Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Work Of The People

If England, and the English, exist, they do so very much secondary to local identity. This is something I have noticed as we have moved from Sheffield to Liverpool to Sunderland – all northern cities, but with very different cultures.

Theories of evolution have demonstrated that creatures adapt, over time, according to their environment. That we are shaped by place. This is as true of human beings as it is of any other species: the adam is not only the generic earthling, capable of roaming across the face of the earth, but is brought forth from a particular soil.

My vocation finds expression within the Church of England. Within our tradition, we have a shared liturgy, a national liturgy or form that corporate worship takes. But that liturgy – which, though led (often by me) is the work of the people – must take on a localised expression.

Today I received the gift of spending an-hour-and-a-half with Steve Taylor, a friend from New Zealand, whose incisive listening helped me to dig a little deeper into my still-new, still unfamiliar, context.

The natives of Sunderland have adapted to three key forms of employment. None of the three still exist, but environments can change far quicker than the creatures living within them can adapt. These three are coal mining, ship building, and brewing. How might each of these shape the liturgy?

The first is coal mining, the pits of the Durham coalfields. I place this first, because it forms the wider context. Generations of men worked below ground, and this has shaped them and their descendants. The pits are closed, but the people have deep, deep seams that are not visible at surface-level, and are potentially no longer accessible even to themselves.

The liturgy of the Eucharist begins with the Prayer of Preparation, Confession and Absolution, and the (in our context, sung) Gloria. Might we experience the Prayer of Preparation as a descending into the deep of our interior life; Confession and Absolution as the hard work of cutting away at the coal face and extracting something useful, formed under pressure; and the Gloria, with its vertical axis joining the heaven (sky) above and the earth below, as rising to the surface again, alive, blinking at the brightness, gulping in the air?

Might the activity of taking part in the liturgy keep the seam open? Might it give words to a people who are not talkative – who can value poetry, but wouldn’t consider themselves to be poets? The pits themselves were closed because they were no longer considered to be economically viable. Might the church be guilty of devaluing the local community in the same manner if we were to abandon this liturgical form as no longer relevant, or even close churches on economic grounds?

The second context is ship building. This is what gives Sunderland its distinct identity. The locals know themselves as Mackems, from the local dialect ‘mak’ for make, those who make (ships) and in contrast to Tackems, those from elsewhere for whom the ships were made and who took possession of them. Sunderland folk are makers (today, they make cars instead of ships). But the mackem/tackem distinction goes deeper than a pride in making: it is a rare Mackem who sees it as their place to jump on one of those ships and discover new horizons. This is a more settled and less transient city than any I have known, with tightly-knit communities.

Ship building is a noisy business. Communication is by necessity minimally verbal, dependent more or routine actions and familiar gestures. This, too, ought to inform a localised articulation of the liturgy. The heart of the Eucharist is the Eucharistic Prayer, the prayer of thanksgiving. While this prayer is led, in word and in actions, by the priest, everyone prays this prayer together. This includes familiar patterns, of standing and sitting or kneeling, of signing oneself with the cross, of moving forward to receive and stepping back again; and might even include lifting hands in prayer (which is not magical, and need not be restricted to the priest alone – one of the highlights of presiding is when an engaged young child imitates you).

We use different Eucharistic Prayers – and different settings for the sung parts of the Sunday morning Choral Eucharist – in different Seasons. If we get the balance wrong, this can be deeply disturbing. If we get the balance right, might it open up new horizons to a settled people?

The third context is brewing, and in particular the Vaux brewery which stood a stone’s throw from the Minster and is now a derelict site awaiting development. Vaux was a major employer, of women as well as men, and in a wide variety of roles. Its core business, however, was the transformation of water, grain and hops into beer. And this transformation has a very direct parallel to the Eucharist, where grain and fruit are brought forward in the form of bread and wine, and are transformed into something new.

