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A space to reflect on Christian theology, spirituality, and ministry within the Church of England

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Back from the Con: A Priest in SF Fandom

Over the weekend of the 7th and 8th of July, I was having a whale of a time at the fabulous CONvergence science fiction and fantasy convention over in Minnesota. And, to be honest, were it not for the fact that I’m currently 34 weeks’ pregnant, I would have been having an equally fab time at the World Science Fiction Convention that was held this past weekend in Chicago.

My attending SF conventions is a surprisingly hard thing to explain to my colleagues and parishioners back home. “You’re going to do what?” “Why?” “You’re into spaceships and things?” And of course the perennial, “So do you dress up in costume?”

To be honest, I don’t mind those kind of questions anymore. The SF and fantasy subculture, despite being all over our cinema and television screens, filling our bookshops and being pretty much the language of the internet, is still rather poorly understood by the average person in the street, or in my specialised case, the average person in the pew. In fact, coming out as an SF and fantasy fan in the Church of England is pretty much as hard as coming out as a Christian among my SF peers. Neither side, on the whole, seems to get the other. That’s not to say there is no crossover at all. Certainly, in American SF fandom there seem to be a relatively high number of Christian fans, although in my experience thus far there are far fewer in the corresponding British groups.

So, at the beginning of any kind of meeting between these worlds there are a lot of basic questions and assumptions to get past before any kind of meaningful conversation can take place. Yes, I’m into spaceships, and have been since I was old enough to start picking books out of my primary school library. No, I don’t wear costumes. More because I don’t have the skills to make them or the flair to wear them than any kind of deeper reasoning.

And on the other side… Yes, I believe in God. Yes, a God who created the Universe. Yes, I do believe that all the time. No, I don’t think He did it in seven days.

The thing is, once you do get past those basic questions, once you’ve established that the things you believe or enjoy don’t automatically make you a nutter, then the conversations really start. And they can be amazing. Because these days there is that lack of simple general knowledge about the things either cultural group get up to, there is a curiosity and openness that can stimulate some great dialogues.

I enjoy sharing my love of SF with my congregation, especially my firm belief that the flexibility of the genre allows for the exploration of deep questions about the world, spirituality and human nature that might not be possible in other forms of literature or media. I’ve not delivered a Doctor Who related sermon yet, but with the new season already begun, it may only be a matter of time before that happens.

When it comes to speaking about my faith at SF conventions, I feel that this is actually a part of the ministry to which I’m called. My calling isn’t just to serve a single parish. Rather, it’s to be a witness in the wider world, which for me includes the world of Science Fiction. More than often, this witnessing is a delicate thing. There is often history and hurt for people in their experiences with Christianity or organised religion in general. My role isn’t one of proselytising. It can’t be. Instead, I need to be a living representative of what I believe, and where possible, and where I’m empowered to be, a conduit for the love and acceptance that I believe God offers to all people, everywhere. That can take the form of private conversations where people need to talk through their spiritual burdens. It can take the form of the cut and thrust of more academic debate, about evolution, understandings of the Bible or my thoughts on Jesus’ relationship with the Old Testament Law, where my theological training is at its most useful. Or it can take the form of participating in programme panels about the role or representation of faith in the SF genre.

At CONvergence I was glad to be included as a speaker on two faith-related panels: “The Importance of Faith in Fiction” and “The Christian Roots of Modern Fantasy”. With my growing confidence in my own ministry, I’m enjoying these kinds of panels more and more. I can speak clearly about issues that are close to my heart, and connect not just with my fellow panellists, but with everyone who packed into that particular convention room to listen to, and often to debate with, us. Again, the aim isn’t to evangelise. It’s to enable conversations, to share thoughts and understandings, to broaden minds on every side. And I love it. I really do.

Pulling down the barriers
I delivered a sermon this Sunday, the 2nd September, entitled: “Religion: Cause of all the World’s Problems?” It was about how believers, and Christians in particular, are often not the best witnesses we can be. The God I follow, who I believe was incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, is a God of revolution. He’s about overturning the human desire and yearning to build walls around ourselves and our communities and judge those on the outside. Jesus was about radical openness for the outsider, about destroying the barriers that keep us apart. And following that example can be hard. It can be easy for non-Christians to look at the way some Christians behave or express themselves and honestly think that there is nothing there of Christ at all.

So the challenge is to live his example – loving, listening, and confronting the walls that humans insist on building to exclude and judge others. And as a Christian, as a priest, as an SF fan, I need to do that from the altar, from the pulpit, from the dealers’ room floor, equally.

And if I can do that just a little, who knows how many barriers may come down, how many better relationships built?

