Glimpses Of The St Peter’s Story: Church In The Mess

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Pavlova was always one of my favourite deserts. It was a regular Sunday lunch pudding; my mother was a dab hand with meringue-making (which, it turns out, is not a common gift); the crispy-chewy product would then be slathered with cream and fruit of some description: berries, apples, bananas, oranges, kiwi … the list goes on. Simple, but memorable. All the better for it containing fruit, and therefore being healthy. It was something of a shock to discover that it’s not a dish of British origin – I just assumed it was, coming as it did for us after a traditional English Sunday roast. It turned out it was Australian; but my deep-seated desire to beat Australia in sports was nevertheless glad to acknowledge that this was a good desert anyway. Later, however, I discovered that the British had co-opted the pavlova, and put their own twist on it in the form of Eton Mess. Named after that most private of private schools, it’s all the elements of pavlova mashed up into a mess in one small pudding dish. I’m sure someone will try to tell me why it’s radically different; but it’s not. It’s just good old-fashioned English co-option of another culture. The same part of me prefers to it to pavlova as likes to take ice-cream and mash it up into a semi-solid state, all the better to mix with sauce. The mess just seems more tasty to me.

I find mess generally appealing. Not physical mess per se – I’m neither especially messy in my surroundings, nor especially tidy (maybe my family would disagree…). I don’t like dressing smartly; I feel most comfortable in jeans or shorts and a t-shirt. Ties annoy me; I don’t mind my Sunday-morning clerical collar, as long as I can carry it off in some slightly disordered way. I don’t think in a clean, ordered way – this is in part down to my ADD and my learning disabilities. I find it hard to plan a rigorous, logical train of thought. I can make associations between ideas; I then often find that I have to backtrack to enable anyone listening to me (and, often, myself) to see that there is a very good reason for what I said, it just wasn’t immediately obvious. I didn’t inherit my Dad’s mathematical bent in all sorts of ways; in particular, I can get very bored with ‘showing the working’, as teachers always insisted we do. I have to, often, however; in my preaching I’ll let ideas marinate in my head, then write down notes of a structure  – which gives a skeleton to my ideas, and makes it look much more ordered than it ever was in my head at the beginning of the week’s preparation.

The same is true of my leadership. I’m not a great planner; I’m not a systems person. It’s not that I think they’re bad – it’s just very hard for me to get into them. I’ve had much leadership training – most of it emerging from suburban, professional men who often lead suburban churches full of professionals. These programmes tell me the strategies and – yes – programmes that help to ensure healthy and numerically growing churches. I’ve learned much from these; but I’ve also learned it’s hard for me to lead and work that way.

So I lead in a kind of strategic mess. I have a fairly firm idea of the sort of place I want to get to; I’m not too sure of how we’re going to get there. I have a few people alongside me who are better at the structure than I am; they’re the sort of people who can help me see the route on the map that might be most helpful for the general sort of destination that I have in mind. The church I lead is in a messy kind of area. It’s predominantly urban; but there are aspects of suburbia to it also. There’s much poverty, and many on the cusp of poverty; there’s a good number in a quite high-powered jobs too. Then there are students, who are in their own special kind of category. Over the years we’ve been here, many programmes and courses have crossed our minds; few, if any, of them have been the right idea at the right time. We meet together three times a week – twice on a Sunday morning, once on a Thursday evening – much of the rest of time we leave people to do their own thing that God has called and shaped them for, and to ask for help if they need it.

This mess can be unnerving; unnerving for me, even if it feels more natural. The liturgical tradition of which we are a part helps gives some structure and safety, rounding off a few of the rough edges I may leave untended. The church order of Anglicanism can do that too – though we’re an odd church, in ‘association’ with Anglican structures, whilst not fully part of them. Maybe that’s why I can find myself a good fit with this particular church. It can be unnerving for members too; sometimes people will join a church because it offers something different. Our church does – but after some time, the seeming lack of structure, the mess can expose raw edges in us all and we can start to bump up against each other. That’s not always pretty – and sometimes people end up finding a different home. We could do better – and next time, we try to do so.

We also, though, need to be true to who God shapes us to be. When people find a home with us, they express that they like – or have learned to like  – the mess and informality. It seems to allow people a way to be themselves, to change at their own pace, and to discover who God has made them to be, rather than to be a cog in a church machine that seems to exist to keep itself going.

The fact is that too many of us – ministers and lay people alike – are hurt, burned out, worn down by church life. I’m as much to blame as anyone. We don’t seek to be a church for everyone – no one church is going to be home to everybody; but we do seek to be a church that errs on the side of space rather than structure, improvisation rather than planning, mobility rather than staticity. We are church in the mess, for the mess; serving a God whose Spirit hovered over the formless void and who specialises in bringing order of chaos. We may get more wrong than we get right; but in his mercy, God works for good. This may not be what every church is invited to be; but I wonder what would happen, what new things might emerge, if more of us church ministers made our home in the mess; seeking to control less, and see what might come as a result. As society urbanises at faster and faster rates, this mess will become the context of more and more ministry. Maybe there’s a call to freestyle, to improvise a little bit more in the future that’s arriving in our cities. Anyway; for better or worse, this is who we are and under God’s grace, who we seek to be.

