and pears, but wholly compatible’ (The Church Times 26th February 2016).

That’s a hard idea to get our heads around, perhaps because we have absorbed some questionable theology which teaches us that humanity itself is somehow intrinsically bad, rather than emphasising the essential human goodness which, yes, we struggle to inhabit fully without God’s grace, but is the fabric with which God made us and chooses to work.

Just as Jesus’s humanity and divinity cannot be separated out as apples and pears, neither can our embodied life – as people set in a particular time and place with particular responsibilities and commitments – be divided from our life in God. By inhabiting a human life, God said to us in Jesus: this human life that you lead is holy. Every aspect of it. Your relationships, your work, your joys and tragedies and questioning and fragility and gifts and experiences – all of it is sacred.

Our lives are not secular in parts and sacred in parts. They are of one piece and every bit of it is infused with God. The theologian Barbara Brown Taylor tells us a story from when she was a child. A preacher she knew made a connection: between the way he had seen her care for the wildlife in her garden, and God’s care of creation. After hearing that sermon, she tells us, ‘I walked out into a God-enchanted world, where I could not wait to find further clues to heaven on earth … I became a detective of divinity, collecting evidence of God’s genius and admiring the tracks left for me to follow’. Tracks which I believe are as evident in the God-given creativity and human community of the city as they are in the natural world.

So if I were able to have a conversation with my teenage self about this verse from the Te Deum I would say: See past the rather archaic language to the shock of the remarkable news. The news that God chose freely and fully and deliberately to participate in that most risky of miracles that is childbirth, in order to show that human life is indeed pregnant with holiness and fertile with moments in which we might experience his presence.

I would also tell my younger self that although whoever wrote the Te Deum was not intentionally addressing the status of women, he unintentionally points us to the truth that the sacred dwells in all of us, male and female, leaving us in no doubt that both women and men are bearers of the sacred.

I want to finish with a poem from Malcolm Guite’s collection, Sounding the Seasons. In it he uses the metaphor of the game of hide and seek to describe God’s determination to seek us out – that determination expressed most fully in God come among us in flesh and blood.

Ready or not, you tell me, here I come!

And so I know I’m hiding, and I know

My hiding-place is useless. You will come

And find me. You are searching high and low.

Today I’m hiding low, down here, below,

Below the sunlit surface others see.

Oh find me quickly, quickly come to me.

And here you come and here I come to you.

I come to you because you come to me.

You know my hiding places. I know you,

I reach you through your hiding-places too;

Touching the slender thread, but now I see –

Even in darkness I can see you shine,

Risen in bread, and revelling in wine.

God’s determination to connect with us in the physicality and tangibility of bread and wine. God’s persistence in seeking us out when we try to hide ‘below the sunlit surface others see’. And God’s extraordinary decision to be nurtured in the womb of a young woman and brought to birth in love to show the full glory of humanity infused with the grace of God.

 

 

Experiments in Hope

Advent feels like a pretty good time to revive a long-neglected blog. So here at the beginning of a new church year I’m posting my sermon from the Advent Carol Service at St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London, preached during a beautiful liturgy on the theme ‘Experiments in Hope’.

The service was broadcast on the internet by @ChurchLive using #Periscope and can still be viewed here via https://www.periscope.tv/w/1djGXbnbWABxZ

 

St Martin-in-the-Fields Advent Carol Service – 29th November 2015

Experiments in Hope

And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new’.

The season of Advent, even just the word Advent, makes my spine tingle. It also makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up – and that’s not quite the same thing. The spine-tingling is caused by a magical sense of promise and expectations soon to be fulfilled. Not just the anticipation of a beautifully lit tree and enticing packages, but the excitement of the story: of angels and shepherds and wise men, and a newborn baby, God arriving among us, thrilling through our souls. In the words of Malcolm Guite ‘O founding, unfound Wisdom, finding me, O sounding Song whose depth is sounding me’: God, in Jesus, coming to be an intimate part of all that I experience, showing me how sacred and holy it is to be human.

But along with the spine-tingling why does Advent make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up? Well that’s because before we get to the lambs, the gold and the Christ-child, our Advent readings over the next few weeks will mirror some of the truly terrifying realities of the life of the world today: wars and rumours of wars, people being plucked from their daily lives at not even a moment’s notice, and judgment: the consequences when we choose not to honour life as sacred and holy.

Advent is shot through with wonder and glory and the hope of peace, but also with uncertainty, chaos and terror. That’s why it feels so real.

