Monday, 26 January 2015

A Prayer for Libby

A few people were asking for the prayer the Ven. Sarah Bullock used at the end of her sermon for Libby Lane’s consecration. It was a privilege to be asked to write it and make a small offering to a magnificent day. So, here it is:

Prayer for Libby

God of the Dawn, Morning Star,
Mother and Father of All,
we bless your holy name!
Sing through your creation
as you did on the First Day!
Enfold your servant Libby
with your encouragement, hope, and grace.
Inspire her and your whole Church
to embrace the wholeness of your Kingdom,
the promise of your love. Amen

Rachel Mann

Friday, 23 January 2015

Taking God's Creativity Seriously

“As for the nature of the Church, and the priorities for its recovery, it is simply assumed that the improvement depends on more and better clergy; that only congregations can fund it (with a fillip from the Commissioners); and that being a Christian is a matter of "discipleship".”

I found Linda Woodhead’s reflections in The Church Times on the C of E’s recent reports on reform, mission and discipleship both challenging and impressive. The way they point up the church’s tendency to focus on the clerical and the congregational over the lay and societal are, as some of my rock and roll friends might put it, ‘truth bullets’.

One section was particularly striking for me. Linda says,

How different it would have been if the reports had a more glorious vision of life in the Spirit, in which we are no longer mere disciples, but "partakers in the divine nature", capable of having "the mind of Christ". The gifts that we are given allow us, together, to make up the mystical body of Christ. God present not only in churches; the Spirit is poured out not only on the clergy; and leadership appears in many places.

Cynics will be inclined to say, ‘Ah this is easy, high-flown rhetoric’. And, in some respects it is. Many of us love to take off into the stratosphere and spin a picture in language.  It was the kind of stuff I reckon Jesus was quite good at and I wish we, as an institution, were more attentive to and prepared to try.  For how something is spoken of and written about shapes our imaginative possibilities. We are, in so many ways, the stories and poems we tell. The ancients knew that better than us I think. And those of us who put a lot of energy into the craft of making stories, songs and poems are (if we’re lucky) called poets and storytellers. If we’re unlucky, we get called less flattering things.

There’s no doubt the church of God needs a wake-up call. Linda Woodhead acknowledges that. But I reckon she’s asking for a little more of that stuff that got me excited about God and the kingdom (and – sometimes, just sometimes – the church) in the first place: imagination, creativity and attentiveness to the terrifyingly bold Divine Nature.

As far as I’m concerned, this isn’t flimsy, dreamy stuff. This isn’t the kind of stuff some of our more macho co-religionists might dismiss as ‘mimsy nonsense’. If God is the creator and is in creation and creativity, it is in a disciplined, sustained and sustaining way. That’s what I see anyway when I reflect on the universe we’re part of. Our participation in God’s calling is, like that of a serious poet or writer, about the disciplined hard work of attention, discernment and craft.

My modest work as a poet and occasional teacher of creative things suggests to me that often the stuff of God – the works of imagination and creativity I reckon most of us are capable of and are certainly capable of being part of – is not the special preserve of anyone. There is nothing as exhilarating as witnessing someone who thinks they're uncreative or untalented beginning to find their voice. The imaginative hope of the church no more lies in a special class of people (clergy) than in a special class of uniquely gifted individuals we might label ‘artists’. Participating in the mind of Christ or the Godhead – the fierce love that sustains creation and unfolds redemption – is something that can happen both inside and outside the church, among both lay and ordained.

However, like all creative work it flourishes under conditions where it is intentional and encouraged. As a writer, I’m not terribly interested in sitting around ‘waiting for inspiration’ or ‘expressing my feelings or thoughts’; I want to keep plugging away, being attentive to the shifts and play of language, participating in a creative and critical community of writers and thinkers. I’m not saying that everyone in the church needs to be writing poetry (well, if you pushed me…I certainly think we should all be reading more poetry…yes, ok, and writing it…) or painting and so on. But I wonder what the church might be like if more of us orientated our realities around stuff that might broadly be called 'creative arts', play and imaginative and creative responses to living. It would certainly make a change from the grind of keeping the church on the road.

If we really started looking beyond the functional and the technological (i.e. that which offers a technique for getting to 'x', e.g. producing disciples) I suspect we might take the world, other people and the unconventional a little more seriously. Hell, we might even start taking the Godhead herself a wee bit more seriously too.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Magi Vagantes - A poem for Epiphany

I thought it would be fun to post a poem for Epiphany. I wrote this poem over the past couple of weeks. Horror of horrors, it's a sestina! (If you don't know the form, more info here.) I've never attempted a sestina before (and, if I'm honest, I'll probably never try one again!).

