Thursday, October 30, 2014

Sinners And Saints

In Christian language, the term ‘sinner’ is a theological term, which describes the human condition of being separated from God. It applies to all human beings, for those who believe that they are God’s children are as aware of not being in God’s presence as those who see God’s absence as evidence that God does not exist. Crucially, it is not a moral term: it is perfectly possible to be a morally good sinner; and, indeed, all are some of the time and many are much of the time.

In Christian language, the term ‘saint’ is a theological term, which describes the condition of having been made holy – that is, set apart for God’s use – by the person of Jesus Christ. Among Christians, some believe that it applies only to those who recognise this action on Jesus’ part; while others believe that it is his action alone, rather than his action appropriated by our recognition, that is effective. So there is some debate as to whether one can be a sinner without being a saint, or a saint without realising it; but no question that saints are simultaneously sinners. Again, and crucially, it is not a moral term: it is perfectly possible to be a morally bad saint; and, indeed, all are some of the time and many are much of the time.

We express what it means to be a sinner in particular ways. Ways that are shaped by our personality, and by our cultural context. That is to say, people of a common personality are habitually drawn to the same patterns of sinful behaviour, particular ways of hiding from God and from our neighbour and, indeed, from ourselves. Moreover, people of a common culture are drawn to particular expressions of sinful behaviour, some of which we are simply unable to recognise and some of which we simply refuse to face up to. While sin is common to humanity, no individual human is drawn to every possible expression of sin; and in those areas where we habitually struggle, sometimes overcoming and other times failing, it turns out that nobody is a very original sinner.

But we also express what it means to be a saint in particular ways. This is because Jesus lays hold of the particular ways in which we live out what it means to be a sinner and transforms these characteristics into something holy. Indeed, there is no other raw material for him to work with.

That is why over and over again we hear stories of Jesus inviting people to have their deepest insecurity be transformed into their deepest insight. Peter, ‘the Rock’, whose need for security at times pulls him back from the adventure of faith and at other times pre-emptively lands him in danger, discovers that the most ethereal things of God are more substantial than the solid foundations of worldly society. Zacchaeus, compelled to collect more than is possibly needed, discovers the joy of giving. The rich young man whose material wealth numbs the pain of the world is invited to discover that life will be found, felt, truly experienced, only if he will abandon his opiate. The leaders of Israel, set in opposition to God, his prophets, his people, the Romans, the world, are invited to embrace the vulnerable wound graciously gifted their father Israel, and to discover the favour of the Sovereign Lord for those who are oppressed.

Dyspraxic Boy Navigates The Shopping Mall

My God-given personality has certain tendencies.

I tend towards observation, and away from participation.

I tend towards being a consultant, and away from being a practitioner.

I tend towards gathering ideas and collecting models (architectural models, abstract conceptions of society), and away from the working-out of such ideas and models in the lived world (where the models are adapted and in a sense abused, because people rightly resist control).

The immature expression of such a personality has to withdraw from the world.

The mature expression of such a personality can withdraw from the world.

There is a world of difference between the two.

The world needs people who can withdraw, who can step back far enough to spot patterns and predict potential outcomes.

And so in seeking to participate with God in growing in maturity, in growing into the person he has invested in me to be, I need to throw myself into situations that, being self-centred rather than Christ-centred, I would naturally pull away from. In the milling crowd in the shopping mall, my impatience with the thoughtlessness of shoppers towards other shoppers is confronted by the herd intelligence (despite all projections, people hardly ever walk into one another). Where I might withdraw inside myself in judgement, I discover I can choose to step back and observe something beautiful unfold…and then step out into the swirling dance.

Jesus was able to withdraw from the crowd, to spend time alone with the Father or together with a close group of friends. But he also gave himself to others, and threw himself into the glorious muddle of life.

It isn’t a matter of resisting my God-given personality, of trying to be someone I am not called to be. Rather, it is a recognition that we find our life when we die to it; that we lose our life when we try to protect and preserve it, but gain our life when we give ourselves away, to God and our neighbour.

Of course, my personality is only one of the things God has given me. Others include my family history, certain enhanced and impaired abilities, particular opportunities. None of these are unique to me – but the combination is. And they are given in order to help me respond.

