I think this interview for the Guardian with Giles Fraser speaks for itself:
I’ve been making a serious effort this Advent to address something I know is a bit of a problem – my prayer life. I find it really hard to get into the habit of setting aside regular time simply to pray, whether using a daily office or simply sitting with God, not trying to do anything.
I started out with the best of intentions – I was going to say evening prayer every day, having realised that however much I try to be, I am just not a morning person and setting my alarm earlier doesn’t work as I just doze through it. That lasted two days before life got in the way and having let it slip once, it just vanished into the ether.
Part of the problem is, I think, that if I’m going out of an evening, I’m often on a very tight schedule. I often don’t leave the office till gone 5.30pm (sometimes it’s more like after 6pm) which isn’t by choice but reflects the volume of work I have on, and it takes 30mins to walk home. I’ve then got to cook myself dinner, which if making something nice from scratch can take anything between ten minutes and an hour, eat it and do the washing up. By the time I’ve done that, got changed out of my suit and run out of the door again, I’m often running late as it is. Time to pray feels like wasted time in the rush to get back into town. Even that doesn’t really wash as an excuse, though, as days when I’m doing nothing other than flopping in front of the television in the evening are still devoid of a daily office, mostly due to sheer fatigue after a long day’s problem solving.
I have realised that I’ve hit several walls at once:
- Until about four months ago, I lived in Durham with a Cathedral on my doorstep and was able to go to a daily Eucharist and Evensong. I’m so much better at going to something scheduled like that and am much better at praying with others. There is no real equivalent in Milton Keynes and I miss it.
- I find it hard to read the Bible because my inner academic kicks in and worries about hermeneutics and context and differing interpretations and doctrine and it forms a kind of mental wall. I worry I’m ‘not doing it properly’ and there is no point if I don’t. In short, I’ve lost the art of devotional reading of the Bible.
- A year of undergraduate-level theology and biblical studies in Durham raised far more issues than it solved. For example, I had to write an essay on how to read the first eleven chapters of Genesis and in researching that came across so many different perspectives and opinions that apart from being sure what I didn’t like and the pre-existing theological bias driving that, I just wasn’t sure how to evaluate these. On what basis could I compare the thoughts of people far more knowledgeable than me and fluent in the original languages? It left me not sure what to think anymore. I think this sort of thing is the cause of point two.
- Last year, I lived with someone who placed a great deal of emphasis on the use of daily offices, seeking the intercession of the saints and theological reading. This wasn’t a problem in of itself but his habit of making me feel guilty for not persuing these things with same zeal was. It seemed to me that all this stuff and the full-blown conservative Roman Catholic devotional life could easily be used as an excellent way to hide from God, or at least to keep her at arm’s length, and my trying to have an altogether simpler devotional life was ‘just not good enough’ and was frequently criticised. I also found it very hard having my beliefs attacked regularly and having to defend and justify myself all the time, and I don’t think I’ve entirely ditched this person’s baggage.
- I’m still struggling to come to terms with leaving the ordination process. This might sound an odd thing to say given that it was several months ago and I’m about to embark on the adventure of becoming a Methodist local preacher. However, I think before then I’d had lots of doubts and questions floating around my head that I didn’t dare let surface. The pain of leaving the process and feeling distanced from the church removed that barrier and released a lot of stored-up anger with God, all of which has brought into question several theological assumptions that I suppose I simply accepted without examining them.
- Further to the previous point, I am sick to the back teeth of church politics getting in the way of real encounter with God in so much of the Church of England. I’m not just on about women bishops and homosexuality and the covenant, but all the stuff about things being done a certain way because ‘we’ve always done it that way’ or ‘that’s how Father likes it’, and liturgical trappings of vestments, acolyting etc becoming so much more important than the God to which they are supposed to point. I JUST DON’T CARE! YOU DON’T EARN BROWNIE POINTS WITH GOD FOR DRESSING UP LIKE ELVIS-MEETS-THE KKK AND WALKING IN RIGHT ANGLES!!! I should add that the forced jollity of charismatic services and the usual evangelical cliches also drive me round the bend these days. Enough of the formulae, I want God!