This sestina's genesis lies in a conversation I had recently with Michael Symmons Roberts about 'form' and its problems and opportunities. He compared writing poetry to the work of a composer. He suggested that, as poets, if we're serious about 'making' and 'craft' we should be open to the varieties of form. Just as a musical composer will explore all forms and avenues during her/his formation, so should the poet. We should 'practice the scales' and be cognisant with all the forms, even if we cannot ultimately 'own' them.

Form imposes limits. Certain possibilities are revealed and some cut off. Michael challenged me to work more seriously with form. As a lyric poet often trapped in what Helena Nelson calls 'Contem Po' this is a proper challenge.

I wrote the following as a 'serious joke'. That is, I thought I'd take Michael's points seriously, but try a form I'd never normally even consider, for the lols.

Given that sestinas are part of the troubadour singing tradition, I found myself writing what is effective a folk tale, with lots of folk-style song references. I can't pretend it's great, even by the standards of sestinas (Which ain't everyone's cup of tea and which may even be a 'dead' form), but as an exercise it was exhilarating. Have fun! And have a 'revealing' Epiphany!

Magi Vagantes

A bone, God wot! Sticks in my throat —
Without I have a draught of cornie ale,
Nappy and stale, my life lies in great waste.’ – Old Drinking Carol

In the version I heard they weren’t kings,
but beggars drawn by the rumour of drink,
the chance to warm their feet for a night.
And for gifts? They carried nowt,
but herpes and fleas and armfuls of rags,
singing Tosse the Pot and divers filthy tunes

while the good tried to sleep. Dance tunes
fiddled through the faded city of kings,
courtesy of The Guising Company of Rags,
as the old lags – desperate to score a drink –
rattled tavern and church door, turned up nowt.
(For who really welcomes sots at night?)

But beggars have hymns to Old Mother Night,
and so they sang, Send sack and merrie tunes!
Send comfort, ever wild and free! For nowt
in this vile lyfe, O Mother of Kings,
compares to thee! Grant skinfulles of drink,
send your star, your bright son, The Prince of Rags!

For when your world's been turned to rags,
what’s left but a cup of comfort at night,
a fire and some grog to drink?
It’s no sin to be cheered by bawdy tunes,
to search in grubby places for kings,
knowing that palaces promise nowt.

Did they find the place where those with nowt
receive robes of grace, raiment for wet rags?
You judge. They found fire worthy of kings,
a family hiding out for the night,
and The Company sang divers raucous tunes
and all took turns to hold the kid. To drink

in the blaze from his eyes, the fiery drink
which fixes stars to the blackened nowt
of the skies, calls forth angel tunes,
makes you forget you’ll only ever wear rags.
Tells you if life offers you nowt, but ice and night
sometimes in song you’re warmer than kings.

In the version I heard they were beggars in rags
mumming tunes for drink in the night,
pockets full of nowt, richer than kings.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Christmas in the Margins or 'What is the point of Christmas?'

Life can often feel like it’s happening elsewhere, to other, more interesting people. In the past week I’ve had a number of conversations which have underlined this.

For the sake of protecting confidentiality, it’s obviously unfair to mention names and too many details. But those conversations have shared an important characteristic – a sense of ‘life not really happening for/to me’. That is, a sense of feeling a bit neglected and left out of the action, of not quite ‘being seen’.

It’s an experience that’s most common among people who (on the face of it) lack the means to shape their own lives. For example, I’ve spoken to housebound people who experience marginalization and who feel they lack power, authority, and the means to shape conditions of respect around them.

I remember when I was really ill, years ago now, and I relied on benefits to support me. I was a highly educated and, in some ways, confident person, but the experience corroded my sense of place and worth. (I hate to think just how awful ‘life beneath the line’ is for people dealing with our current vile benefits regime. Indeed, in our divided society, in many cases, work itself is no longer the means to lift oneself to a place of dignity.)

However, I suspect feeling ‘unseen’ or ‘at the edges’ is an experience all of us have from time to time. It probably sounds absurd to suggest that someone as seemingly powerful as, I don’t know, Barack Obama might ever feel that life is happening elsewhere, but who knows? (Let’s leave aside whether that’s justified! My point is that one can so easily get caught up in one’s context and not see it for what it is.)

I also think that in the age of Social Media this experience is amplified – for it is so very easy, via Twitter or Facebook, to catch a glimpse of other people’s lives. Given that these glimpses are so often carefully curated insights into the ‘best’ or ‘most exciting’ parts of those lives, it can leave us feeling inadequate. When we’re on Twitter, we all run the risk of being like that bloke on The Fast Show who smugly talks about his amazing adventures, concluding by saying, ‘Which was nice.’