 

God Doesn’t Need Me: Reflections On The Children Act

 

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Over the years I’ve heard many different definitions of leadership. Servanthood, shepherd, influencer, pastor, teacher (there’s a fierce debate  – really – as to if there should be a hyphen between those last two. Only Christians could make a debate out of a hyphen). And so on. One that stayed with me – and I can’t remember where I heard it, so apologies for not sourcing – is something like this: that leadership is the art of being comfortable with the fact that you’re always disappointing somebody. I’ve found that to resonate; and I’d add to it that I’ve needed to learn to disappoint the right people at the right time. If you’re leading more than one person, then at least one person is going to be in some way disappointed with you most of the time. There are two people to add to that picture. One is the leader herself – most of us find that we often disappoint ourselves, and live with a permanent frustration that things aren’t as they could or should be – and it’s our fault (and there’s usually a few people willing to tell us that). The other is God; if we’re in Christian leadership, then we often sit with the nagging sense that God must be a bit miffed that we’ve let Him down again (and there’s usually a few people willing to tell us that). All of this is why Christian leaders need all of the following: close friends, people who pray for us, mentors, spiritual directors, therapists, holidays, fun, and a dog. None of these insulate us against crashing and burning; but they give us a good shot at avoiding it.

By all these definitions, Emma Thompson’s character in The Children Act – a new film adapted by Ian McEwen from his own novel – is a leader with whom most of us could connect. She spends most of the film becoming aware that she has disappointed, is in the process of disappointing or is about to disappoint someone  – not least herself. She’s a high court judge in London, ruling on cases affecting children. Many of them are the headline-grabbing, soul-wrenching moral dilemmas; which conjoined twin to let die, and the like. The case at the film’s centre is of a 17 year-old Jehovah’s Witness boy who is refusing a potentially life-saving blood transfusion. He’s days away from turning 18, when the choice would be entirely his; but by law, a 17-year-old can be forced to take treatment against his will. To help settle the case, Emma Thompson visits him in the hospital – an unconvential act that’s probably highly unprofessional, made plausible by Thompson’s brilliant, subtle performance. She makes her ruling around halfway through the film – the rest of which deals with the fallout. Alongside all this, early in the film her husband (Stanley Tucci in a quiet and humbly powerful performance) tells her he loves her but wants an affair due to a lack of intimacy.

At this point it’s worth pointing out a few things about Ian McEwen’s work. He’s brilliant, of course; he often sets up a plot with great economy and not a little wit but then doesn’t seem to know how to make it all end plausibly (prime example, Saturday; a plot which collapses under the weight of its central, clumsy metaphor). He also doesn’t appear to be a great fan of religion; and he’s not a great screen adapter of his own work. This book and film are an improvement on much of that, even if the ending still feels as somewhat contrived as it did in the book. Religion isn’t exactly given a fair-hearing, but it at least feels somewhat understood here; there’s a devastating moment (for Anglican clergy) when one character is asked ‘Are you a Christian?’, to which he replies ‘I’m an Anglican’. In that short exchange lies a thousand truths.

Whatever choice Emma Thompson’s judge makes in the cases and marital decisions before her, she’ll disappoint someone. The film ends on a touch of hope, but given all that goes before, it’s a fragile kind of hope. Clearly there are many brilliant leaders who don’t profess to know God and who survive and even flourish in the experience; for me, as a Christian leader, the question remains:  Who do I disappoint? How do I deal with my own disappointment in myself; the disappointment others feel in me; the disappointment I think God must feel? Where do I take it?

For a start, I need to take it to all those places and people (and dogs) I listed earlier. But as I said, none of these are guarantees against failure – public or private. I think the key lies in taking to heart the fact that God doesn’t need me.  I meet many leaders – myself included – who are prone to thinking God/the church/the world needs us. The truth is God needs no-one; but in his incredible, scarcely credible love and grace he chooses to involve us anyway. It’s not that God needs us; it’s way better than that. He wants to involve us. We’re not essential; so when we screw up (which we do), when we die (which we will), when we sleep or go on holiday or have fun  (which we have to – though knowing some leaders you wouldn’t know it), the world and His plan will carry on regardless.

So the pressure is off. Ever met a defensive leader, one who flies off the handle in blame or self-recrimination at the merest hint of failure or criticism? I have  – I am, or can be, one. The effect can be devastating; as a result of knowing one for a few years, I ended up with PTSD and was suicidal. That can all stem from thinking we’re needed; that God somehow relies on us. He doesn’t. How arrogant and self-aggrandising it is for me to think that an eternal God who broke the power of death would need me. No. He doesn’t need me. And that’s OK. Because He wants me and chooses me because of Him, not me. Because He loves me.

That needs to be enough for me. If I let it penetrate my soul – daily – it will be enough. And it can be enough for you also.