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

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Vicar's FAQ

Today is the publication date of my book: The Vicar’s FAQ: All you ever wanted to know about Christianity and the Church, published by Darton Longman & Todd.

As you might expect, I’m pretty excited about it! Here are some things you might want to know.

Is it just for vicars / Christians?
No! It’s deliberately aimed at those people outside the Church who are curious about what we believe and do. I’ve tried to avoid jargon, or explain it where it’s unavoidable, and hopefully have managed to address all those questions you’ve been burning to ask!

What’s it about?
The book seeks to answer a vast range of questions that I have been asked both while training to be ordained in the Church of England, and since becoming first a deacon and then a priest. These range from simple questions about whether vicars get holidays and how much they’re paid to deeply complex questions about what members of the Church of England believe God is like or what our attitudes are towards same-sex marriage.

I answer all of these questions as myself. That is to say, I make no bones about the fact that I’m firmly at the ‘liberal’ end of the liberal-conservative spectrum, and reply accordingly. I try to present alternative points of view where appropriate, and in as even-handed a way as I can, but in the end will always make clear what my own stance is. Be warned!

What’s the style like?
It’s informal, with one question running into another in a conversational style. I try to answer complicated questions simply.

What topics do you cover?
There are five main chapters:

  • Being a Vicar (questions about the nature of the job)
  • The Church of England: Past and Present (questions about the history of the C of E, going back to Jesus)
  • The Worship of the Church of England (questions about our services and worship in general)
  • Christian Doctrine (questions about what Christians believe)
  • Ethics (questions about some recent hot-button topics)

Where can I get it?
It’s on sale in the UK (not the USA yet I'm afraid!), available at all good bookshops, and of course through Amazon. Here’s a handy link:


Wednesday, 3 April 2013

God the Father

I’ve been ordained for nearly two years now, and a Christian for a good twenty. One of the things that has been a constant in my spiritual life is an understanding of God as Father. It’s repeated through the New Testament more times than I can count, a direct result of Jesus’ astonishing direction that his disciples should call God “Abba”, an affectionate Aramaic term for a father – close to “Dad”. The Church has heeded Jesus’ direction. In prayer we regularly call on “our loving heavenly Father”, and “Father” language is seeded throughout our liturgy.

Personally this has directly influenced my mental image of God when I meditate, when I pray, when I study. It’s affected by my relationship with my own father, perhaps unsurprisingly. I’m lucky in that I come from a loving and encouraging background, and I love my father more than I’ve ever been able to adequately express, certainly to his face. But it means that when I pray, I have an image of an older man, someone looking down on me.

The thing is, I think I may have had things backward.

Disciple Fathers
It’s something we don’t often think about today, but in the first century, getting married young and having as many children as possible as quickly as possible was very much the norm. It was so normal that it didn’t merit comment. In the Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) we hear about Peter’s mother-in-law, just in passing. We never hear a word about his wife, but we have to assume that if there was a mother-in-law there was a wife kicking about there somewhere. Equally, if there was a wife, the chances that there were no children are extremely remote. We never hear about them, but that’s not surprising, because they would have been so normal and expected as to be unworthy of further comment.

So now I think about it, doesn’t it seem that the vast majority of Jesus’ disciples were probably married? That they were probably fathers?

So when Jesus tells his followers to call God “Dad”, I wonder if he isn’t asking them so much to think about their relationships with their own fathers as their relationships with their children.

Reframing the Concept - Me the Mother
I’ve just had my first child. He’s 5 months old now. Those of you out there who have no children and no desire to have children, I’m sure you get bored of hearing this from people who have had children (biologically or by adoption, I think the emotion is the same), but having a child has changed my life. It is wonderful. It is one of the most wonderful things that has ever happened to me. Perhaps the most wonderful. I love my son with a powerful love that is like nothing I’ve ever felt before. When he looks at me, when he reaches out for me, when he stops crying because I hold him… It makes me tear up just thinking about it.