The theme of our worship this evening is ‘Experiments in Hope’. Our whole lives are an experiment in hope: aren’t they? A new project at work, a relationship that’s just beginning, an idea that might yet change the shape of our future – in all of these things we are experimenting. We might do it carefully, holding our breath, or more impetuously in a rush of adolescent hormones or midlife panic – but the golden thread through all of our experimenting is hope. The hope of a good outcome, a better future, a deeper connection with life, with others, and perhaps with God.

What are we experimenting with, here, tonight, in this place of darkness and light which can germinate and encourage our hopes into being? What potentially profoundly life-changing experiment in hope is going on right now?

Quite simply and profoundly we are experimenting with the hope that God is – that God is, rather than God is not. And that God cares. Cares deeply and insatiably and unstoppably and non-negotiably about us, about the world, about the dead and the grieving in Paris, about the homeless freezing on the streets of central London, about the children of Syria with decimated limbs and lives, about all of it. If we believe that God is and God cares then it will make all the difference to the way that we live our lives and the way that we inhabit the world.

In all of our experiments in hope we are guided by the Jewish and Christian story, and by some parts of the story of Islam which brushes up against ours: the story of the one God who gives birth to all that is, and who in the Christ-child shows us what it truly means to be human, to be God’s imprint on creation, each of us uniquely reflecting God’s image in the world.

That story takes us through familiar scenes which have echoes in our own lives, some of which we’ve heard about in our readings tonight: the ravaging of the earth by flood waters and the promise that God will never choose to extinguish human life again; the visit of strangers to Sarah and Abraham, who in their old age offer generous, unquestioning, godly hospitality and in turn are trusted with bringing about a new generation; the repentance – the turning around – of the people of Ninevah; the gift of the Spirit, in us and in creation, whispering the truth of God’s presence, reminding us that all ground is holy ground; then Isaiah’s vision of a world where people are not driven from their own homes, but build houses and inhabit them, plant vineyards, eat their fruit, and live to a peaceful old age; and finally the hope, the promise, in Saint John’s revelation, that death itself will one day die.

How do we find the resilience needed to experiment with this hope – this hope of a God who is and a God who cares and a God who makes all things new – in the light of all that crushes it? How do we get up in the morning and listen to the news and remember that our mother has Alzheimers and our disabled neighbour has had her benefits withdrawn and that there are Muslim women being insulted by strangers who shout and spit and call them terrorists as they walk their children to school? How do we truly live with hope when that is our reality?

We do it intentionally and prayerfully and in a spirit of trust, informed by the Christian story and its fundamental claim that God never abandons us and is present in the tiniest interstices of the world. And so we are given the vision and the courage to see things differently.

Nick Baines, the bishop of Leeds, said recently: ‘Prayer is that exercise that, bringing us into the presence of God, gradually exposes us to the mind of God … Prayer invites us to be open and honest with God and one another – to tell the truth about our fears and anxieties as well as about the things that make us scream with joy. It’s like being stripped back so that we see as we are seen’. When we open our lives to God, to the possibility of God, and to the possibility of God caring deeply, that is prayer. And however we do it: quietly, loudly, angrily, questioningly, it changes us and the way that we see others.

After the Paris terrorist attacks a story did the rounds of social media, told by the American-Palestinian poet Naomi Shihab Nye. At an airport departure gate she discovers that her flight is delayed and shortly afterwards hears a second announcement: ‘If anyone understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately’. ‘Well,’ Naomi notes wryly, ‘one pauses these days’. But she did go to the gate and there she found an elderly Palestinian woman, distraught because she thought the flight had been cancelled and she needed to be in El Paso the next day for medical treatment.

Naomi spoke to her in halting Arabic, explaining that the flight was merely delayed and she would still arrive in time. This was enough to calm and befriend the woman, who, as that befriending spread amongst the people around them, who were of many different nationalities, began to offer Palestinian mamool biscuits among all the women at the gate. And Naomi tells us ‘To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, this is the world I want to live in. This can still happen anywhere. All is not lost’.

We experiment in hope by living prayerfully, seeing things in a new way, and trusting people: people who look and think and feel differently from ourselves and who reflect in the world something about God that we will never learn if we turn away from the stranger. Abraham and Sarah knew that. They welcomed three strangers in who changed their lives.

We experiment in hope prayerfully and trustfully and courageously. Courageously by refusing to freeze like rabbits in the headlights when the needs of the world or our neighbours or our family threaten to overwhelm us. The writer Mirabhai Starr says that this is what you should do when the crises and sorrows of the world overwhelm you and you don’t know where to begin: ‘You sit up and close your eyes and become quiet. Then you let your listening soften into being. From this space of stillness, tender compassion for the human predicament washes over you. One or two issues rise to the surface of your troubled mind (and) When you are finished with your meditation, you will pick one. You will stand up; you will speak out – you will not be afraid’.

