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

Separate Lives

A couple of weeks ago the broadcaster, writer and academic researcher Vicky Beeching tweeted the question: ‘What do u think of people having multiple Twitter accounts; a personal/private one & public one? Fair enough, or creating multiple ‘selves’?’

I recognise the dilemma. I started my one Facebook account some years ago with the sole intention of promoting my books online. But once the page was in existence and many of my real life friends had become Facebook friends too, the content and conversations became at least as personal as professional. With the original purpose in mind I’ve accepted ‘friends’ requests from people who know me only through what I write, so the page is a bit of a melting-pot of my different selves. Sometimes the obsessively tidy part of my brain would like to unpick it all and start again: perhaps being more social-media-savvy this time and setting up two separate sites.

Most of us would recognise that different aspects of our personality come to the fore as we inhabit multiple roles, engage with people for a range of reasons and purposes, explore relationships with varying levels of intimacy and belong to groups in a different way and for different reasons. We would also recognise, though, that there’s something that ties all of that together, called ‘me’.

Some who responded to Vicky Beeching’s question believe that it’s useful and appropriate to maintain boundaries between business and personal use of social media, even to have separate accounts relating to different areas of interest. One person questioned why ‘multiple selves’ is necessarily a bad thing and another claimed to have more than 35 Twitter accounts, whilst someone else worried that if he had two accounts he would always confuse them.

We are highly complex creatures. Not only do our personalities have many perfectly compatible aspects that are magnified or submerged depending on where we are, who we are with and what we are doing: we are also full of seeming contradictions, and probably some very real ones.

How much of this we reveal to whom and in what context is a constant negotiation within ourselves; it always was, long before social media came into being to point up the issues. Decisions around Facebook privacy options, Twitter presence and with whom we want to be Linked In simply underline the age-old question: How much of myself is it healthy and helpful for me to reveal to whom?

Thank goodness we can be naked before God without either causing offence or risking someone trampling on our vulnerability. A God who, being three in one and one in three, is unlikely to suggest that we unpick ourselves in an attempt to start again and create something more tidy.

In Real Life

My friend and I laughed ruefully over pizza about our envy of other people’s lives-on-social-media: ‘They’re all re-tweeting each other, why aren’t they re-tweeting me? … everyone follows his blog, how does he do that? … their Facebook pages are Wall-to-Wall with photos of themselves partying … I texted her and I knew she’d seen it, so why didn’t she reply straight away?’.

Conclusion: everyone else is in the middle of the action and we’re waving from the edges.

Of course we realise it isn’t true. That’s why we’re able to laugh at ourselves. We know that people’s tweets and posts are a partial account of their story. IRL – which my friend reliably informs me means ‘In Real Life’ – most people are as complicated and imperfect as we are, with more beneath the surface than showing above. The best social media communicates the fun and achievements of people’s lives alongside their fragility and questioning.

I go through phases, IRL, when I spend a fair amount of time noticing the daily niggles, racking up the comparisons and worrying at the question ‘what have I actually achieved today that will change the world for anyone?’ It makes me very grumpy. It doesn’t enhance the lives of those around me. It’s probably a relief to everyone when I suddenly notice once again the wonder of being alive and safe in an amazing city, with the profound blessings of family and friends and the privilege of working on projects that excite and inspire me.

I suspect that I’m not the only one who needs to use periods of grumpiness more creatively. So when the dissatisfaction descends, perhaps we can use it to connect with the deeper restlessness within: the persistent longing to discover more of the Love that creates, sustains and reinvents the world.

As St Augustine famously said, ‘We are made for Thee, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee’. It’s okay to be restless. It’s okay to desire more. Because at heart the ‘more’ is about longing to dwell more fully in the Love which in turn spills over into a deepening of our relationships with others and with the world.

This kind of restlessness is creative and good. We just need to recognise that the dissatisfaction induced by comparing our Facebook pages and re-Tweet scores is too closely related to envy to be fruitful. Let’s kick the habit of comparison, notice the giftedness of our own lives, and intentionally exchange the envy for a restlessness that will drive us more deeply into love of God, others and the world.

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.)