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 …

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.