- I miss having a spiritual director to hold me to account.
- I have a massive lazy streak.
- I find maintaining my own routines and structure difficult.
So where does that leave things?
I’m not 100% sure.
What I do know is that God has been working in my life in the last few years to bring about a lot of healing and through particular things that have happened and the people he has brought into my life, especially TractorGirl, I’m so much more like the person God made me to be and infinitely more comfortable in my own skin. I know that whatever happens, I am loved from top to bottom purely and simply because I am. It’s not about achieving things or never messing up. It’s about pure, unearned, freely-given love. What’s more, that’s true of every single person and every single part of creation. The challenge is to live in the light of those two things and to make time to enjoy God for her own sake.
There’s a great quote from a former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins, which I can never quite get right but goes something like this: knowing God, and being known by God, doesn’t depend upon, nor does it guarantee, being right about God. I think this needs to be my motto over the coming weeks. My last year in Durham made it difficult to hold onto this, but I now see that it’s key, because it not only leaves room for the inevitable errors we all make when thinking about God or reading the Bible, but it also leaves room for doubts and questions and being able to say ‘I don’t know’. Having room for grey areas rather than feeling pinned down to only black or white is something that has been missing for a while now in my faith. That isn’t to say that truth doesn’t matter, but is simply to admit that I don’t have things sorted all the time and like TractorGirl, recognise I need to engage openly and honestly with my doubts.
In practice, I think this will mean having to figure out a way of giving my prayer life (in whatever form) the time it needs and so engaging with scripture, but also finding time, however ad hoc (and ad hoc may well be the best thing at the moment), just to enjoy God. Not having answers is hard for me as a scientist who likes to have things well-defined (which I know is ironic giving how much of science is really groping in the dark) but also as someone who likes to be in control. It feels vulnerable.
That brings me back to Advent, which is my favourite time of the Christian year. God didn’t come into the world on clouds descending, in a blaze of glory and power and might. Instead, God in human flesh was born as a small baby, entirely dependent on his parents, themselves very ordinary and at the mercy of the political situation of their day. which made them forced pilgrims and refugees. It’s an enormously vulnerable position fraught with risk, with the risk of loving all of us so much as to give up the thing that matters most. God in the vulnerability, the mess and the ambiguity of the world is the only God that makes sense to me in my vulnerability, mess and ambiguity. Sometimes it’s all I can hang onto.
I spent the weekend on retreat with a group from GCN at Buckfast Abbey, which is near Totnes in Devon. It’s only the third GCN event I’d been to, and I was nervous that I would be stuck spending my weekend with deeply irritating camp blokes or people all too like some folks I’ve known in Durham who aren’t very comfortable with their sexuality and act like jerks to hide the fact. Thankfully, I couldn’t have been more wrong about it!
The first evening we had a lovely meal, much wine and a talk about 1 Peter from the priest leading the weekend. On the Saturday, TractorGirl and I led a session looking at the prologue to St John’s Gospel in the morning. As a couple of people requested it, I’ve added the text of my talks. We had a nice lunch at the Abbey’s cafe, which does extremely tasty-but-bad-for-you puddings. In the afternoon, one of our members talked about his experience of the ex-gay movement and we had a good discussion about being gay in the church. That evening saw us decant to the pub for a lovely meal (or at least it was when my food finally got there!) and I spent the Sunday morning chilling while TractorGirl went to mass.
For the most part, the weekend gave me much-needed space to relax, to catch up with people (though some all too briefly – methinks some travel might be in order) and make new friends. It did me good to get out of Durham for a while, and I got to spend some quality time with TractorGirl which I really appreciated and was lovely.
