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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Storm, Stress and Salvation: the gospel of Paul in a turbulent world

doubt if St Paul envisaged archdeacons in his ecclesiology though I guess that to do the job well you need pretty much the entire panoply of spiritual gifts he lists in his letters. I worked closely with archdeacons on two bishop’s staffs for twenty years, as well as benefitting from archdeacons on the Cathedral chapters I served as Dean. I hope you will hear it not as flattery but as real appreciation when I say that I hugely admire what you do. Everything I have heard during this absorbing conference underlines that. You are profoundly committed, visionary, people, but prudent and practical too, and unlike some bishops and deans, good at the detail, a combination of gifts that make you the gyroscopes that keep our dioceses upright. On behalf of the national church, I want to thank you. 

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul. I always think of Caravaggio’s great painting of that story, with the poor man, blinded by the great light that has assaulted him, spread-eagled on the ground while his huge horse rears up above. Chiaroscuro, we call Caravaggio’s technique, exploiting the dramatic interplay of light and shadow in art. Your conference theme Open to God in a Turbulent World captures the light-and-shadow aspects of the human journey and the path we walk as the people of God. A Damascus Road it is not for most of the time in our public ministry. Yet when I read the story of Paul and how he was prised apart on that road, I recall the late great Leonard Cohen’s immortal lines about the chiaroscuro of every life-changing encounter: 

There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

At last Paul’s long-repressed inner turbulence is exposed for all to see. Torn between passionate love & violent hatred, something in him must have longed to still the tectonic plates colliding within him. Is this what Caravaggio is getting at? I see his painting telling us something not only about Paul himself but the storm and stress that surrounded him. Caravaggio’s day was the same. So is ours. In today’s epistle Paul sets out a catalogue of his trials and ordeals, the turbulence he has endured for the sake of the gospel. I doubt any historical era is immune from turbulence, whatever nostalgia colours the way we speak about the past. But I don’t think anyone will deny that our own times are seeing more than their fair share of it, and this is mirrored in the church too.

It’s been a privilege to overhear you entering into this theme during these past days. Our speakers, all of them first rate and some of them profoundly moving have between them created a remarkably coherent exploration of how we need to be "open to God in a turbulent world". One thing that has struck me is the difficult tension between trying to control turbulence and doing the risky thing of stepping into its flow to see where it takes us. What if turbulence, for all its discomforts, were not always an enemy to be feared, but, sometimes at least, opened up new channels of flow that might reshape our history in better ways? "Rivers do not flow in straight lines." 

We wouldn't be human if we weren't shaken by these "fightings and fears within, without". We are living in times when people of faith have to hope against hope in order to keep hope alive. I see that as a central task of the church today when good people find their spirits crushed by events spinning out of their control, and succumb to resignation, despondency and even despair. It's been refreshing to come to a conference that has genuinely tried to address how we should contemplate a world in which the lights seem to be going out in so many places. I'd thought I would hear much more than I have about Renewal and Reform, the tension between strategic development funding and resourcing parish ministry, mission action plans needing to be diligently worked up and applied to save the church from terminal collapse. What a relief! Instead, what we have been doing is the more difficult but even more important task of pondering how best we can respond to the turbulences of our time, whether in church, society or global politics.

Let me speak into our specific role as senior leaders in the church. After thirty years in three cathedrals, I'm now learning how to be a superannuated villager in the Northumberland countryside close to Hadrian's Wall. It's eye-opening to see what challenges the rural benefice is facing. It's partly about resources, but more, I think, about the ageing and declining pool of lay people who are confident and willing enough to participate in the leadership of the local church. My wife and I sit in the congregation each Sunday and contribute as lay Christians. I go across to church on weekday mornings to say matins with the Vicar, a young and able priest who is the same age as I was in my first incumbency (but who is making rather fewer mistakes than I did at that point in my ministry). I admire and fear for younger clergy because it would be so easy for their vitality to be sapped by the sheer scale of the turbulence they are facing. It's not that there is any sign of this now. But ten years down the line: who knows? So I'm glad about the investment being made across the church in mentoring, consultancy, spiritual guidance and other forms of close, intentional support, and I'm also glad to play a small part in the networks in our diocese that are there to help clergy so that they do not lose heart.

In a fascinating Bible reading, we heard insights from Esther about how to be responsive to God in a world of chance and change. In turbulent times, we are easily driven by the sneak of danger to seek security in some imagined status quo that is familiar to us. Or if we feel the need to do something, we go on the offensive and throw what we can at the crisis. But both those ways feel more reactive than responsive. And reaction is driven not by an open unafraid engagement but by panic, anxiety and fear. To apply this to the church we serve, reaction seems to characterise the rhetoric we hear from some church leaders who are unwilling to ask the question, where is God in the turbulence itself, where do we glimpse his presence and hear his voice even in our institutional decline? And what might this point to in the reshaping of our life together? But if this conference has taught me anything, it is always to go back to the question, what is God doing in the storm and stress? The Elijah story tells us that we need to be as present to the earthquake, wind and fire as the still small voice. 

In the desert tradition that owes so much to Elijah, discernment or diakrisis is one of the spiritual gifts most to be coveted by spiritual leaders. At its heart lie the twin tasks of listening and interpreting. We've heard a lot about them in this conference: how we discern God's activity so that we can join in, whether it's among the poorest of our world whom Christian Aid serves so wonderfully, or in the theatres of conflict like Afghanistan where the pity of war draws out our empathy both with those who suffer and those who serve; or nearer to home where we want to bear good witness to the gospel in our cities and countryside, suburbs and estates. On the first evening we learned how the novelist has to sit still, look hard and listen intently if he or she is going to be a truth-seeker - but by extension that means each of us because story is at the heart of who we are and how we tell of the mighty acts of God. So to reflect yesterday afternoon on how we sustain the life of the spirit in was an essential aspect of responding well: "praying, sleeping, dreaming, looking, smiling". It isn't too much to claim that all of wisdom comes down to these avenues of discernment, for in the spiritual tradition, these are the gifts of God that lead us on the path of insight and illumination. In the gospel reading, Jesus thanks God for revealing the mysteries of the kingdom not to the imagined wise and intelligent but to infants, a theme developed at length by St Paul in his Corinthian letters. 