Sunday, 24 June 2012

What will change? Reflections on the eve of priesting

Out of the Silent Land...
I've just emerged out of silence at the end of a four day priesting retreat. It's been a good time for me - but then silent retreats always are. I'm one of those people who revels in silence and in regular, monastic patterns of prayer, and the return to talking once more is a bit of a shock. This time, too, I really needed that space and silence, because later today I will be ordained priest.

The big question, the one that's been following me around as I read and prayed and reflected over these last four days is, 'what will change?' 'What will happen next?' This time last year I was ordained deacon. That was a tremendous change, and one that I expected. So many things were changing at once. I was leaving a tight-knit college community after two years, I was starting work in a parish, I was moving house, and I was taking on a new role, one easily identified by the strange new clerical collar that I had agreed with my training incumbent I would be wearing at all times while 'on duty'. I was anticipating that being identified as a clergy person and being seen in that light would be the biggest difference. My theology of ministerial priesthood has never been particularly high - the concept of an ontological change occurring at the moment of the laying on of hands doesn't really make sense to me unless it's framed in terms of self-understanding and social identity. But both of those things are real, and the change, the experience of being in that new position, the experience of that new way of life did indeed feel significant and true at the deepest levels.

So my question is, will this new level of ordination be something else again? From a social identity perspective, it's not such a dramatic difference. Even within the church congregation whom I serve, few enough people know the difference between a deacon and a priest. My new status will be known only through the new things I'll be able to do - presiding at the Eucharist, blessing and declaring God's forgiveness. Outside the immediate church community even fewer will know or care about the new meaning of the 'dog collar' around my neck. Perhaps that's as well. It's enough that I'm recognised as a represent of the church and Lord I serve, and any other distinctions are small enough to be insignificant.

But will it feel different to me? Will I be different?

Ordination Roles
Generally, and in simple terms, the three layers of ordination in the Anglican Church are viewed as encompassing different roles: the deacon's role is one of service, of care and concern for others; the priest's role is one of proclamation, through word and sacrament; and finally the bishop's role is one of oversight, of guiding and correcting those in one's charge.

The thing is, those roles naturally blend together in the experience of everyday life and ministry. Working in a parish, even as a curate and not an incumbent, all those different roles come together. In a parish, clergy serve, they proclaim, and in due time, they exercise oversight over the many volunteer groups that have to operate together to make a church function. I've not been doing much oversight in the past year, but I've certainly been doing my fair share of serving and proclaiming! Indeed, even in terms of the sacraments, I've already been involved. I won't get into a discussion about what might constitute a sacrament - time for that later! - but whether we believe there's two or five or seven or no end of sacraments, I have already been privileged to take a role in one of them. Over the last year I've baptised enough children to put me well into double figures.

So what is the change?

It seems to me that the move from deacon to priest will involve two major changes.

1. New Proclamation
First is that the proclamation I've been doing - speaking about God's word with various study groups, in conversations and of course in regular preaching - will now be extended. Instead of being purely word-focused, it will now take in proclamation of a different sort - in the form of presiding at the Eucharist, declaring God's forgiveness, and pronouncing God's blessing.

From where I'm sitting at the moment, the fact that I will be able to, at last, preside at a service of Holy Communion, is by far the greatest of these. As always in the Church of England, what we think actually happens at a Eucharist varies hugely from congregation to congregation, and if we're honest, from individual to individual within each of those congregations. What do I think goes on? Well, the most important thing to say is that I believe the Eucharist is a mystery. No, a Mystery, with a capital M. We don't know what exactly happens. We're not supposed to. At a Eucharist, God reaches out to us, fulfilling his promises through Jesus, and somehow in that moment we are closer to him than we might ever normally be in the course of this life.

Ok, so that's the big thing out of the way. If, however, you really pushed me on the details, I would positively affirm that Christ is absolutely really present in that space, and that God has chosen that means especially to reach out to us, and for us to reach out to him. Celebrating Holy Communion makes for a 'thin' space and time, when the boundaries between earth and heaven draw much closer together, and enable us to glimpse beyond. That said, I don't think that Christ is especially in the bread and wine more than he's in the space and the people, and for me, the whole service: the gathering, the hearing and expounding of the Word, the remembering and reliving the Last Supper and Christ's passion and sacrifice, the offering of our own selves as we receive God's life... these all together constitute the experience I spoke about above. It is not a matter of a single prayer or a single set of words that enable us as a whole congregation to draw that specially near to our Lord.

So the new proclamation there is of Christ's real presence - a great and wonderful new thing.