So far, so good. However, God was also doing his thing of unsettling things. One of the people on the retreat was an Anglican priest and after hearing me preach, told me he thinks I am a natural preacher, teacher and pastor and that in his belief, I am called to some sort of ministry within the church. This wasn’t the first time someone has told me that – it has happened several times after preaching and when getting to know people in the church – but what scared me a bit was his certainty.
Now, since I left the ordination process in Durham Diocese, for what I think was a sensible and principled reason, I’ve been doing a certain amount of re-assessment of my faith and place within the church. I had initially concluded that Anglican ordained ministry was not for me and that I would be better giving up altogether or looking at switching denominations. However, in the last couple of months, I’ve been wrestling with all of this and the jolt over the weekend confirms my initial thoughts:
- Within my remaining time in Durham, I would like to keep worshipping at the Methodist Church that has become ‘church family’ and who have loved and accepted me unconditionally. The Cathedral is lovely and I will still go there sometimes, but I’ve had enough.
- Joint Anglican-Methodist membership is something I would like to do purely for its own sake, because it does express my journey and theological roots. However, I don’t think I’d pursue local preaching unless after the move I end up in a Methodist church. First and foremost, I am an Anglican. The Church of England, despite its many faults, is my home and I love it very much. I feel deep down that it’s where God wants me to be, and after all, it won’t change if everyone who struggles in it flees.
- Leaving the process hasn’t lessened my desire to serve God in the church as well as the world of work. I don’t think full-time parish ministry is for me, but NSM or reader training do appeal, and I need to stop running away and look at them.
In short, the conclusion I’ve come to is that God doesn’t seem to want to give up on me in ministry in the church of some form. The task now is to discern the right expression for that. This means dealing once again with the thorny issue of sexuality and after the weekend and sharing my story and, far more interestingly, hearing from others, I just about feel in a position to do that. I will have to get better at ‘playing the game’, but I think stepping back for a while and talking to so many encouraging people has helped me see how that might work.
I think, through all the ‘ifs, buts and maybes’ of the last few weeks, what has emerged through much prayer, thought, wrestling and tears, is a sense of the need to step out, take risks and use my gifts to serve God. I can’t really talk about the other part of my life where the need to take a leap of faith and just live with the uncertainties has become apparent and I hope I’m responding appropriately, but in both cases, I’ve realised that I can either carry on running away, or take the risk of love. It’s very scary, but I honestly believe I’m doing the right thing in both cases.
There’s a clip from one of the best films of all time, in my humble opinion, ‘Good Will Hunting’, about taking risks. I couldn’t find the specific clip I wanted, but the end of this illustrates my point about safety nets and the need to risk getting hurt to find love:
I see there is much discussion about who will be the next person to take up the now-infamous See of Southwark, following the retirement of Dr Tom Butler, who I met with my banana after a rather bizarre lecture on science and faith. These rows about homosexuality in the Church of England make me very sad. Jeffrey John (pray for him – it cannot be easy being a political football. I ‘ve met him briefly and he seemed lovely) is celibate but in a committed, loving relationship. Why should gay people have to be lonely and miserable, Mr Sugdon? It makes me glad I am not in the ordination process, if even abiding by the rules of ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’ is not enough for some people, but living a lie and the subsequent damage to one’s mental health is perfectly fine. Sigh! I don’t want to get on my soapbox today, mostly because I feel slightly fragile and need a hug, not a row, but it has done me a great deal of good to be honest about my sexual orientation, both to myself and those I care about, and being with TractorGirl makes me feel alive, whole, complete in a way that being with a man, however lovely, could never do. Being told this is wrong hurts – it feels to me like this life in all its fullness that Jesus talked about…
Anyway, on a lighter note, the weekend was somewhat interesting, as TractorGirl’s post explains. I was actually really glad to be able to be there for both TG and Third Party, and hope it goes some way to demonstrating to the latter that I do care and am going to be a trustworthy and reliable presence in her life, and not there to take mum away. I’ve found the ‘compartmentalisation’ very hard, because I really do care about TP, and want to build a good relationship, so I hope this can be the start of that 🙂
Two big changes recently. The first one relates to the new government, about which you’d have needed to be living in a deep hole under Barrow-in-Furness not to have heard about. The second may have been noticed by Church geeks like me – Bishop Tom Wright is to become a professor at St Andrew’s. Having spent the day writing job application letters, I do not have the energy for serious comment, so here’s some irreverent comment instead:
The footage of David Cameron with Nick Clegg was been really quite amusing. If they didn’t have this party-political-coordinated-ties thing going on at the moment it’d be hard to tell them apart! I gather that already some grumpy old right-wing Tories and more left-wing Guardian-reading Lib Dems are having a moan. My bet is it’ll last about six months before falling apart after a blazing row about something trivial that is the straw that broke the camel’s back. I for one am not keen on cross-party love-ins. It’s enough to make you wretch… Wonder what Mr Wesley would have thought: “No con-dem-nation now I dread…” I have rejoined the Labour Party.
