Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Where do we go from here? Towards An Unknown Church ... Part Two ... REST

While this post should be able to stand alone, it may be helpful to read Part One on Fragility before plunging in to this offering. The previous post offers a rationale for my decision to blog about the future of the C of E.

It is, perhaps, a token of my need for extended rest that it has taken me a long-time to bring this post on ‘rest’ in to land. As ever, these thoughts are provisional and conversation starters. I suspect my ‘not-so-hot take’ shall be proven very wide of the mark as a post-COVID Church emerges ...

Made for Rest? Rest made for us?

The Church rather loves to talk about rest. The Bible is littered with injunctions to rest and Sabbath. The great spiritual writer Fr. Gerry Hughes even claims that we are made for rest. I think the stresses and pressures generated by coronavirus – a time when clergy can feel their ministry is both more weightless and more intensely stressful than at any time – require a re-start on, or, at least, a reassessment of the priority to rest.

I want to hedge this carefully. Someone in my position – a long-established incumbent, an Area Dean, an honorary Canon etc. – is, in ministry-terms, exceptionally privileged and I say what I’m about to say with caution. I am, like all my kind, inclined to overestimate the value of ordained ministry. I also always run the risk of smugness, delineating situations in such a way in which someone likes me pays little of the cost. (I hope my previous post shows that I want to avoid that tendency, but I suspect I fail …)

I also acknowledge that, while being a single person household has some profound downsides, I have considerable flexibility in the way I organise my daily life. Finally, I write as someone with considerable middle-class privilege. When I say, ‘we shall all wish to work less’ that may be true across a wide spectrum; the reality will almost certainly be that only those with considerable existing financial and social capital shall be able to do so.

It will come as little surprise, given what this time has revealed, that I think it’s clear that both clergy and laity need to work less, pray more deeply, and work in a more clearly delineated way. It’s time for a more sustainable pace. I love work and at heart I’m a workaholic, but I’m not sure I’ve ever achieved more as a result of working absurdly long hours, seven days a week. Indeed, one of the things revealed to me by this time is the personal unsustainability of endless, driven work. There was a time when I could be ‘on’ from 0630am through to 11pm at night. This now feels comedically, horrifically unsustainable.

The discovery of rest as vocation is surely going to a culture-wide thing. Friends, lay and ordained, with young family are simply utterly exhausted at the moment. To be a parent is surely one of the most extraordinary responsibilities and gifts a human can have, and it strikes me that there is no immediate prospect of a full return to school in a physical sense. Holidays will not provide a huge amount of respite in a time of coronavirus. This nation is going to be exhausted by this experience and the scars will be present for years.

I suspect we shall all want to work at a less fever-pitch pace. More to the point, we may have to. I think I’m going to have to. I’m a workaholic and I love being intensely involved in things. But I feel it in my bones: there is going to be a reaction in my body to this time of strain. I won’t simply be able to click back in to old ways of working. I have much less emotional and physical slack.

Soon (when?), everyone – of faith or none – who can afford it is going to want a holiday, maybe many holidays. However, the point of this post is not simply to say, ‘Moar Holidays’, though that may be welcome. I pray that we learn to work more slowly, carefully and kindly. Holidays – whatever they may come to mean – will be desirable, perhaps even necessary; a culture where rest becomes the defining characteristic will, I sense, be essential. Sabbath will need to be rediscovered.

What might happen?

I am ever hopeful. While it is dangerous to generalise from one’s own case, one of the curious side-effects of life under COVID-19, is how I’ve felt invited to pray and pray more richly. I’ve felt called to spend more time in God’s company. This has felt more like an invitation to rest with God rather than struggle with God. It is an invitation to mess-about in God’s company. Rowan Williams famously compared prayer to sunbathing. To sunbathe doesn’t take any great skill. One simply needs to be where the sun can get at you. Thus, with prayer. One simply needs to be where God can get at you. The limits on busyness and flashiness created by lockdown have placed me and many others in a situation where God can get at us a little more. I hope and pray this will have significant practical effects:

In the light of lockdown and its necessary rescopings, I sense (hope?) there will be an uptick in vocations to the religious life … both vocations to the religious life in ‘Third Order’ settings, as well as potentially in enclosed community. I certainly believe there will be an uptick in enquiries, as individuals consider the meaning and shape of their lives. Coronavirus has exposed the profound needs many of us feel for richer, deeper connection and life together. I hope and sense there might be exciting developments in both new, digital, and established religious communities.

In wider society, there could well be a profound reassessment of what is of value materially. There may be an uptick in interest in living in a more relational, slower way, as well as a diminished appetite for consumption. Rightly, I think one should approach the likelihood of this with caution. There will be many, both within the Church and without, who feel their futures are too intimately intertwined with unrestrained consumerism to even consider a rescoping. Those of us, for example, who draw ever closer to pensionable age and wish to receive a decent pension should not be naïve about the role of international capitalism in generating our future benefits.

However, we are first relational, affective beings and I sense – from my own case and those of others – that this time presents an opportunity to discover a truth and gift at the heart of the universe: each of us is in the hands of others. To live well, especially in a time of virus, requires a preparedness to treat with ‘handed-over-ness’. Given how dangerous ‘touch’ is right now, there is a certain irony in discovering we are ‘in the hands of others’.

I become ever more convinced we are not discrete individual units. We are in-dwellers. We dwell in and through each other. To note this and live this requires attention (and not simply ‘alertness’) and time. And if time is genuinely to be constructed on different terms, that requires community and political will. Otherwise it will simply be the case that those who can take more time and space shall, while an underprivileged lower class is left to cover the gaps. In short, a kind of theological reconstruction of cultural value (which may or may not be religious) is required.

