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.

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.

Distracted by Envy

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about envy. This is not a new theme for me: which is a sad and sorry thing for someone with so many blessings in her life to admit. I don’t envy people’s smartphones, or holiday destinations, husbands, houses, handbags or lack of thread veins (actually that last denial is probably a fib). But I envy their gifts, skills, social capital, spheres of influence; and of course their impressive Twitter following and blog statistics.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sufficiently conflicted to genuinely rejoice in other people’s achievements and successes whilst simultaneously wanting some of what they’ve got. I’m energized by the new wave of younger female clergy who are articulate, well-educated and formidably able. Yet I do sometimes envy their confidence. I love to see women of my own, mid-life generation, beginning to occupy senior roles with a combination of gravitas and refreshing new perspectives. I absolutely do not want their jobs: I would much rather be part of the way in which they are equipped and encouraged to get there. Yet I do sometimes envy their achievements.

There are, of course, people who are so (enviably) comfortable in their own skin that they can rejoice in other people’s successes without even a slight twinge of ‘wish that were me’. But there are also many, I think, who share my tendency to the distraction of envy.

I think it’s time we got a grip on it. Even if it’s only a small part of ourselves, and a deluded one, that thinks it wants to be someone else, it distracts us from the unique and wonderful project of exploring our own God-given gifts, strengths and opportunities. It disables our thinking and our doing. It diverts us from the things-about-the-world-that-only-we-can-change-for-the-better.

None of us has the same combination of knowledge, wisdom, understanding and experience as another. We have access to different places. We relate to different issues and individuals. Our passions and interests, our social background, where we’ve lived and what we’ve seen, our particular competences and strengths and, yes, our fragility and mistakes: all of these things put each of us in an entirely unique position.

So we do need to accept that God is calling us, not to be someone else, but to take the heady risk of becoming truly, madly, deeply, all that we, and only we, can possibly become.

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

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.