Why I couldn’t sleep last night…

… it wasn’t just a caffeine overdose. Lying and thinking over my day I felt saddened and anxious by two entirely separate but related incidents that happened yesterday. The first was voting – no big deal in a way and a well-worn habit of trotting to the local school, saying hi to friends and acquantainces and feeling glad that I live in a well-ordered democracy. But this year the ballot paper took me by surprise. Lists of candidates belonging to parties whose main policies seem to centre round xenophobia and prejudice against immigrants. And in  some wards near me – one of these parties has come second, taking the place of the party of protest. 89 new council seats for UKIP. How has this happened? How have our major parties become so unappealing that these fringe parties now have a veneer of acceptability.

One the same day I was chatting to a friend of mine, a priest I admire greatly who is black. She was telling me that she recently led a service in a middle-class white church and after the service one person had told her she had good diction (no-one has ever told me that) and three people asked her where she came from.

We talked about that question for some time and I really understood, perhaps for the first time, how it feels to be asked that question so often. It’s effect is to  literally put someone in an outsider’s place ( and make them feel they are not welcome in a ‘white’ place).  It implies that some roles, some spaces and places are for white people – they belong to one group of people. The attitude that only some people belong diminishes us all.  It is the attitude that Jesus challenged most often in the pharisees – at one point calling them ‘Whited sepulchres.’ No-one has privilege around God – that is a basic.

I am (still) writing my sermon for Pentecost and have now read both passages. In Acts the Holy Spirit falls on the disciples and they are able to speak in many languages. This is not a pointless magic trick or God showing off. This is so they can build a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural community of people who are seeking to live like Jesus. In John’s version the Spirit brings the ability to forgive (or not forgive)  – another essential for community building, especially when the community brings people together who are not all exactly the same (and can therefore pretend to get along on a superficial level).

While media headlines stir up suspicion against Muslims and UKIP attracts the Tory vote, the church cannot afford to indulge in ‘parallel lives’ or leave attitiudes of superiority and racism unchallenged. When we live as communities where all are welcome and we are free to learn and teach one another, forgiving each other when we are clumsy, drawing each other into greater love and greater truth, when our Churches model what it means to live together then we will really have, as we say each week, a foretaste of the heavenly banquet prepared for all people.



Interrupting may be more than bad manners

Yesterday I heard I was preaching at Pentecost. Today I got to spend all day listening to the wise and experienced Australian community worker, Dave Andrews. Those two things are linked because among the many helpful things that Dave spoke about  were some ideas about the Holy Sprit that I can pinch for my sermon.

Dave helpfully reminded us that the Spirit is not something that arrives in Acts, the Hebrew Bible is full of it and in fact it gets a mention in the first two verses of the Bible – in the creation story when the ‘wind from God’ swept over the face of the earth. Nor it is just in the Church or in Christians. Nowadays we are really keen on the gifts of the Spirit and forget about the fruits – love, joy, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. We certainly can’t claim the monopoly on them!

This week I saw the presence of God in action in a really moving way when I visited a church and met a group of kind, gentle, faithful people who generously offered patient healing prayer to people they know and don’t know because they believed that it could work and in a way it would be rude not to. The gifts and fruit of the Spirit came together in those people who lived their life of faith, hidden and unnoticed, without glory or reward and their offer was incredibly moving.

I am terribly impatient and often I finish people’s sentences and interrupt. There is no excuse and clearly I need to focus on growing some patience (alongside the other 7 gifts) but I think that perhaps sometimes we can see the Spirit or the work of the Spirit as interrupting. Wind and fire would certainly interrupt our church service and on that day when the Spirit came things started to change dramatically. The steady growth of disciples that happened during Jesus’ time was interrupted and 3,000 people joined them in one day. The movement took off and took shape. The patterns they had established were interrupted and new patterns of worship and communal living began to emerge. This is why Pentecost is celebrated as the birthday of the church. (You can read about it in Acts Chapter 2)

Someone said somewhere that our lives in the Spirit sometimes mean that we have to interrupt bad practice. That’s certainly what Martin Luther King did and what Dietrich Boenhoffer sought to do. It could also describe the work of Mandela, Ghandi, Oscar Romero and many other saints. It is clearly not a popular job description as most of those paid with their life or at least their freedom. But  I have so much gratitude to people who are prepared to interrupt the practices that oppress, separate, sicken or terrify people – especially those who do it with so little fuss or expectation of reward.

Dave Andrews said today that the Holy Spirit is God Incognito. I think I need to stop interrupting others and let this God interrupt me from time to time. And once I am used to letting that happen, no doubt I’ll find myself engaged trying to interrupt bad practice in  some small way. (Not that I want to  be killed or imprisoned…) In the meantime – if I have finished your sentence or interrupted your conversation, sorry.

PS Any comments or thoughts that would help shape these random mutterings into a beautifully crafted sermon on June 8th would be most welcome.

On being a Deacon

I have realised that I have named the blog Distinctive Deacon but not really talked about why or what it means to me.