Which is why the mantra, ‘I am the way God made me’ can never be the final word.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Changing Light

Recently I’ve been experimenting with watercolour sketches. One of the things that strikes me about paintings is how very different the same painting looks as light conditions change over the course of the day. I first noticed this when house-sitting for a couple in Perth, Western Australia, who had a very large painting on their living room wall. It was a beautiful painting, but the dramatic colour-change between day and evening added something extra – as if it were several paintings for the price of one. This is less noticeable in art galleries, where the lighting conditions are stabilised.

This is a rough sketch (time constraints!) I did yesterday, looking across from Lindisfarne Castle on Holy Island towards Bamburgh Castle on the north-east coast of the mainland. Photographed with the lights on yesterday evening, and in daylight this morning.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Nine Very Important Meetings

This morning I was writing a funeral address in the Minster office, when someone came in to express thanks for a (small) way in which we had been able to help him out recently. He wanted to buy me a coffee (there is a café within the building). I had a little less than half-an-hour before taking a mid-week service, but I agreed. That was my first unscheduled conversation of the day.

One of the regulars at the service wanted to speak with me afterwards, and we ended up having a fairly long and very good conversation. The second unscheduled conversation of the day.

At that point I had the choice of going home, to work uninterrupted on the funeral address, or taking a walk around the city centre for some fresh air, and then returning to the Minster to work there. I chose the latter option.

On my way out, I had my third unscheduled conversation of the day, with a time-to-time visitor who had attended the mid-day service and then had lunch in the café (while I was having that second conversation).

Walking through the shopping centre, I saw someone whose wedding I had conducted in the summer. We stopped and chatted. The fourth unscheduled conversation.

Around the corner, I ran into someone I know through our partnership with other organisations to mark four years of Sunderland First world war anniversaries. We stood and talked on the pavement. The fifth unscheduled conversation.

On the High Street, I spotted the young man who sells The Big Issue outside Marks & Spencer. We speak regularly, but hadn’t seen one another for about three months. The sixth unscheduled conversation.

Cutting back through the shopping centre, I overtook one of our older congregation members, who lives in the neighbouring Alms Houses. We stood talking. The seventh unscheduled conversation.

Another Alms House resident came past, and stopped to chat. The eighth unscheduled conversation.

I got back to the Minster not long before it closes for the day (the building is open 9am-3pm Monday to Saturday, and much of the day on Sundays); but, having checked-in on the office and locked the compass-point doors to the building, I stopped for a longer chat with the person refreshing the flower arrangements that help make it such an inviting space. The ninth unscheduled conversation of the day.

Probably an-hour-and-a-half of unscheduled but very important meetings.

I can’t think of anything more rehabilitating than being given the time of day. And I say rehabilitating not to refer to the most broken people, but simply to recognise that life can be quite hard, and in the pressures of life – which, for reasons of confidentially I haven’t reported in recounting these conversations – it is easy to become worn down.

People comment fairly regularly that I must be busy – and of course, at times I am. But, as I tell them, I work quite hard at not being busy, precisely in order that I might have the time to give them my time.

In that, I recognise that I am blessed to be part of a team. But it also involves choosing not to do certain other things. I can be busy avoiding people, or busy not avoiding people.

And in that I recognise that clergy are not a different class of people from laity, who do certain things so that others don’t have to; but, rather, that clergy are a group within the laity, whose time has been set aside in order to be available, where others might not have such freedom; and who are visible signs within the wider community of something that is going on, on a daily basis: the quiet, deeply subversive task of helping one another become more fully human.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Breathing Space

There are times when the Minster is full of people. We are increasingly partnering with others to shape ‘the Minster Quarter’ into a part of the city centre that is an inviting place to be. At the recent African Festival, 3,800 people visited the Minster in 36 hours – and the surrounding retailers also reported their best shopping day in 3 years. Within the past two months we’ve hosted Sanctuary – a weekend festival showcasing local bands, beers, and food; Messy Minster – a holiday club in the last week of the summer holidays; a very successful Wedding Fayre; and the African Festival to coincide with the arrival of The Lion King at the Sunderland Empire.