I am not someone who has many grounds for self-pity or for believing that ‘the real action is elsewhere’. I have one hell of a rich and creative life. But I’m as bad as anyone else for feeling left out of the action. I suspect that reflects one of the flaws in my personality – I love to feel like ‘an insider’. For example, I’m one of those people who, when I go to the theatre, I really want to be in the show. I don’t need to be on stage (no matter what my younger brother says!), just to be on the inside.

I’m not particularly proud of this trait, but it’s worth acknowledging it. It can mean that even if things are varied and fun in my life, I can look at other people’s lives and think, ‘Well, they’re having more fun’ or ‘getting to do cool things’ or ‘living a more interesting or more influential life’ and so on. It’s all rather tedious, but real nonetheless.

It’s rather like the story of the Jesuit novice who envied a colleague because the latter was clearly ace at prayer and silence and contemplation. Finally the novice spoke to the ‘expert’ contemplative and said how much he envied him. To which the contemplative said how much he envied the novice back. Why? Because the novice was so committed to social action and engagement and the contemplative wished he found it as easy to be with people. So often ‘the world’, ‘the action’ and ‘the life’ can seem to be going on other people’s glamorous, or powerful or busy or, frankly, different lives.

This phenomenon is one reason we all need Christmas. For the ‘power’ of Christmas – as symbol, story, narrative, myth (I really don’t care if the first nativity happened ‘exactly’ like the Gospel record)  – lies in its reminder of The Divine’s/God’s disinterest in glamour, cool and position. It reminds us that God, as ultimate Other, does not need all the things many of us think are fundamental, but are actually props for our vanity, our position, and even our desire to serve the institution (by, e.g., extending its reach or making it better, bigger, cooler, more impressive and so on).

Where is Christmas happening? Clearly, the easy answer is everywhere. Everywhere the tinsel goes up, and there are songs of good cheer and so on. Those of us who are religious need to remember that we don’t ‘own’ Christmas. Or perhaps Christmas happens most clearly among those who believe in the Christ, who gather to share his story and are united in belief and liturgy. It’s not my job to put limits on where Christmas can and does happen.

However, the Bible narratives offer some powerful suggestions that undercut many of our easy assumptions. Christmas powerfully undermines our vain-glorious pictures of what’s important and significant in the world and our lives.

Jesus Christ – as icon of God – is not born in a temple or palace, among kings and emperors and hierophants. He is not born at the heart of a metropolis or political centre. His place of birth is no Rome or Jerusalem, but a no-note town that barely retains the rumours of a once great king. There is no glamour or cool, just a stable and peasants for parents. One of the parents isn’t even – on some readings of the Biblical text - the ‘birth’ parent.

The eyes of the world are not upon Jesus, no reporters waiting at the door, waiting for a quote from a proud mum or dad. There are just shepherds. Not the romantic figures of Victorian sentiment, but unrighteous men and women who plied their trade in lonely hills far away from the rituals that might make them pure and righteous.

This Icon of God, Jesus, was, as the song has it, ‘a saviour without safety’, without any means of self-defence, but the effects that a baby can have on stony hearts. He was placed into the hands of humans as adequate and inadequate as any of us. He was dependent, open to abuse and neglect and, yet, calling forth love.

We live in an age of carefully curated lives, where so many of us calculate how best we can make an impact, can get ahead, can ensure our voices are heard. And, damn it, some voices should be heard, though probably not the ones who get the most ‘airtime’.

We live in an age of shiny things, where – understandably – even as Christians we want to be seen in the market places and public square. (And I’m clear that faith voices have much to contribute beyond safe ‘holy huddles’.)

We live in an age where it can feel like all that is good is happening in the palaces and modern temples of money and glamour and power. And anyone can feel left out or unseen.

But I sense God is about other things.

Where is Christmas happening this year? Probably in some neglected, uncomfortable part of the estate on which you (or should I say ‘I’) live, without much attention or seeming value. Right there, good news will be happening, a commitment to love and act for the good by people who seem to be nobodies to those whose attention is fixed elsewhere,

Where is Christmas happening this year? Perhaps, in the passion and pain, but unconquerable courage of LGBT people in Africa, people whose voices are as marginalized as Christ’s, people who are being made to bleed without safety and justice.

Where is Christmas happening this year? Among those who this society and others treat as unrighteous, as outcasts, and as the nobodies who are told never to expect glory or wonder or joy. Perhaps, Christmas is happening in the midst of those seeking refuse and asylum and those taking the risk of granting it. Perhaps.

Perhaps, we cannot quite say, under the conditions our society finds itself living through, where Christmas will be happening.

However, the Nativity is a reminder that if Christmas – or life or whatever – is happening ‘elsewhere’ it is not in the ‘elsewhere’ of glamorous, powerful and influential lives.

