annoying rules, annoying rectors

Dear Congregations,

There’s this conversation we keep having. So I thought I’d try to set it down here.

I know it’s a pain when we suddenly stumble up against a regulation that means more work. I hate it too.

No, I really can’t explain why all of my predecessors never mentioned that there were rules or regulations, nor why they were happy to break them when I am not. I wonder if that’s true — though I know you believe it to be so. Either way, I cannot make sense of it either.

I know, too, that sometimes we’re going to get it wrong. A lot of the rules are hard to apply when we only have ten people trying to do the work of a hundred, and when some rules feel impossible, it’s easy to assume all rules are optional.

But I also believe the rules are there to protect us.
That one about painting the door? It’s the same rule that applies to the walls. It’s to stop a well-meaning person who loves orange from painting everything in sight orange and ruining it for everyone else. It’s also to stop us from painting a wall with waterproof paint when in fact that wall needs to breathe. It’s about having people who know more than we do cast and eye over our plans so that we don’t make a well-meant mess.

I know you would never do that. You have good taste. You only wanted a fresh-coat of the sensible colour that was already there. But imagine it were someone else. Someone who thought orange and green stripes would be nice…

The one about the hall agreement? Oh, I so wish we didn’t need those. But neither do I want the lawsuit and the horrible articles in the paper if something goes wrong and ‘the church’ gets the blame. Let’s get an agreement written up and ask people to sign. Sorry I hadn’t noticed we didn’t have one before.

As for needing to tell the PCC before making big decisions? That’s just common sense. You all carry so much responsibility for the church, and one of my jobs is to help make sure you carry that safely — and that means we make decisions together.

I know it’s faster if you just make the decision on your own and tell us later. I know you worry that everything slows down if we have to talk. But that’s how we grow together as a community, how we share ideas, how we keep each other safe.

Sorry it’s all so annoying.
Sorry you’re having to learn this when you’ve been doing it differently for 30 years.
I really can’t explain it either. I have no idea why no one has ever told you this before.

But, at least we know now. The rules are there to help us.

What’s going well?

Early March is often is my low point. I can no longer pretend that I’m just catching up after Christmas. Holy Week is about to claim the diary completely, and after that there are six AGMs to get through. I would still like to know who decided to put the Annual Meetings of the Church of England in April. It seems an aggressively anti-liturgical move.

There is always danger, therefore, that I will write my annual report in Grumpy Prophet Mode. (The winter has passed, the head-count is over, and we are not yet saved.)  Grumpy Prophets have no place at annual meetings. So I have learned not to rely on my own perceptions.

At our PCC meeting on Monday, I asked for help with the AGM: ‘What’s going well? What do we want to celebrate?’ I knew there were things. Even as I asked I began to remember: conversations about children and communion; the weird but wonder summer produce stall; the atmosphere at the 11.30 service; the rescue of the ancient and lovely purple altar frontal. But the first response from the group surprised me completely.

‘People are talking about faith. Outside of church. People are talking to each other.’

Really? I had no idea.

One of the problems of having six churches is that I never feel like I know what’s going on. I am only there two Sundays out of four at the big church, and even less in the villages. I don’t get to feel the little shifts, the mood changes, spot the patterns because I’m always trying to re-join the community and figure out where they are.

It should not be surprising that people talk about faith, but it is. It’s one of the hardest things to get a community to do. Is it happening? Not enough. Not yet. But I am thrilled that even one person, in one part of the church thinks that it is so.

And the real mark of God is that I have no idea why it should be so. Yes, the Lent Groups are good — but there have always been Lent Groups. Yes, I expect people to talk about God — but I’m sure that’s been true of my colleagues too. But something is changing.

In a small group the other day, someone asked — in genuine curiosity and kindness — ‘Why are you here?’ It was a God question. We’d been talking about gender roles and Christian Feminism, and I suspect my outsider status was showing. What she was asking was, ‘Given the local culture, and given what you believe — what on earth is God doing, putting you here?’

I’m sure that I’m here because it was time for me to receive a gift of kindness — and these congregations give it abundantly. But as for what I give, what I am here to do?  I am still not sure.

But perhaps we are beginning to get an answer. I am here because my very presence upsets the status-quo. I am here because when I say things about God that I think are normal and uncontroversial, they are often seen as surprising.  The gap in assumptions can be hard, but it’s fascinating; so people are talking.