We started out on the first afternoon reflecting on mission. Whenever that word comes up I think of the title of a great book written more than a century ago, Roland Allen’s Missionary Methods – St Paul’s or Ours? The Feast of St Paul is a day to pull that book off the shelf. When I was a curate in the 1970s, my much-loved training incumbent Bob Jeffery, once a member of this conference who died this past Christmas, insisted that I read it. “We’ve got it all wrong” he would mutter crossly. “We don’t listen to the voices of the indigenous, the local and the least privileged and powerful. We don’t hear what the context is telling us let alone bother with the hard work of interpreting it to the biblical text and the text to it. We don't learn how to sing the Lord's song in a strange land, and we don’t trust the Holy Spirit to nurture and grow disciples. If we did, how different the Church of England would look.” Diakrisis

Whom am I to tell you this? You work with the reality day after day. But here’s what’s distinctive about archdeacons. You do these things in minute particulars. Bishops (and even deans) can climb clear of what are disparagingly called “operations” and get away with painting big pictures in very broad brush strokes. It can all get a bit excitable. But not archdeacons. When I chaired the DAC, I saw how invaluable archdeacons were at reminding the committee that its decisions were not just about conservation and development, but were in the service of mission. "There is nothing too ample for you to overflow, nothing too small that your workmanship is not revealed" we heard R S Thomas say yesterday. 

When I was about to become a dean, I looked for books to read on leadership. This was before the days of strategic leadership programmes and mini MBAs.  My wife suggested the Hornblower books. I read through the entire series and found them highly illuminating. Here’s one example. “In the ships of the line in which he had served there had only been minutes of battle for every week at sea, and he had gradually become fixed in the idea that seamanship was the one requisite for a naval officer.  To be master of the countless details of managing a wooden sailing ship; not only to be able to handle her under sail, but to be conversant with all the petty but important trifles regarding cordage and cables, pumps and salt pork, dry rot and the Articles of War; that was what was necessary. But he knew now of other qualities equally necessary: a bold yet thoughtful initiative, moral as well as physical courage, tactful handling of both superiors and subordinates, ingenuity and quickness of thought.” (C.S. Forester, Lieutenant Hornblower)

Something like that could do as a role-description for an archdeacon. That passage to me encapsulated all the arts of leadership from understanding the detail (because you are at heart a practitioner) to the high moral qualities that make a man or a woman stand out: imagination, intelligence, fortitude, responsiveness, emotional awareness, self-understanding, good judgment and the determination to collaborate. And all this, placed within a theological and spiritual frame, lays the best possible foundation for being leaders in mission not out of anxious reaction to storm and stress but because it is right in itself. These are the marks of intelligent, far-sighted leadership because they emerge out of careful discernment. This is what we must cultivate if we are to have the spirit of St Paul.

I am currently reading a remarkable book A Different Path: an emotional autobiography by Neville Symington, a psychoanalyst and ex-Catholic priest. He speaks about the two pillars of a healthy life. "Friendship and wisdom are the most precious fruits of civilisation" he says. So I’d like to commend to you as a model for an archdeacon the "wise friend". More than any other role in the church, yours invites you to be both the source of insight and discernment, not dispensed from a distant centre but in that all-important place that is very close to the parish clergy and the people they serve. In a turbulent world, they, we, need your wisdom and your close friendship in equal measure. 

In our conference, in one way or another, every address, every workshop, every act of worship and a lot of the table talk has been about recovering this vision of life and our involvement in it. To be open to God in a turbulent world tests our spiritual resilience in ways that unsettle and disturb us. Like the disciples in the boat on storm-tossed Gennesaret, we cry, “help, Lord”. And we are heard. "Thou art my rock, thou art my rest" says George Herbert in words quoted to us on Monday. 

Turbulence can obscure our sight by unbalancing us or hurling dust into our eyes or towing us into maelstroms from which we can't pull ourselves out. Symington tells how he "went into the Church so that, identified with a savage God, I would not see these dark forces of unreason within me." The analyst and the spiritual guide both know that we must get to know and befriend the demons lurking in the shadow, whether in the institution or in our own selves. If we don't, they will never be stilled and we shall never see clearly. But like Elijah’s earthquake, wind and fire, like the ordeals that St Paul writes about, turbulence that is faced with courage and equanimity can purify our vision of God and how he is present to us when we are most disorientated and afraid. It takes great faith to read things that way, yet how can we read them any other way as we hear St Paul's magnificent words on this his feast day: "as dying, and see, we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything"?

So as we make Eucharist and say our farewells, it's with the resolve to be newly open to God in a turbulent world, to be cheerful and courageous, filled with hope and poised to be wise friends to all for the sake of the gospel. This Eucharist invites us to participate in Love's great work in the world, God's project of reconciliation and redemption and the making new of all things. Maybe, one day, we shall look back and know why we were here as part of it, doing what we did for God through change and chance and providence. And, just maybe, we shall understand how all of it was "for just such a time as this".

At the National Archdeacons' Conference, Swanwick, on the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul, 2017
2 Corinthians 6.1-10; Luke 10.17-24