At the same time, I will be able to do two other things I've wanted to do ever since I first heard God's call - I'll be able to pronounce blessing and forgiveness. These two things are the heart of the Gospel, and finally being able to declare with authority that God's boundless forgiveness and love is extended to those around me will be amazing. These too are forms of proclamation - and as a priest, I will be able to make those proclamations with the authority of the Spirit and the Church behind me.

2. New Authority
Which gets me onto the second major change. Authority. As a deacon, I've had a certain amount of authority behind me. The words I speak from the pulpit (or lectern, or chancel steps or wherever) have the weight of authority. When I pray with people I'm visiting, or lead a service of the Word, I'm doing so with the backing of the Church.

But now, as a priest, that authority gets much more. I'm trusted to be following God's will to the extent that I can pronounce forgiveness and blessing and consecration. I will have been prayed for, and had hands laid upon me, joining me to the run of my apostolic forbears right back to Peter, which means that I will be publicly acknowledged to be someone chosen and anointed by God to do this particular work of his.

Even as I write those words I can barely get my head around them. I mean... wow.

And that authority will make people see me differently, and will make me see myself differently. How could it not?

Functional or Ontological?
So will I change? Or is it just about me being able to do new things?

Well, I'm afraid I'm going to hedge. I will certainly be doing new things. And that will certainly change me as a person. As people we are never set in stone - we change through experiences and years. These new experiences will change me.

How I'll be changed though... I just don't know. My incumbent tells me that the change is palpable once one has a chance to settle into it. I believe him. What it'll feel like though... only the experienc will show me.

So, as I head out now, dressed in my clericals, cassock and surplice and stole in my hands, please pray for me, and for my brothers and sisters to be ordained with me, and I guess I'll let you know how it goes!

So what's all this about?

First thing's first, welcome to this blog!

It strikes me that before we get into the business I actually created this blog to discuss, it might be an idea to give you a brief introduction, both in terms of who I am, and what I envisage this space being about.

And you are...?
The simple stuff first, then. As I write this, I'm both a curate and a deacon in the Church of England. For those not in the know about C of E language (and bear with me, those who very much are), that means two things. A curate is a job title (like 'vicar' or 'rector'), meaning that I'm essentially still in training and functioning as an assistant to a more senior clergy person. An apprentice vicar, if you will. I've just finished my first year (of 3 or 4) of curacy in the Buckinghamshire parish in which I serve, and thus far am loving every minute. Really. My role as deacon, on the other hand, refers to a level of ordination. The C of E has three levels, like the Roman Catholic Church - namely deacon, priest and bishop. More on that in future posts.

After heading up to Oxford University to read theology way back in 1998, I kicked around Keble College until 2007, had a wonderful two years working for Wiley-Blackwell publishers as an assistant journal publishing manager, and finally spent two years in training for ordained ministry at Ripon College Cuddesdon.

In terms of general interests, I'm on the eclectic side. I'm a confirmed science fiction and fantasy fan, particularly Doctor Who, and have been fortunate enough to have some short fiction and audio drama credits writing Doctor Who fiction for Big Finish Productions. I'm a regular attendee at conventions (Gallifrey, WorldCon, I'm looking at you), and chances are if I'm not working I'm off doing something SF/F related. I've been practicing Ki-aikido for the last year, which I'm enjoying immensely, even if so far I've only made it to my yellow belt. Though I simply don't have time in my life for it at the moment, I had tremendous fun over a couple of wonderful years with the SCA and briefly with the Vikings, which means I'm one of the few curates who can show up to a St. George school assembly in my own armour, carrying my own sword and shield.

Ok, so that's me. I'm sure other facets of my personality will emerge over time.

And why the blog?
I wanted to write this blog for two main reasons. Firstly, one of the things that's drummed into you at theological college, and then later during curacy-related IME (Initial Ministerial Education), is the need to be a 'theological reflector'. That is, it's a good idea to make a habit of taking time and space to work through theological and pastoral issues and questions that bring you up short in the course of ministry. I do that naturally to some extent, but it really helps me to write my thoughts and conclusions down. So, I thought, why not write some of them down in the form of a blog? At least then, some other people who might be musing on the same things might find them useful.

Secondly, and much more selfishly, I miss the theological discussions that were a regular feature at college. I really miss bringing up a topic, and being able to benefit from colleagues suggesting their own thoughts, good books that they'd been reading and could recommend, and the general back and forth that helped my initial barely-formed theological ideas get hammered out into something that I could take into the world.

What I would love is if this could be a place for some of that back and forth. For me to lay out and wrestle with the things that are on my mind and heart, and perhaps get some feedback, some reading suggestions, some interaction that could help me, and anyone reading along, develop our thinking.

That's the ideal. Whether it works in practice... I imagine I'll find out!