‘Does she really think that?’
‘But I’m sure we were taught…’
‘Do you think it could be…?’

There’s good Godly gossip going on, and that is worth celebrating indeed.

 

 

 

 

All the Terriers of God

 

I’m working on a new Mission Strategy: Terrier-led Worship.

The question of how one changes a liturgical culture is never far from my mind. A lot of parishes get lost somewhere between ‘mini-cathedral’ and ‘private club’. Lack of humour is mistaken for reverence; chaos is seen as informality.

Quite by accident, I find myself exploring a new model: Worship with Dogs.

There are regular doggy-worshippers in two of my six congregations. One is a friendly, quiet, old terrier who accompanies his elderly human so that they can both feel safe. He sits under her chair on a blanket, and comes up to the rail for a blessing. He nibbles on biscuits at coffee, and expertly welcomes new members.

In another church, we have a whole pack. Three terriers, two, none, four. One never really knows who will turn up. In winter they are held in by the wooden door, and in summer they can sit on the screened in porch. It’s what the screen is for.

Yesterday, a one-eyed terrier came up as acolyte as I read the gospel: good as gold, he set his eyes on the book and did not move till it was over.

Their presence changes things. More than anything I can say, the fact that we pray with dogs makes it clear that this is not The Church of Ancient Memory. Our worship is not about best behaviour or rules. We can be serious about our faith and light hearted in our approach.

With the dogs there, I can slip in an unexpected aside about the too ready acceptance of abuse in our society, without worrying that the young children are going to latch onto it. (They have mandalas to colour, and a dog is trying to lick their nose.) With the dogs there, it feels natural to pause between confession and absolution to answer the three year old’s question, ‘Daddy, why are you all talking?’ We explain, and ask them to think of something they wish they hadn’t done this week, and absolution is granted.

A large part of my heart will always be committed to big, beautiful liturgies that catch us up in the wonder of God. But that is never going to be the norm of parish ministry.

In the villages, the dogs teach us we are human, and let the whole of life come in.

due for revision

Every once in a while, I get an urge to re-write the ten commandments. Last night was such a night — after a morning of Prayer Book, and an evensong full of tricky bits of Paul, which ended with ‘God is not yes, no, but yes, yes.’

So here, hastily done, is the latest gloss…

The Divine Word

Imagine a God who says yes.
Whose word is yes, yes. Not no.
Yes, you are my beloved.
Yes, you are my child.

And imagine we taught our children
generation after generation
to listen for God’s yes —
for God’s glorious liberating word

and we greeted them
not with Thou Shalt Not,
but with God’s deeper call,
God’s eager yes.

On our walls we might still paint the words our ancestors taught us:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul,

with all your mind and with all your strength.
Love, others too — not just the ones you like,
or the ones who are like you —
but love them all, for I, the Lord your God, am a loving God:
all creation is mine.

Imagine we taught our children the great commandments:
Rest is Holy. Rest is sacred. Remember that you need rest.
And help others to stop their busyness too —
children and parents, strangers and friends
all must be given time
to be free
to set aside the tasks of the day
to delight in love and beauty and wonder.

When there is time, we can learn to value each other:
so, honour your parents, listen and learn from them;
honour your children too: for they know the ways of God.

Imagine that we taught our children
God’s way is not of death.
Give life to others, and help them live.
God’s love for us is precious and kind.
Be kind to others, and be faithful.

Our Great God gives us all we need
so give freely, share what you have.  There is enough.
T
here is no need to fear or to lie.  You are loved —
so you are free — to speak truth, to speak kindness,
to sing God’s word and dance God’s joy.

Delight in other people’s gifts, rejoice in their riches, 
find joy in one another’s peculiar ways,
for I, your God, am a curious God —
I love to laugh and catch you off guard.
Laugh with me.

And what if we invited God to write these words on our hearts?
If we taught our children to do the same?
Then would we be miserable?
Then would we offend?

Or might we believe
that we are worthy
that we are blessed
that we are beloved?

Imagine that this is our God
who longs to give us love.

