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.

Zoning Out

I wasn’t looking for homespun wisdom but it leapt out at me during an innocent browse in a Cornish gift shop. Those little plaques and over-decorated plates proclaiming one-size-fits-all clichés are not my bag. But the beautiful piece of stone and tasteful carving must have lured my eye. ‘Life begins,’ the piece proclaimed, ‘where your comfort zone ends’. Successfully tipping me out of mine.

I’ve always had an instinct for pushing the limits. All through my twenties and thirties I deliberately challenged myself to do things that felt a bit scary. I walked the Inca Trail, parascended in Mexico and transplanted my life to South Africa for nine months. I was the wild card on the shortlist for the job of my dreams, presented Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ and agreed to chair a school governing board without ever having been a governor. Taking the risk of marriage twice and pregnancy four times should also get a mention, as should the many aspects of parenting three children that constantly push me to places, both literal and within myself, that I’ve never visited before.

Then a combination of circumstances caused a gradual shift somewhere deep in my soul. I don’t mean I shut myself away from life or its challenges and opportunities: I doubt anyone, even now, sees me as someone who needs drawing out of her shell! I just stopped saying yes to suggestions and requests that demanded a significant stretch beyond my previously tested horizons. Unless, of course, they involved affordable luxury or culinary delights.

Sometimes it really is the case that life begins when we risk the unfamiliar and untried. I’ve been there and I’ll go there again: possibly later this week when I stand in front of a large group of bishops and formidably able women clergy and attempt to deliver a homily.

But there are times when beyond-the-comfort-zone is not where we need to be. Days, months, perhaps even years when we dig deep in a different way, for a new sort of courage: the sort we need in order to adjust to change, to face loss, to give more time to nurturing those closest to us, to discover the different wisdom of a new phase in life, to find ways to engage with the brevity, poignancy and depth of the human adventure, to slow down and smell the coffee and to figure out what we really want to do next.

It’s the courage needed to wait on God for purpose and direction rather than running after them with an ever-decreasing sense of who we might be. I think I can say from experience that in these times we don’t stop living. For a while we just make surprising decisions about exactly what that means.

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.)