As we gather around the altar, a number of women and men – including teenage girls and boys – work together in a variety of roles in order to give something to the wider group. Some bring forward the raw ingredients; others have quite technical roles, that carry on traditions down generations (I find it particularly moving when a sub-deacon or acolyte pours water on my hands, as Jesus poured water on Peter’s feet); others help with the distribution; and all benefit from what we have done, together, under the grace of God as we encounter Jesus in the ordinary and every-day and yet, at the same time, very particular to our context.

The liturgy, then, is not something imposed from elsewhere, but something given local expression, a Mackem accent (not from my mouth, you understand – I am not a native) through the work of these people, shaped by this place. Because God has only ever met anyone where they are, who they are. And yet, that is always and everywhere part of a bigger story.

This has far less to do with relevance than it has to do with resonance. The pits, the yards, and the brewery are gone. No-one (well, very few people) is thinking, I’d come to church if it were a Choral Eucharist. But the words, spoken and sung, tap into something that is there to be mined, riveted, or fermented.

How does local context shape liturgy for you?

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Only One Thing

[Reflections on the Gospel reading set for Morning Prayer today.]

Mark 10:17ff.

On one occasion, a desperate man asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Eternal life refers to the quality of experiencing all the fullness and goodness of life, life already given but not necessarily experienced.

To inherit expresses the difference between a child (heir), who only partially benefits, and an adult, who has been given greater responsibility and freedom.

The question, essentially, is this: how can I enter-into a fuller experience of the life I already have?

It transpires that wealth and power have not proved to fulfil that longing – hence his despair.

Jesus replied, “You lack only one thing: [Let go of being in control of your life, and] follow me.”

The man was shocked and went away grieving, because he could not bring himself to receive the only answer “Follow me”...

Sunday, September 06, 2015

We Are All Economic Migrants : Part 2

In my previous post, I suggested that, theologically speaking, to be human is to be an economic migrant.

This is, of course, a vulnerable existence. And so human beings have always connected together in covenants. Just as our being economic migrants is rooted in God, so covenants are also rooted in God and in the relationship between God and humanity, Creator and created.

Covenants are based on the understanding that every person has a sphere of influence over which they are the autonomous (not absolute) ruler. Even a new-born baby, entirely dependent on its mother, exercises such power through crying. Even a dead boy on a beach has a sphere of influence – one extended exponentially through the spheres of influence of others, through the medium of social media.

Covenants are a way of extending our personal sphere of influence, not by conquering the sphere of influence of another, but by pooling our spheres with their combined resources.

This approach is rooted in God, the Ruler of the Universe, who, having established that human beings should rule the spheres of themselves and (collectively) of the earth, seeks covenant relationships in order to unite our spheres.

Covenants are built on our shared experience of being economic migrants. That is to say, I will share my resources with you, should you need them, because someone shared their resources with my ancestors when they were migrants and/or with me and/or I might need someone to share their resources with me and/or at some future point my descendants will need someone to share their resources with them.

This, too, is an experience God enters into, in Jesus – who first (in his incarnation) migrates from a fulfilled land in order to extend fruitfulness; and subsequently (as the child of a political refugee living beyond the borders of her own country, in Egypt) migrates in order to experience fruitfulness.

Covenants have, largely, been subsumed under less personal and more pragmatic alliances. But where these fail, covenants become visible again.

Families offering rooms in their homes for refugees might not be a fully thought-through response – though it is unlikely to be an offer made lightly. Further reflection reveals it to be something deeper than a desire that something, anything, should be done. Are we witnessing the return of the covenant? In this moment, it is too early to say: a covenant is not only a decision made, but a decision lived-out. But, in this moment, it is at least possible.

We Are All Economic Migrants : Part 1

Theologically speaking, to be human is to be an economic migrant.

In Genesis – origins, from which the human story unfolds - chapter one, we are told that God creates human beings and commissions them to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.