The point is, I know now how it feels to be a parent. And seeing the parent-child relationship from this angle, it’s a revelation. To think that the love I feel for my son is the same love God feels for me… Wow is that ever a revelation.

To those who are caught up in thinking about God as your father, and who are finding it difficult, perhaps because your relationship with your own parents isn’t all that great, try reframing that thought from this angle. Imagine how you might (or do) feel about your own children, and then put yourself in God’s place.

Now this might be second nature to you. This might be me talking about something totally blindingly obvious. But honestly, this was a genuine revelation to me. My prayers are already qualitatively changed. What does your mental image of God look like? Is the concept of the Father a useful or a troubling one for you?

Friday, 8 February 2013

Funeral Ministry - the Hardest Thing?

The view from the outside
Before I was ordained Deacon, one of my recurring worries was about funeral ministry. I tend to be a pretty emotional person. Pixar's "Up", for example, was a wonderful thing apart from the fact I was sobbing throughout. Im in floods at any vaguely moving moment in books, during my favourite music... The list goes on. Funerals I had attended in the past, as you can imagine, were no exception. I was terrified that as soon as I was put in the position of needing to minister to bereaved people or to conduct a funeral, I would fall to pieces.
Nor is this idea of funerals being the toughest area of ministry confined to ordinands. It's something I've encountered again and again through the past year or so. Going into a primary school to talk to seven year olds, one of the questions that was asked was about taking funerals. The children were discussing how some of them hadn't been allowed to attend family members' funerals because they would find it too distressing. One turned to me, still staggered at the thought that one day I'd be a 'vicar' and be leading funerals.

"Aren't you afraid you'll cry?" she asked.

Honestly, at that point, the answer was simple. "Yes," I replied. "I am."

What a difference a year makes.

Back in the summer of last year, at the garden party to celebrate my priesting and presiding at my first Eucharist, an experienced member of the congregation was sat next to me.

"So how have you found the past year?" she asked. "What's the hardest thing? I've always thought that funerals must be the hardest. I couldn't do it. How do you manage to keep yourself together?"

I smiled. "Actually, I've found it to be one of the most rewarding of all the things I do."

So what changed? Well, I discovered two things.

The role of the funeral minister
Firstly, when you’re meeting the bereaved family, or you're at the front of a church or chapel, leading that very particular act of remembrance and worship combined, you're a different person. You are occupying a role, and it's about what needs doing rather than what you're feeling. In case that sounds cold or callous, it's not. You still have empathy with the bereaved, you still care for their suffering, and are committed to doing the best you can to work with the ebb and flow of emotion and to make the funeral do what it's supposed to do.

So what's a funeral supposed to do? Well, it's a process. You begin by taking the congregation into a new space, surrounded by prayer and stillness. Into that space you evoke the person who's died. You call them to mind and memory, you allow the grief to be voiced, and for a moment you take the congregation into the darkest place - facing death. But then you lift them again. You invoke the hope at the heart of the Christian message, and even in the midst of grief, that hope lets in that crucial shaft of light. When people leave a funeral they should be brighter and more hopeful than they were when they walked in. That's why the special space is so important. It's a limbo that allows movement from one state of being to another, and at its best, allows the grieving process to move to the next stage.

When you're the person working to facilitate that process, your emotions and thoughts are about that not about your own emotions. To allow those to engage my mind to any extent would be selfish. It's not about me. It's about everyone else.

The support
Secondly, though a priest may look very isolated there at the front of the church during a funeral (or, come to that, during any act of worship) they're not. Before leading any kind of worship, before embarking on writing anything that will be used during worship, and during the writing process, I pray. I pray for inspiration from the Holy Spirit. I pray for strength to do what God needs me to do for His people. And when I stand at the front of the church I know I'm there with Christ beside me. When I speak, I do so in the power of the Spirit. I don't need to lean on my own strength.