We will stand up, speak out, will not be afraid because we have hope. The hope that God is and the hope that God cares and the hope that God is here: here in the span of the rainbow, in the strangers who touch our lives, in our repentance and turning around, in the Spirit implanted in our hearts, in a vision of social and political justice, in the promise of a new heaven and earth. Our hope is in the God who, again in the words of Malcolm Guite which we’ll hear later, ‘makes a womb of all this wounded world’ and comes among us as a child, a ‘tiny hope within our hopelessness’ ‘born, to bear us to our birth,/To touch a dying world with new-made hands’.

Let us experiment with hope sometimes wildly, sometimes tentatively, in joy, in heartbreak, with strangers, neighbours and friends. Let us do it prayerfully and intentionally, in honesty and openness with one another and with God, stripped back so that we see as God sees and are seen as God sees us. Allowing our fragility to break us open to the possibility of God in our midst, in one another, in ourselves, and in the coming of the Christ-child. And when we are called to act in that hope let us stand up, speak out and refuse to be afraid. And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new’.

In God’s Image … All of Us

I should have known it was foolish to write about not being busy. I haven’t given up on my pursuit of spaciousness and ‘time wisdom’, but it seems to be three months since I last found the time to write a blog post!

However, I can’t let this week pass without a huge ‘shout out’ for the Church of England as celebrations take place of the twenty year anniversary of the ordinations of the first women priests.Twenty years which were preceded by decades of struggle on the part of those men and women, lay and ordained, who consistently and courageously held out a new vision for the church: a vision of the possibility of priests of both genders, together reflecting God’s image in the world. Twenty years during which the ongoing un-recognition of the full gifts and potential of women has caused many people to slip away from the church uncounted by the institution, but deeply grieved by many who remain. Twenty years during which the ministry of ordained women priests has built, inspired, shaped and enlivened countless communities and congregations, and people and places that might otherwise have remained untouched by the church’s mission.

This Saturday, 3rd May, at 1pm in Dean’s Yard, Westminster Abbey, people will gather to celebrate these two rich decades and to honour those whose courage and tenacity made it possible, whilst lamenting the loss of those who have felt compelled to walk away, and remembering friends who are no longer with us.

At 2.15 we will set off to walk to St Paul’s Cathedral, where at around 4.30pm the Archbishop of Canterbury will greet everyone from the steps. The cohort of women who were ordained priest in 1994, together with representatives from all the dioceses of the Church of England, will go into the Cathedral for a service at 5pm. The Eucharist will be celebrated and – via a live link to a screen in Paternoster Square – the crowd outside will share in the thanksgiving and celebration and will also be able to receive communion.

If you’re free and can get into London do come and join us for the walk or in Paternoster Square. As a gathering of women and men of all ages, lay and ordained, from diverse ethnic, social and cultural communities, we will reflect the breadth, vibrancy, generosity and grace of the God in whose image all of us – all of us – are made.

I’m not busy … much

My mid-40s have definitely brought with them a new consciousness of time’s ‘ever-rolling stream’. Yesterday I found myself thinking: after February half term it’s only seven weeks until the Easter holidays, four until May half term and seven until the summer holidays, which always fly by. Then it’ll be autumn and Christmas will be here before we know it … 2015’s only just round the corner’.

I’m not joking. I genuinely had those thoughts and believed them. When we live busy, task-filled, deadline-driven lives this is how it feels. Of course being very busy some of the time is probably inevitable for most of us, and we can be satisfyingly and fruitfully busy, even in a crisis. But extreme busyness is like an extreme sport: not to be undertaken 24/7/365 if you care about your mental and physical health.

Which is why I’m reading Stephen Cherry’s book ‘Beyond Busyness: Time Wisdom for Ministry’. I came to it via one of those unexpected and enticing journeys through the ether. First I noticed Twibbons proclaiming ‘I’m not busy’ on some people’s Twitter accounts and had a dual reaction which went something like this: ‘How lovely, I wish I wasn’t’ and ‘How sad for them, not to be in demand’! Then I saw a Tweet which led to a beautiful and provoking sermon by Michael Sadgrove, Dean of Durham, which talks about the slow work of Love and says, of God, that ‘most of the time he is so slow his movement is undetectable except to those who stay still for long enough’. Next I discovered the I’m not busy website and before I knew it I was reading the book.