This week (well a week ago) women across the country were celebrating the 20th anniversary of their ordination to the priesthood in the Church of England. There were some amazing women at that gathering at St Paul’s who faced huge obstacles and opposition as they sought acceptance of their calling to serve as Anglican priests. Some of those amazing women I am really proud to call my friends.

But for many of those women the diaconate (the being a deacon) was where they were parked while the church decided if they thought women could be priests or not. Having been trained and ordained deacon in faith that they could one day be priests they waited in a kind of limbo – unable to preside at the Eucharist or have primary responsibility for the church.

So when I say I want to be a permanent deacon some people find it uncomfortable. How it works is that all priests are deacons for one year – a kind of appprenticeship. After a year they are ordained priest but the ‘deacon’ bit stays part of their priesthood and they combine the two ‘orders’ in one vocation. For me it will not be part, or subsumed – it will be my whole calling. I will be a distinctive deacon.

When I first really heard what a deacon is called to do – at an ordination service about 10 years ago – the hairs on the back of my neck literally stood on end.

This is what I heard: “Deacons are called to work with the Bishop and the priests with whom they serve as heralds of Christ’s kingdom. They are to proclaim the gospel in word and deed, as agents of God’s purposes of love. They are to serve the community in which they are set, bringing to the Church the needs and hopes of all the people. They are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible.”

There is so much I love about this but  two things stand out. The first is that you do it with others – fellow members – and the second is the phrase ‘forgotten corners of the world.’ There is place for  focussing on ‘low-lying fruits’ – a popular church expression to mean people close to Christianity  – but I also think that God is keen that we get out of our comfort zone and into the dark and dusty corners. And when we get there we’ll be amazed what we find.  I am so glad that this does not say that we take the love of God there because it will already be there – all we can do is make it visible, perhaps give it a name.

When I was exploring all this I was asked where did I see myself in the church building and while many  priests might answer at the altar – my reply was at the door. I see myself like the guys you see on holiday who are outside the restaurant badgering you to come in.

I think this job could be done by someone without a dog collar but I think ordaining people who work outside the church reminds people that their work outside the church is also holy, that the world outside church is holy and that God’s love is not confined to large victorian buildings but is expressed in a myriad ways, by a myriad of people doing a myriad of things.

Female priests anniversary marked


A hand on your shoulder

Yesterday I co-led All Age Worship (family service to those of us who grew up in the 80s) in which we journeyed round the church listening to the story of Jesus appearing to his disciples as they travelled to a place called Emmaus. On our journey we thought about where we found God outside church, in scripture, in the sacraments and in our relationships.

I was a bit worried about this service as usually in our church things are reasonably polished and if I am even just giving out the hymns I write down exactly what I am going to say. This time however we had no time for rehearsals, the service sheets were all a bit of a muddle and we had double the number of people that I was expecting there.

So it was a bit raggedy but for me it was great to be a bit flexible and spontaenous and it gave us lots of freedom. So when I read these questions late on Saturday night in a wonderful book on prayer I had the freedom to include them in our service. unnamedThe questions were very simple – and according to this book they were used by my favourite ever saint, Francis of Assisi in his long nights of prayer in a cave – they were ‘Lord, who am I? Lord, who are you?’

So this was the question I asked at the beginning of the service (without the Lord bit because I would rather use something more open to talk about God)  and as we finished early (no rehearsal and timings all wrong) we had time to talk about them at the end. It was a short conversation but really memorable. Interestingly, people were more willing to talk about who God was than who they were but some of the things that stuck in my mind were ‘the one to whom I can trust the people I love,’  ‘God is love and I am learning to love’ and from an 11-year-old boy ‘God is like a hand on your shoulder.’

Afterwards I heard more answers from people and it seemed the questions went to the heart of struggles faced by women and men, teenagers, children and older people. Now I just need to find the time to start to answer those questions for myself and to live in the loving presence of God who is as close as a hand on your shoulder.

On Being Busy

Yesterday I ended up being in six meetings (if you include a scheduled phone call that lasted well over half an hour). The first two were probably OK but I realised that even during them I was thinking about what I needed to do next. By the sixth I was hungry, tired and drained and heard myself moaning and grumping to anyone who would listen. (Grumping is not a word but it should be.)

The first meeting was about prayer, how to pray in an interfaith centre. I arrived with my phone and my notebook. No-one else did and I clearly didn’t need them. I realised them I carry them everywhere as a badge of busy-ness because being busy means you are connected and connected means important and in demand.

So even talking about busy is showing off. I think it is an addiction – as is my over-attachment to my phone – and needs discipline for a while so it stops being a habit. So I have some new rules. One day a week with no meetings and no more than three meetings a day. Meanwhile it is time again for my favourite quote from Thomas Merton – I think need to wear this round my neck or perhaps I should stick it over my phone/diary/calendar.

“The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence. The frenzy of the activist…destroys their own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of their own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

So please don’t be offended if I say ‘no’. I might just be developing my inner capacity for peace…or I might have a more important meeting to go to!!