But alongside the events, when the building is full of noise and movement, we note another very different trend: the people who come into the space when the building is empty, precisely because they need to find a quiet space, a still space, a breathing-space in the midst of the movement going on all around. Daily. Not quite a stream – that might undermine the purpose - but a constant trickle.

And the request for us to host conversations between different groups who live and work in the city, because this is a space where people of different views can be heard because they are listened to. This is not unique to our Minster by any means, but would increasingly appear to be a characteristic of larger city-centre churches: that part of their distinctive calling, and gift to the wider community, is what I heard the CEO of a (different) northern city describe to a conference of such churches yesterday as our ‘convening power’. Places where, as someone put it, the ‘unspeakable things that need to be spoken, can be’ – given time, and space.

We want to play our part in the flourishing of our city, in every sense – including economic or financial capital (as over the African Festival weekend), physical capital (space for gathering), intellectual capital (learning from those with a different experience of life), relational capital (building partnerships to work together for the common good), and spiritual capital (the resources to navigate the deeper seas of our common life). [link to my most frequently visited post, written in a previous context.]

It matters to me that there is a diversity of things going on here, that there is life in all its fullness, including its mess and noise and celebration. Some find it incomprehensible, that we should permit such ‘secular’ activity in a ‘sacred’ space. Others would like to see ‘visitors’ translated into ‘congregation members’, to attendance at our weekly services. We do see some of that. But for me, that people discover this gift in the heart of the city and return for the stillness, the sense of God’s presence, a connection with those they have loved and lost, a connection with the history of this city that transcends the pre-occupied present … this is a significant metric.

That they might find a breathing-space, where the Spirit broods over the waters, waiting for the moment to call out what will become - light out of darkness, and life out of chaos – that is the first gift in order for life to flourish.

After all, unless the Spirit breathes life into us, we are but dust, billowing in the endless rubble of a city being dismantled and re-routed. When we stop rising to receive that breath, we return to the earth from which we came: for if we will not tend it with our hands, we can at least nourish it for a moment with our marrow.

And yet, where can we find such breathing-spaces?

Some, at least, are finding one such space here.

Friday, October 03, 2014


It is around a year now since we knew that we would be moving to Sunderland, although we didn’t actually move until November and I didn’t start in my current post until December. So it is not yet quite a year that we have lived here, but getting there.

A year is no time at all to get to know a place. But already we have moved beyond first impressions – which were largely positive, but necessarily superficial – into a growing sense of attachment to a place in which we are still getting our bearings.

It happens by imperceptible degree, sneaking up on you, catching you by surprise.

And in this instance, it is different. The Church of England is first-and-foremost parochial, rooted to a place that – in an urban context, at any rate – you can walk around. And while the church exists for the benefit of those beyond the church, the church as a congregation inhabits that place, comes across herself and her shared neighbours on a daily basis. Her ties go deep, not wide. But Sunderland Minster is what we call an Extra-Parochial Place. That is, it is not grounded in a circumscribed locality, but grounded in (the heart of) the city - an amorphous living organism. I cannot walk around my parish, and I do not obviously come across the church as congregation as I go about the business of my days. Our parishioners are not a particular public but the general public. Our map is the network of connections and intersections between the business community and city council and emergency services and National Health Service and university and voluntary sector and … which is to say that the map is both real and invisible.

The glass artist Tom Denny created three windows for the Bede Chapel at Sunderland Minster. The one on the left depicts Benedict Biscop, polymath and patron saint of Sunderland; the man of action. The one on the right depicts Bede, first historian of the English people, another polymath; the man of prayer. But the central window depicts the city of Sunderland today, the top part being a bird’s eye view of the river Wear emptying into the North Sea. This out-of-body experience, detached and looking down, perfectly illustrates my extra-parochial entrance to the city.

I did not think that I would miss the narrow grounded-ness of the parish, knowing – in as much as we know anything – that we were being called out from such a fixing. But I have had to pass through a sense of loss, and recognise it as such, before I can be free. Before the gull’s view is not so much detached as visionary; the Minster a grounding-place to rest, for those who take in the city centre as a whole, who note its landmarks shift like sea-cliffs.