For God it is
who says Yes
who delights in our being
and longs for our joy.

hold my hope

So, when did you last sit down with a book on prayer and find yourself laughing? Oh, all right. I do laugh with books on prayer — but it’s often a bit rueful, as I face yet again the gap between what I hope for and what I sustain. This was different. This book is funny — and worth sharing:

Ana Hernández is someone whose worked crossed my path last autumn when I went to the Music that Makes Community workshop in New York. She is a creator of earworms, and teacher of chant.

Earworm first. I think I have shared this before: Open my Heart. It doesn’t sound like much at first, but trust me — if you listen to it a few times, it will sing itself in your consciousness at the most helpful times.

I love her songs, and they have been a large part of my prayer for the last year — but I confess, the book has made me a bit nervous. The Sacred art of Chant: preparing to practice.

I like chant. I like it contained safe in the walls of Evensong and Compline. I like it sung stunningly by well trained monks. But this book seemed to be asking more of me. I suggests that I might chant. It suggests that I might make it a part of my daily prayer. It suggests that I might make noise in prayer. Silence, yes. Noise? God of all Scariness, give us strength.

Still, you know that I tend to think that what terrifies us is good for us and one of the ways God calls us to grow, so I have persevered. Ana Hernandez makes strong claims for chant:

Chanting with an intention to open our hearts and minds to the presence of God in us helps us to be quiet in the face of mystery and learn how to hear what it has to say to us. Chanting can hep us focus when we’d normally space out, stay calm when we’d normally blow up, raise our energy level when it’s time to go out, lower our energy level when it’s time to go to bed (or vice-versa — you make the call). Chanting is great at helping us fathom how to deal with our emotions so we don’t feel overwhelmed and so we don’t overwhelm others: It helps find and maintain a balanced perspective.

… and I have this nagging hunch that what she is saying might just be true.

So, I wanted to share it — to say ‘sing this. read this. try this with me?’

Even if you find that chant is not your thing, I think this is a book worth reading. She is asking big questions about how we can live more openly with God and one another, and how we can ‘manifest our sweetest selves’. I suspect that only someone who is not always sweet could have stumbled across that goal, and I find that very reassuring.

I’ll give her the last word: Hold my hope. The Schehallion Reel of chanting:

first impressions

This morning I have taken my office outside and am working from the Butterfly Garden in New Waltham. This is one of the many surprises of the past week. The villages are lovley. Waltham itself (village? town?) is gently busy and bright. New Waltham is the least likely place to seek quiet. It is on the edge of Cleethorpes, and much more suburban. But someone here understands sacred space, and there is a well crafted garden slowly growing into a sanctuary.

My first impressions of Lincolnshire led to thoughts of Oz. But there is no ambiguity now: this is England.

In the week before my institution, the community police officer dropped by to say hello; the local take away hand delivered a menu (probably on the rumour that my cooker had not arrived); the local papers had articles welcoming me, and apparently I was the talk of the town, from hairdresser, to news agents, to pub.

I kept my head down till the licensing, and people were remarkably respectful of that. But as soon as I went out in my dog-collar, the energy was released: people wave from their cars as they pass; I get stopped in the street; there is a growing list of people and places where I am supposed to drop in because they want to meet the new ‘vicar’.

Learning what it means to be the parish priest will not be a problem. I have four villages and two small towns ready and eager to teach me.

For the first week, I spent most of my time going around the churches: tea, chat and worship, in half-day blocks. It was good to meet people in their own environment, and to begin to realise how different these churches are. In one village, I was introduced to The Protestant Reformation Society. Remember them? I thought they’d passed out of existence a century ago, but apparently, the issues are still live. The 39 articles are firmly defended. Surplice and stole are the norm. Opinions vary widely in the congregations, but everyone knows that Calvin and Cramner are never far away.

On the other hand, I found a pink chasuble in one of the churches last night. Glory be.

What strikes me is this: there are a huge number of people here who are deeply committed to the churches. Some of those people would never dream of worshipping, and would find it mildly surprising to think that might be what church was about. And yet, they organise rotas to mow the graveyard. They swoop in to clean the church and dress it in fairy lights for fundraising dinners. They come when the new priest says ‘I’ll be in the church’ and they ask about weddings and blessings and prayer.

The nature of worship is sometimes ambiguous but the role of prayer is not. More people have spoken to me about prayer in the past week than in most years of parish ministry.

So that’s where we’ll start: with prayer. And with cleaning the sacristies — and the fonts and altars too.

Butterfly_Garden_New_Walthan.JPG