I thought I’d do one of those “looking back with wisdom on the events of…” posts. I believe they’re normally terribly reflective and insightful.
In some ways this last year has been hugely eventful. This time last year, I was three months into a new post, in a new town, and all the new life bits which come with that. Our son, adopted (then two and a half years ago) had moved four times in four years, firstly from his foster carer in Glasgow to us in Linlithgow, then to Morningside, then again to Melrose. It was an unsteady time for him, and it broke my heart and filled me with sorrow to move him when he felt settled in Edinburgh. It felt risky.
When I arrived, the church was good in attendance, healthy in it’s social life, but down on finances (projecting a significant deficit year on year). Since then, we discovered that the organ was beyond repair, requiring us to fundraise, we have discovered dry rot in the roof, which has meant that we have had to move out for five months (we’re still out), and have lost a significant number of prominent members due to moving house and bereavement.
Despite that, it’s been a really excellent year. One of the best in fact. We will move back into our redecorated, sound and secure church, our new organ is on it’s way, we will have a new director of music to go with it, with more children and young people, and plans for the future which are exciting and hopeful. And we’ve balanced the books, which always helps, in addition to giving more to charity this year than in years past, with me working with the food bank and fair trade, promoting them in the local schools, and generally feeling like a cat that likes to gallop about doing good.
And my boy, and my wife, are as happy as they have ever been. Our son has trees to climb, friends to play with for hours on end, a church full of people who love him, and a teacher who gives him everything he needs to flourish. It’s been a rich and beautiful year.
So here’s the things I’ve learned in the last year.
Being busy is a poor alternative to doing good We all like to be busy, industrious, indispensable. And sometimes in ministry, we are working all hours because people we love and care about are in need. Sometimes lots of people are having bad days and bad times at the same time, so it’s inevitable as the priest that there are occasions when you will be emotionally tired. But that’s very different to just filling all of your days with too much stuff. It’s easy to do, but it’s often a part of the spiral of desolation which Ignatius describes, where life gets quicker, and tighter and narrower, and more urgent, the spiritual version of disappearing down a plughole. It’s very tempting to try and fill the service sheet with notices, but until you know, and love, your congregation, nothing you do will have the underpinning content of love and respect which enables any church activity to be worth anything.
Churches can evolve very quickly, but you can’t “change” anything.
It’s often said churches are allergic to change. In a way that’s true – someone once said to me “if you want to change anything, do it in the first six months because after then, no-one will let you change anything”. But it occurred to me even then, that perhaps the reason that people didn’t’ let him change anything after the first six months was because of what he had done in the first six months! My experience is that churches don’t mind changing, but they do mind change being imposed without consultation or respecting feelings. The change in liturgy, children’s services, and other activities that we’ve had over this last year has not been seismic, but it has been significant, and as a result has united the church more than it has divided it.
Churches are different. Being a good priest means finding a good match
When I was interviewed by Holy Trinity, I was asking myself a number of questions, and many of them were the standard ones about churchmanship, receptivity to change, conflict in church etc, but the underpinning question was simply “do they want to like one another?” Obviously, I think this is the essence of what it is to be a church, building a community of mutual respect and love, creating safe space for people to be who God is calling them to be. But I know it’s different for others. I can’t know the motivations of other clergy or churches, but as long as you and your congregation are on the same page, then generally, I think, things will go well.
Sometimes, I have to be braver than I want to be
I’m not naturally a brave person. I tend to get thrown by conflict, and often work hard for very good reasons not to have unnecessary conflict in church. But sometimes that means I don’t stick my neck out for the sake of what is right. It’s easy to be angry and brave, or passionate and brave, but to be me (which is generally a consensual, muddling-along-without-wanting-to-offend-anyone sort) and to be brave is tricky.
When I co-wrote the letter to our college of Bishops concerning their pronouncements on gay clergy, it felt horriby brave. I felt as though I was putting myself in the firing line, and the fact that it was my name on the email that organised the signatories put me in what felt like a direct path of conflict with those who were in authority over me. It filled me with anxiety, to the extent that I felt simply cowardly for feeling like that. But I know it was the right thing to do, and I’m glad I did it, despite the sleepless nights. Because at the end of the day people I cared about were more important than my cowardice, and I thank them for that.
We’re always better together than apart
We had a lovely Christmas season. But apart from the standard services, the thing which made it for me were the two Christmas lunches we had. For a few weeks, we have put in the notices that we were inviting anyone who wanted to, to come and share lunch on Christmas day. I was worried about folk who might not have anywhere to go for Christmas, and I know that often pride, or a desire not to be a burden prevented folk from accepting an invitation to join in with others. I was also concerned that folk who we delivered food to in the food bank might not have the Christmas they would want for their children. So we made an open invitation, not to be a guest, but to take a full part in co-hosting the day, either by providing food, or helping with decorating the room, or whatever folk wanted to or could do. It was a joint effort of twenty-odd folk, all of whom did what they could to make the day a joyful one. More people than that joined us after the service on Christmas morning for a glass of wine and something to eat, and on the Sunday we had over thirty round for a “leftover lunch” of whatever we hadn’t eaten on Christmas day, much of which I disguised by putting them into a pie.
I love to watch people in these situations, talking and laughing and listening to one another. It makes me feel that the church is part of a family, and that we all matter to each other.
More than that, in the debates about gay marriage, I’m more convinced than ever that we are always better to be together, sharing our differences, our differing perspectives and our sometimes conflicting theology. We will always be richer for honest conversation made in the love of God that we share, and always poorer when we can’t listen to those who differ. As I wrote in a previous blog post, I think liberals have often unwittingly engaged in dishonest conversation, which patronises our opponents and fails to share what really matters to us. I hope that the new year will bring a better honesty and trust in our conversations.
It is our duty as Christians to be optimistic about the future Oh dear heavens, I’m so fed up of folk thinking that things are worse than they ever were. Maybe it’s an age thing, and the thought that I might potentially have more years behind me than ahead may give those of my generation pause for thought. But even with issues of climate change, terrorism, crime and all the things that plague us, I genuinely feel the world is becoming a better place than it ever was. The internet is democratising places where democracy is lacking, there is a new understanding of the need for spirituality in people, it feels that we are gradually growing up as a nation, and the once simplistic reactions to crises are not enough for people any more. Politics is in turmoil, and this, indeed I believe, is the beginning of the birth pangs of something better, something more suited to a new international age.
But even if I’m wrong, and the world is a worse place than ever before, we are still called to proclaim the possibility of a better world, and to proclaim it with joy and faith that it can be done.