That may sound odd to someone who doesn't believe in God, or does, but doesn't believe in God interacting in the world. This is one of those things that I can't really make clearer or put into other words, though. I can only tell you what I feel when I ask for that inspiration and strength and guidance. I feel warmed and upheld. I feel able to do things that I could not on my own. That's all there is to it.

This is doubly the case when faced with something as emotionally draining as a funeral. The Lord who called me to be who I am, a priest, doesn't leave me to manage on my own dubious emotional strength to serve his people. Every funeral visit, and every funeral, is surrounded by prayer - for the grace and wisdom to listen, to both feel and bear the pain of family and friends, and for the words to bring comfort and at least the beginning of the long process of healing. Those prayers are answered. I am supported and carried through those difficult moments with a strength that isn't my own.

It's an awesome privilege. When I'm called to take a funeral it means I'm invited into someone's home, into their pain, and they give me the person they've lost. They tell me about that person, they recount their life and their funny little habits, the things that made them laugh, the good times and the difficult ones.

Well... in the best situations they do. It's not always that easy. The process of grief moves in strange ways, and sometimes bereaved families are monosyllabic, unable to answer questions because it's just too much. Sometimes the person who's died wasn't very nice, or had dark secrets, or had a feud with other members of the family. Sometimes the surviving family and friends have their own feuds with each other which are then read into the funeral process. Suggestions are made that someone shouldn't be invited to the funeral, or be allowed to see the body, or, or... Those are the worst times. I'm glad to say that family feuds aren't something I've had to deal with yet. I'm not looking forward to it.

But by the end of a funeral visit, a person's life has been shared with me, and I've been trusted to take possession of that life just for a little while, until the funeral itself, when I give it back to the mourners, and to God.

The rare times
Having said all that, there are those rare occasions when funerals are indeed hard for me, and crying is a real risk. In my (admittedly limited) experience thus far this has happened twice. Both times were at childrens' funerals.

The first was a memorial service for a little girl, a twin, who lived for just 36 minutes. Her twin survived. I was 6 months pregnant at the time and I had cried buckets while writing the service. Thankfully during the service itself, the role and the support of the Spirit kept me going and my emotions didnt spill out. I was very glad to be able, in turn, to support that family in the awful position of being devastated at the loss of a child, and glad at the birth of a healthy child.

The second was just a couple of days ago at the funeral of a little boy of five, who had died of cancer. I have a son of my own now, a little guy of 3 months, and Im still officially on maternity leave. However, the bereaved parents asked me particularly if I would give the funeral address, and I was glad to do so. As I said, its a privilege. Maternity leave doesnt get in the way of that. (Should it? Where does the priest stop and the person needing maternity leave begin? A discussion for another time, I suspect.)

This time though, it was a real struggle. Im pretty sure that having recently given birth to my son, and being hopped up on all the hormones that breast feeding and parenthood produce made a significant difference. All the same, I was able to get through most of my words without giving in to my emotions. It was only at the very end, when I was talking about the Christian hope in life after death that they risked slipping through, and my voice wavered. I didnt choke, thank goodness, but it was a close run thing. Afterwards, at the funeral gathering, the bereaved mum came up to me. Sorry it was hard for you, she said. I boggled. Hard for me?! Well, yes it was, but nothing compared to anybody else in that church!

The joy
Does it seem odd that I mention joy in the same space as funerals? Probably! But for all the difficulty of those rare times when the grief is such that it challenges even the uplifting support that surrounds the priest while leading a funeral, there is joy to be had. When things go right, when the bereaved family and friends are lifted by the hope spoken in the liturgy and in my address, when they are able to smile at me afterwards, when people say things like, Somehow I felt so much better by the end,”… These are the good times, and achieving that is what funeral ministry is all about.

Because what makes funerals hard bringing people into the darkness, and feeling their pain thats only half the story. What its really about is the other half: bringing those hurting people back into the light, and pointing them onwards, both in terms of the person theyve lost, and in terms of their own lives. Thats what the Good News is. And in that is nothing but joy.