Some Practical Possibilities?

Perhaps I only speak for myself, but I sense a real need to (re-)discover the joy and delight of play, ‘messing about’, and wasting time. If the world is genuinely gift and all we hold and receive is gift, then I see no imperative to construct everything in terms of achieving things or acquiring stuff, or of establishing effective programmes and proving outcomes. I feel we need to rediscover the open texture of God’s reality. Why the heck should our lives – religious and otherwise – be programmed out to the final detail? Maybe we should dare to enjoy God a little more. Maybe we should waste time. Maybe trying to be endless productive for the sake of what … the Church? the Kingdom? pleasing God? … might be a token of insecurity rather than trust or love …

Perhaps, then, when we seek to be agents of change and communities of goodness, we need to take time to discern, pray and listen. Perhaps it is a question of learning to slow down and spend more time with the questions. Perhaps the question we need to ask is, ‘What is the question or questions God wishes us to wrestle with?’ That is, what is the heartbeat of God in this time? And in the time which is to come? What is the single simple thing God is asking of us? I suspect the space will generate unexpected answers. Yes, the response shall entail activity and activism, but of a focussed, sustainable kind.

In a recent conversation with St Nick’s stipendiary curate, Andrew, we discussed the significance of the call to be a ‘watcher’ and ‘sentinel’ in one’s ordained identity. I’ve long considered it an unjustly overlooked and unglamorous dimension of pastoral ministry (‘See my previously published works …’ ;-)). If I understood Andrew aright, he suggested that to be a watcher entails an active attentiveness (an ‘alertness’? ;-)); this dimension of ordained ministry can feel especially acute And difficult when one feel one’s ministry is rather lacking in action. However, to be alert to the signs of the Kingdom and God’s abundant grace is always a dynamic vocation. It can be challenging, demanding and disturbing. It may become a defining characteristic of much ministry in the years to come. In watching and waiting, perhaps we may be better equipped to see what God is up to and get involved.

 … I know. That’s all very well and good, but it sounds rather airy … so, at a little more grounded level …

Beyond lockdown, I would hope for the establishment of a genuine commitment from senior leadership to a five-day pattern for ministry. This will require both a rescoping on the part of clergy at all levels – and as a parish priest I acknowledge we are our own worst enemies – as well as a profound level of honesty about relationships between lay and ordained. It will require a level of honesty about what actually can be achieved in local churches which I’ve rarely witnessed.

What do I mean? Well, as previously indicated, I think stipendiary ordained people are going to become scarcer. The risk is that either those remaining stipendiaries will be so loaded down that they burn out very quickly or SSMs and lay officers will feel like they must take on so much in addition to their day jobs that they will make themselves ill.

Clergy working shorter hours should not mean that small numbers of active laity work so hard at plugging holes they lose their own rest.

Discernment – prayerful discernment and practical discernment – will be crucial. It will not be the case that we can do all we did as the national church or the local church. We shall need to target and be focussed. If we are to remain sane and well, some things will just have to go. What those things are will most likely be discerned at the local and diocesan level.

How can we begin to model this truth and husband our resources? Well, this is a formation as well as a commissioning issue. Stipendiaries are not contracted workers. We have terms and conditions but we often sit lightly to the rest and holiday aspects. This is a formational problem (which I believe has a gendered dynamic too) as well as a cultural issue. Stephen Cottrell has often spoken about how Jesus was ‘radically unavailable’. Those charged with the formation of clergy need to locate their work in this call to radical unavailability from the outset. In a world of serial overwork, an increased focus during formation and ongoing in-service training must be centred on rest, refreshment and retreat.

Our parochial lay officers, including church wardens, will need to begin to call their priests to account. At the point of commissioning or admission to office for lay officers, Archdeacons and Bishops will likely need to inscribe the imperative (!) to rest and holiday. These may even become part of the words of commissioning. At the very least, rest and refreshment might need to be almost agenda items on the table at PCCs, staff meetings, Deanery Synods.  Those who exercise leadership at all levels will need to start from rest rather than seeing it as an add-on.

It is a simple fact that lots of people, lay and ordained, are both knackered now and shall be for a while to come. Much as our senior leaders rightly emphasise the need for clergy to take rest days/days off and take leave at this time, frankly this is currently mostly meaningless. At the best of times, it is really difficult to take a staycation when one lives above the shop. Right now, I find it mostly meaningless. If too much has been made of comparisons between this time of COVID and war conditions, where I do think there is an intersection is in the bone-wearying effects of a life without proper rest and holiday. We, you, I … all of us are going to deeply worn-out at the end of this … if there is a defined end of this … the side-effects will be felt in our bodies for years to come …

While I sense that the Church will commend that clergy’s untaken leave should be carried over into the future, the only way many of us shall find the time and space to get the kind of restoration our bodies need will be if we learn to work less, prioritise the essentials and learn to let go of a whole bunch of stuff which looks important but probably ain’t.

I hope that the Church, locally and nationally, will find ways to hold fewer meetings. Clusters of parishes, clergy and lay leaders will increasingly find it necessary to develop administrative centres to coordinate occasional offices at a central point. Clergy and lay will need to be more integrated to ensure our Human Resources recover. This may mean fewer services, an end to the fetishisation of the Parish Eucharist and a honest, almost ruthless letting-go of the vestiges of the ‘we do everything’ Parish Church model.

In short, it may be time that the Church, finally, properly wrestles with an old question: what is God calling the Body of Christ to be, in this locale, with these profoundly limited but amazing human and financial resources? What, indeed, is the question God is inviting us to answer?


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