Christmas is not in the homes of those who insulate themselves from the terror, pain and exposure of reality, who create simulacra of Christmas for the benefit of telling themselves they are the special or honoured ones.

The elsewhere of Christmas is all around us, in the world we choose not to see, that won’t be dressed up in an ironic Christmas jumper and made to look nice. And in that otherness God is alive and seen by those with eyes to see. And from those places God comes to tear the palaces and the temples of our, of my, easy comfort and exploitation. God’s star points us not towards position, glitz or status, but into a more fearful glory. 

Friday, 12 December 2014

'These are not the leaders you're looking for' - talent pools, management & the C of E

“I alone must write on flesh. Not even
The congenial face of my Baptist cousin,
My crooked affinity Judas, who understands,
Men who would give me accurately to the unborn
As if I were something simple, like bread.
But Pete, with his headband stuffed with fishhooks,
His gift for rushing in where angels wouldn’t,
Tom, for whom metaphor is anathema,
And James and John, who want the room at the top—
These numskulls are my medium. I called them.

I am tattooing God on their makeshift lives.
My Keystone Cops of disciples, always,
Running absurdly away, or lying ineptly,
Cutting off ears and falling into the water,
These Sancho Panzas must tread my Quixote life,
Dying ridiculous and undignified,
Flayed and stoned and crucified upside down.
They are the dear, the human, the dense, for whom
My message is. That might, had I not touched them,
Have died decent respectable upright deaths in bed.”

The above is taken from U.A. Fanthorpe’s poem, Getting It Across. It’s well worth checking out in full, vocalizing in Fanthorpe’s inimitable style Jesus’ exasperation with the fools he’s forced to work with.

When I read the Church Times’ article on The Green Report – which advises the Church to effectively adopt a business-shaped approach to developing its ‘talent pool’ for leadership positions – this poem came to mind. Fanthorpe’s poem reminds us of what we all know – that God, in the shape of Christ, is seeking to 'tattoo' glory on our makeshift lives. Her poem goes to the heart of the ironic, perhaps paradoxical glory of God and how it might be embodied in the church: how God does not necessarily choose the brilliant, the talented or even the especially virtuous for service. He almost perversely has a fondness for Keystone Cops and Sancho Panzas. God works with and calls the human, the dense and the foolish for ministry as much as the Augustines and the Pauls. And while the Anselms and Aquinas are called along with the clowns, it is not clear that they are the ones who are called to lead.

It is hard to argue that the C of E qua institution has been pretty poor at looking beyond patronage and ‘old school tie’ as a means of filling ‘senior’ posts. In one sense, the Green Report's desire to find ways of identifying clergy for those posts from a wider range of backgrounds than have hitherto been found is fair enough. As a friend pointed out on FB, in an hierarchical institution that is male-dominated, middle-class and so on, it makes sense to build the confidence of candidates from non-'trad' backgrounds.

However, one of the abiding questions concerns the extent to which the church should be driven by institutional rather than kingdom/God concerns. From an institutional point of view, demonstrable ‘success’ in achieving goals ‘x’, ‘y’, ‘z’ is a fundamental concern. Unilever or HSBC (for which Lord Green worked) will want managers to show how they have ‘added value’ to the institution for the sake of making that institution ever more successful in the world (in both cases, by delivering profits for the shareholders, one assumes). Leader-managers will model the values of the institution, managing risk and reward, and producing results. If they don’t they will lose their jobs or be demoted or be retrained. Growth will be the driver. If profit is not achieved, they may have to get rid of employees or find other means of rationalization. It is not the managers’ role to ask whether his/her institution is questionable or part of a system that might be open to question. 

I overstate for rhetorical effect, but I wonder: should the Church, insofar as it is committed to living for God and the Kingdom, be like the above? 

All I am certain of is that the figure at the centre of what the early Christians called The Way, Jesus Christ, modelled an odd, questionable and dodgy form of 'leadership'. Sacrifice, loss, and woundedness were not alien to him. His leadership was defined by grace and servanthood, not by extending the reach and (gulp!) penetration of an institution into the market-place.

And, yes, I know he never had to deal with the anxieties and challenges of being a bishop, a dean or an archdeacon. Jesus is precisely the kind of poltroon no institution, business or organisation is likely to want.

But he disturbs and inspires me because he seemed interested in the Kingdom and in God rather than delivering success according to an organization’s values. Maybe that’s what God is about. That's why he's so damn outrageous and infuriating.  For he dares us to make fools of ourselves for the sake of a ridiculous Love rather than living the respectable, upright lives - managed, costed, demonstrably growing - the institution adores.