On Mute During Airtime

Many column inches have been filled on the subject of writer’s block but in a refreshing twist on the theme of being lost for words The Observer’s Eva Wiseman has been musing instead on how it feels to be tongue-tied. Describing the experience as ‘a physical reaction to something invisible’, she puts it down to a momentary confluence of forgetfulness, hesitation, insecurity and the ‘fear of being found out’. It’s a relief to see a professional communicator admit that she struggles with the ‘red-faced muteness’ that afflicts most of us at one time or another.

I admit that ‘tongue-tied’ is not a phrase with which I’m often associated. When I first started blogging and shared with my brother the fear that I would run out of things to say, his response was: ‘Sis, you’ve never had a problem filling a space with words’. Similarly, those present when I chair meetings frequently see me wrestle with my own tendency to run-at-the-mouth at the expense of other people’s airtime.

Yet in spite of all this I sometimes find myself involuntarily on mute.The process of articulating something heart-felt can leave me red-faced and faltering. No matter how passionate we are about our subject, no matter how much we trust the biblical promise* that even in extremis we will be given the words to say, a sudden sense of complete inadequacy can turn eloquence to ashes.

Wiseman reflects on all this embarrassment, confusion and adult shyness then inverts the problem. She rejects the solution of teaching everyone to articulate their thoughts seamlessly and without hesitation. Instead she reminds us that life is a dialogue not a TED talk: therefore ‘something is lost when only those who speak well are heard’.

If we’re overcome by muteness and embarrassing blushes it could be because what we’re trying to say is too important to be left unsaid, no matter how painful it is to find a way of saying it. And when we witness someone else struggling to express themselves it might be that what they are longing to articulate goes right to the heart of who they are and what they believe. Wiseman is right. It’s worth persevering in our speaking and our listening. Let’s not lose each other’s deepest insights because we lack the patience to listen. Nor because we give up before we’ve said what we really wanted to say.

*Matthew 10:19; Mark 13:11; Luke 12:12

Beneath Our Feet

I love those electric moments when somebody else’s writing echoes so deeply in my soul that I want to shout ‘YES’. I’ve just finished reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World: Finding the sacred beneath our feet (2009 HarperCollins and Canterbury Press) and if I hadn’t been sitting on trains, buses and the steps of public buildings at the time I would often have exclaimed out loud. It made me laugh, it brought me to tears, it inspired new ripples of thought, it expanded my understanding of life.

And it’s all about ‘kissing the ground’. In twelve chapters we are offered twelve different ways of connecting more fully and deeply with the life of the world around us, including: getting lost, carrying water, feeling pain and pronouncing blessings. Each chapter contains countless suggestions and stories that give us many more ways of connecting spirit and flesh; ways, as Brown Taylor would put it, of practising our own priesthood at the altar of our own life and ‘finding the sacred beneath our feet’.

In the very last line of the book I discovered with delight that the title of this blog is an unconscious echo of the 13th century Persian poet and mystic, Rumi. In the absence of copyright permission I’m not able to quote the passage in full, but essentially Rumi makes a connection between beauty, love and motivation. He suggests that we should be guided in our actions by what we find beautiful; what we love most; whatever it is that awakens our passion. Which for each of us will be something distinctive and particular because there are many different ways, as Rumi observes, ‘to kneel and kiss the ground’.

Just back from a couple of days in the lovely seaside town of Whitstable on the Kent coast, I haven’t been to church this weekend. But I’ve found altars, practised my priesthood and kissed the ground countless times. Intricately-spiralling shells; individually painted beach-huts; pebbles with holes drilled through them by tiny sea creatures; deep-fried pillowy white cod; dogs with wind-blown ears; purple and yellow wild flowers at the beach edge; children balancing on the breakwater, leaning into the wind: the sacred in everyday life, beauty in the ordinary, there to be noticed, kissed, relished, embraced. As Brown Taylor wisely reminds us, we search far and wide for the ‘more’ than we long for in life. Sometimes the last place we remember to look is right here, beneath our feet.

Widening the Net

Every June a rather classy invitation drops through our letterbox. It entices me and my husband to the Victoria and Albert Museum for the annual Summer Party of a leading executive search company. There in the atrium, underneath the fabulous Chihuly sculpture (see above), we are plied with delicious canapés and equally delicious champagne in the company of people who have intriguing jobs in the public, commercial and not-for-profit sectors.