And it’s good. It’s helping me to see time in a different way. It’s challenging me as I’ve been challenged many times before about my unhealthy reliance on busyness and ‘being in demand’ to prove my worth: both to others and also, sadly, to myself. It’s encouraging me to hope that beyond the mechanics of good time management there really is such an enriching thing as ‘time wisdom’; wisdom that frees us up to experience time as a good thing, even a spacious thing, as we did during those long summer holidays of our youth before we learned by misadventure to allow time to diminish us.

I know very well that my relationship with ‘spaciousness’ is ambivalent. I long for it in the busyness but fear it when it comes unexpectedly upon me or, scarier still, within me. Stephen Cherry offers what is effectively a (re)-entry level tool for people who have forgotten, or never learned, how to find and relish spaciousness and live deeply in the moment. Helpfully it’s written in bite-sized sections for those of us who think we’re time-poor.

I’ve not finished it yet, but I already taste a little freedom.

On Being Disturbed

There’s something about Advent that is quite disturbing, perhaps especially when it’s lived against the fairground noise of clanging tills, early Christmas Carols and the newly-imported and oddly-named festival of Black Friday.

Don’t get me wrong, I love this time of year. I’ve even learned to cope with school Nativity plays in late November and the infectious cheeriness of ‘Well here it is, Merry Christmas’, when actually it isn’t.

This faintly crazy dissonance can heighten our awareness that December brings a potent mix of themes and resonances: in church, in the secular calendar, in the natural world. There is hope, judgment and the starkness of stripped branches, endings, ice, expectation, the dying of the year and the promise of a new start. Biblical readings tell of ‘signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars … the roaring of the sea and the waves’, the latter being more than just a metaphor for those living on the east coast of Britain right now.

Through and beyond this time of things falling apart is the promise of a new and breath-taking intimacy between us and God, which will be achieved because a young woman assents to the unquantifiable risk of childbirth and the softening of her own heart to unspeakable loss.

Advent mirrors life. Expectation and joy mingle through our days with fragility and goodbyes. The balance shifts through the weeks and years as we learn to relish the gift of human relationships and the astounding diversity of the created world; to recognise the sacred in the biggest and smallest stuff of our lives; to shape and change what we can in ourselves and our communities; and to create core space in which we can deal with the deepest cuts in ways that encourage growth and healing. 

If Advent is disturbing then that is because it speaks, all at once, of the full range of human experience. It encourages us to face fear and remain standing, to stir up our courage for the realities of risk and to believe in the new landscape that lies beyond our letting go of what’s familiar.

To be disturbed is to be truly alive. The deepest contentment comes not from the ability to deceive ourselves that we are in control, but to admit that quite often we’re not and then live imaginatively in the new space which our honesty opens up.

Going With Life’s Ebb and Flow

I’ve never been an acute political analyst or social commentator. But there was a time when I was reasonably aware of what was going on in the world and had a half-formed opinion about some of it. I’ve been concerned, then, in recent years to notice that my preaching and writing has featured fewer global references and addressed less social issues than it once did. I have wondered whether my theologising is gradually coming adrift from its essential bedrock of life-in-God’s-world: perhaps I’m slowly disappearing into my own head? For someone who has always held that belief is inseparable from action this is worrying. 

So what have I been on about for the past few years? Well, for a while I pondered birth, doubt, perfectionism and risk. Then I reflected on change, equilibrium, loss, fragility and mending. Followed by busyness, depression, calling, mid-life and happiness. And there’s been an interweaving thread that binds these themes together: the belief that we can discover the divine in the weft and warp of every aspect of the world and our lived experience: there is nowhere that God is not, and in the end it’s all connected.

There are themes that insistently draw me back and I was reminded of one of them by a wonderful sermon (someone else’s!) preached for a baptism on All Saints’ Sunday, just a couple of days ago. We were told that our vocation is always, from the beginning to the end of our lives, to be as fully as possible our unique selves. No-one else, as I have often said and written, has the same gifts, relationships, circumstances, foibles, passions and opportunities as we do. No-one else can reflect the light and character of God in the world in quite the same way as we can. Insofar as we are driven by envy or misadventure or a mistaken sense of not-being-good-enough to try to live someone else’s life, the world misses out, irretrievably, on our singular contribution.