To be fruitful and multiply: to reproduce; but also to fulfil the commission, and find fulfilment in the ongoing process of fulfilling the commission; and also for that commission to be replicated faithfully, passed on to every human being.

To fill the earth and subdue it: to spread; but also to move from place to place, in able to train the fruitfulness of the earth to a sustainable harvest – of food, of beauty, of fulfilled purpose – in which all creation is provided for.

This is fundamental to the human condition. And so, whenever human beings are not able to be fruitful in a given context (and taking into account hard work, necessary in every context) they migrate in search of a place in the world where they can be fruitful.

This is borne out throughout history, whether people moving on their own (highly unusual in the big picture) or as a family within relative stability among the wider population; or villages or communities, such as the Scottish highlanders who were evicted from their homes by English landlords and emigrated to North America; or entire people groups, such as the Celts, who migrated from modern-day Turkey to modern-day Switzerland and then again to modern-day Scotland and Ireland.

Nomadic peoples migrate along familiar (though not set-in-stone) orbits, in harmony with the rhythms of the earth’s fruitfulness, and in disregard of political lines on the map. Borders are almost always arbitrary and opportunistic – and even where they are not these things, they are always provisional – and the blood shed over them surely demonstrates that they are both un-defendable and indefensible.

Any attempt to hold back the ebb and flow, the emigration and immigration, of humans beings is as futile as attempting to control the relentless waves of the sea – being, as it is, an attempt to oppose our fundamental nature.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Children On A Beach

My social media is awash with a tidal flowing in and ebbing away of responses to images of children on a beach: in…and out…and in…and out…

There are the political responses, pointing others to how they can petition the Government to take in Syrian refugees, or lobby against the arms trade that has resulted in those children being on those beaches.

And those are right and necessary responses.

There are the practical responses, pointing others to how they can contribute to the welfare of those who have made it to Calais.

And those, too, are right and necessary responses.

But I also see, washed up alongside these, the admission – the confession, the cry - ‘I don’t know what to do with my emotional response to these images.

And that matters. We matter. Not because we are executing a manoeuvre that makes this all about us, that buries the physical victims in plain sight; but because if our hearts are to remain soft towards our neighbour we must recognise that we have been affected, and we must handle ourselves with care in order to care about others.

So I want to offer another response, pointing others to the role of the arts in helping us to articulate and engage with our own emotional response.

This is why the church, while being political (not party-political, but political nonetheless; we are, after all, a kingdom, trans-ethnic people of a trans-geographic territory with a Rule of Law fulfilled by loving God, and our neighbour as ourselves) and practical, must also be patron of the arts, partner in the arts, and participative producer of the arts.

Some, deeply committed to the church, would argue that the church ought not to be patron of anything; would argue that such a stance betrays a hangover of Christendom, a love of worldly power. I disagree. No one else is championing the arts, and they are essential to our wellbeing, helping us to imagine the world in a different way, seeing beauty even in brokenness.

This month and next, Sunderland Minster is hosting an exhibition or exposition of artists for peace – an exposition that has grown, from when it was first conceived, in response to so many conflict zones, so many dispossessed children, to become an international event both in the sense of attracting contributions from around the world and in the multiplication of venues. The exposition, under the banner All We Are Saying presents the responses of artists – in painting, photography, sculpture, mixed-media, spoken word, music – to events that move us, emotionally, but demand an engagement with how we have been moved.

The works themselves are, in the first instance, the artists’ engagement process: one that involves time, and also draws on years of time. But in the sharing they become a gift to others, offered that they may help a wider body of people explore their own emotional responses. And they will include opportunities for visitors to respond physically, to add their own contribution to all we are saying (is give peace a chance).

It might not be possible for you to get to Sunderland, or any of the other hubs where ‘All We Are Saying’ events will be taking place. But you can look out for opportunities closer to home. You can also take part in ‘All We Are Saying’ through making an origami peace dove, or writing a postcard for peace, and sending them to Sunderland Minster – instructions, here.