We’re not there because we’re job-hunting. The rather quirky reason is that several years ago I used to celebrate Holy Communion during the company’s annual Away Day at Hever Castle in Kent. An unlikely gig, but a lovely one, and it led to the summer party invitations.

The world is divided into those who love networking and those who hate it; those who work the room with consummate ease and those who would be far more comfortable if someone asked them to help with the canapés. And then some who, like me, fall into either camp depending on inclination, energy levels, what sort of day it’s been so far and, admittedly, how frequently the champagne is topped up.

But now a new generation of networkers has woken me up to something: that the game doesn’t have to be all about who can convey the most impressive professional achievements in the shortest time whilst pretending modest self-deprecation. Instead we can network in order to encourage one another to discover our particular gifts; to meet people who release new energy and purpose in our own life and work; and to connect those from different areas of our life whom we intuitively know will share one another’s passions.

I’m fortunate to know people who network in their varied professional contexts with an intentionally generous agenda. They don’t try to ring-fence the most prestigious opportunities for themselves. They aren’t particularly interested in hierarchies or limelight. They have a larger vision which is to do with uncovering and growing God’s Kingdom in the world: planting seeds of justice, creativity, poetry, communication, social awareness and all the other things that enable human flourishing.

These people want to use their own gifts to the full, and if that means senior roles or public exposure then they will take up that challenge. But they will quietly subvert any institutional culture shaped primarily by the selfish ambition of individuals, because their aim is to encourage every person’s unique contribution.

The creative and hospitable search company that invites us to the V&A declares on its website: ‘We exist to change the world’. In the same spirit, a new generation of generous networkers is beginning to do the same.

The Rare Fruit of Courage

We’re in a difficult place in the Church of England right now – and we’ve been here for quite some time. In fact, the desire to be a ‘broad church’ has presented its particular challenges right from the beginning. It has also produced the rare fruit of creative partnership between people of different theological traditions, nurtured by a shared distaste for exclusion.

Of course some people leave this church of their own accord. But we would genuinely rather that they didn’t. Difference is embedded in our DNA and we prefer to nurture it and ask what it might teach us, rather than uproot or suppress it.  And so the worldwide Anglican Communion is essentially a remarkable network of friendships, held together by the knowledge that God’s children are nothing if not diverse.

Here in England the difficult place in which we find ourselves is one which involves identity and validation. The majority want to make an unequivocal statement: that God is calling out women to be bishops, bringing to the role their gifts of discernment and creativity, of vision and pastoral sensitivity, of leadership and wisdom. But we also want to encourage the ministry and calling of those with whom we radically disagree on the theology of gender. We want them to be able to thrive as well.

The question is not and never has been: should provision be made for those who dissent from the majority view? The question is: how should such provision be put in place? How might it be made real and reliable without undermining the primary decision to consecrate women as bishops? Should it be framed in legal instruments and, if promises are breached, protected by recourse to law? Or might it be achieved through statements of gracious intent, requiring considerable trust from those relying upon them?

There has been a lot of water under the bridge. Groups and individuals on every side of the argument have at times behaved badly – or at the very least carelessly – towards one another. The soil in which trust might have been tenderly cultivated has instead been littered with obstacles to growth. Understandably, some now argue that the ground is irrecoverably infertile: that only legislation can save us from one another.

But the House of Bishops has spoken again in fresh tones, offering a new vision which, crucially, will challenge all of us at different points. The proposal is for a published framework of expectations regarding the promised provision, coupled with the innovation of an independent monitoring process to ensure that those expectations are fulfilled. Not legislation, but rigorous accountability, both moral and procedural.

This offers us the sort of space in which, if we wanted to, we could continue to relate to one another as partners in God’s Kingdom, willingly embracing our mutual accountability. We could walk together in genuine relationship, actively enabling one another to flourish. It would require not only trust but profound courage: far braver to live alongside one another without the sterile protection of law, relying instead on grace, human decency, and the ability to handle one another’s vulnerability with tenderness.

It’s a way of relating that is as risky and wise, as profound and edgy, as spacious and intimate, as deep and as wide, as the Church of England itself. It could lead to new discoveries about the God who longs for the time when we might show the world that we love one another, and are therefore capable of loving them too.

If not now, then when? Surely we have the courage to try.

(This is a personal perspective and not the ‘official line’ of any group or network with which I’m associated.)