So if my writing and speaking have taken a different direction in recent years that’s because my words come from the soil of my own life, which has changed. There’s no other way that I can communicate with passion and authenticity. Our context – or what I’ve come to think of as our hinterland – shapes our message and what it is that God needs us to bring to the party. Where we live, who we love, how we spend our time: these things will evolve, shift, ebb and flow with the unfolding of our days. Our life today is not less real, less significant or less sacred than it was last month or last year. It might feel unfamiliar, but it holds just as much holiness and potential if we can embrace it, nurture it, pick over its possibilities and begin to live it differently to the full.

Reflections in Time

One of the reasons I failed to blog last week was the disproportionate amount of time I spent staring at a spreadsheet. Not, thankfully, one that required financial analysis, but a list of women who were ordained priest in the Church of England in 1994, the first year in which that was possible. All 1474 of them. Thanks go to the Crockfords clerical directory, its patient administrators, and my forensically determined Dean of Women colleagues for ensuring, we hope, that the list is accurate and complete.

The other task which eclipsed the blog post last week was the need to gather contributions from friends and family for a birthday speech for my husband; and to scan a selection of photos from the past five decades into an album. Whether poignant, hilarious, proud, embarrassing or just simply happy, a big birthday calls forth memories.

Both the spreadsheet and the party have deepened my awareness of the passing of time. Of those first 1474 female priests, 173 have died in the past 19 years; some died within a year or so of ordination, literally having waited a lifetime for the church to affirm their calling. The rest have nurtured communities and chaplained hospitals, prisons and universities; they have enlivened cathedrals and done pioneering work in places that the church doesn’t usually reach. Next year the Church of England will celebrate two decades of women’s priestly ministry, hence the poring over spreadsheets to gather names.

As the pages of the birthday album were turned and the speech delivered – on a barge on the Grand Union Canal, surrounded by the lights of Little Venice and blessed by an almost-full moon – I was conscious of all the water under the bridge: the school days receding yet vivid in memory, the hedonistic freedom of student life, the seismic family events of love, birth and loss, the classic comic moments and new discoveries shared with friends. Accompanied by the inevitable realisation that we don’t look as young as we did thirty, twenty, even ten years ago, because we’re not.

It wouldn’t be healthy to spend all of our time reflecting on the past: being transported back to those moments that seem as vivid as this one and yet seem to have slipped, like sand, through our hands. As one version of Morning Prayer reminds us, ‘The day lies open before us’*, with all its new potential: and that means this day. But every now and again it’s good to recognise that we are what we are because of what has gone before. In the same way that those of the 1994 cohort who will celebrate together next year were shaped in relationship with the 173 who will not be there.

Except that they will. Because God’s perspective on time has always been a bit quirky, and the past, the present and the future are thrown gloriously into the mix, not only on the days of celebration, but in every moment of our lives.

*Celebrating Common Prayer

Beyond Church

My bedtime reading is keeping me awake. Not because it’s a dark Swedish thriller or a family saga with a sinister twist. It’s keeping me awake because it’s a book that constantly pushes me up against the question: ‘If this is what I believe, what difference does it make to the way that I actually live?’

I can’t remember a time when questions of faith didn’t shape my thinking. I grew up in a Vicarage, I was nurtured by a Christian community; from being 14 years old I knew that I wanted to spend my life accompanying people on their own exploration of the Christian story. I didn’t even rebel at university: my mis-spent youth was mis-spent in the Chaplaincy. I have always understood that belief is not just something that happens in your head, or even your heart and soul. It has to be lived out. In order to mean anything at all it should influence everything you are, everything you become and, crucially, everything you do.

For the ten years when my day job was that of a fulltime parish priest it was easier to convince myself that I was shaping my life around what I believe. I could point at things which seemed to prove it. Now that I’m living the ‘portfolio’ version of priesthood and spend a lot of time not-in-church I find it harder to be sure that what I believe makes any real difference to what I do. This is not, emphatically not, because I think that to be a real, authentic fulltime Christian you have to work for the church. I’m continually challenged and inspired by people living out their faith effectively and visibly in all sorts of contexts. It’s just that it’s easier to make it look as though you’re walking the walk if you’re wearing a clerical collar all day and spending a lot of time doing ‘churchy’ stuff.

So here I am, struggling with the same issues, I guess, as any Christian-who-happens-not-to-work-fulltime-(or-even-at-all)-for-the-church. Wondering whether the way that I live really is formed by the Gospel imperatives of grace, justice, forgiveness, generosity, nurture, right relationships and a bias to the marginalised and disempowered. The latter is particularly taxing me, I think.

I don’t know the answer. I’m a work in progress. And so is my reading of the disturbing book: eighty pages to go and more sleepless nights to come. I’ll keep you posted. I have a feeling this one’s going to run and run …