Bishop Tom’s departure made the Church of England newspaper, and so did the comment of one blogger, whom I assume is in Durham diocese, that Tom should be congratulated on his amazing ministry, as not everyone could run a diocese from the American lecture circuit and the departure lounges of international airports. Maybe he should get a prize before he takes up his ‘do nothing’ chair. I think a droopy mitre might be appropriate, though I’m open to suggestions…
It’s been a busy week with essays to get done, so I haven’t had the chance to blog for a little while. In case anyone wonders what a mathematician is doing writing essays (I got a grilling from a friend on Facebook for this yesterday), I am doing a BA in Theology and Ministry with the Lindisfarne Regional Training Partnership. For the most part, it’s been a good experience, though given it’s in its first year, there have been teething problems. I’m currently doing a module on the Christian tradition, which has given me the chance to write essays on Anglicanism’s shaping by the Reformation and on the Enlightenment.
The first of those ties into a current dilemma: For some time, I was exploring the possibility of Anglican ordination but that didn’t work out because I didn’t want to lie about the nature of my relationship with TractorGirl. Now, during my time in Durham, I’ve attended Methodist churches at the same time as worshipping at the Cathedral due to being part of Methsoc. My theology has in some respects moved closer to Methodism than the high Anglicanism I had settled into when I arrived in Durham, but there is a lot about Anglicanism that I still really appreciate.
The reason I’m rambling about this is I am considering joint membership of both churches and this raises certain issues:
- Is the three-fold ministry of Bishops, Priests and Deacons the only model for church order or can other models such as the Methodist system work? Is it contradictory to accept two very different structures?
- How important are the Sacraments, and in particular, participation in the Eucharist, to my faith and how I understand it? I have no problem accepting Methodist sacraments as valid because I go with Richard Hooker’s receptionist understanding and admire Wesley’s emphasis on regular communicating. However, both the Methodist churches in Durham only have monthly communion.
- Tied in with this is the Methodist sense of membership involving belonging to one particular church, unlike the Anglican system, shaped by being the established church. In practice, this means choosing a church to belong to, and while I’m very definitely part of the family at my preferred church, services there clash with the Cathedral Sung Eucharist which I usually go to. I worship regularly at the other Methodist church’s evening service, but feel much less part of the family there. How to choose?
To add to all of that, the only thing I really miss about exploring ordination is being able to preach. Methodist local preaching has been suggested to me and does appeal, but I’d need to worship regularly in the church to be able to do that with integrity, which may mean having my membership at my less preferred church, or attending the other and sacraficing being a regular at the Cathedral Sung Eucharist. Help!
At the same time as all of this, I’m pondering my future career plans. There are a couple of jobs I’m applying for this week that would use my maths and keep me in Durham. One of them is to do with regional development, which is something I’m more than open to looking into in the future, and it’d be great to be able to use my maths to do something useful.
I think, in the long run, I’d love to have the chance to work on the interaction of science and faith like I was able to in my Enlightenment essay, but am not sure how to make this happen. Answers on a postcard, please!