For now and for always.

64974743_2322624331289569_651387405969915904_n

I’m being ordained in less than a week. 

From then on, you can call me Rev if you want to and I’ll wear a dog collar a lot of the time. I’ll spend six days a week working with and for the Church, doing almost everything you’d expect a vicar to do. But I won’t be a vicar yet, nor a rector. I won’t be a priest quite yet either. The different roles and titles and jobs that make up the life of a member of Church of England clergy can be pretty confusing, so here’s a very quick run down:

There are three ‘orders’ of ministry: deacon, priest, bishop. They are cumulative, so everyone is ordained a deacon first, most are ordained priest a year later, and a few will eventually become bishops too. But they don’t replace one another: a priest is still a deacon, and a bishop is also a deacon and a priest. These are not job titles. Once I’m ordained deacon next week, I will always be a deacon, whether I’m working in a church or chaplaincy, staying at home, or doing something else completely. They’re about God calling, and the Church setting apart, a person to be a minister – whatever context they find themselves in.

Then there’s the job roles, which function a bit differently: next Friday, I will also become a Curate – an assistant role where I carry on my training on the job for the next three to four years. It’s how everyone starts their ordained life, and my curacy will overlap the time I’m a deacon and then, God willing, a priest.

After curacy, you’re set free into the Church job market, and can apply for all manner of roles, from chaplains in hospitals and schools, to particular specialisms in a team of ministers, to roles in diocesan offices. But for many (most?), this stage means moving on to the job of Rector, Vicar, or Priest-in-Charge. There are technical historical differences between these titles, but they all describe an Incumbent, who is the one legally in charge of a Church. Anyway, that’s a long way off for me.

So for now, and in fact for always, I’ll be a deacon.

*****

This is what the ordination service says about what a deacon is: 

Deacons are ordained so that the people of God may be better equipped to make Christ known. Theirs is a life of visible self-giving. Christ is the pattern of their calling and their commission; as he washed the feet of his disciples, so they must wash the feet of others.

Deacons are called to work with the Bishop and the priests with whom they serve as heralds of Christ’s kingdom. They are to proclaim the gospel in word and deed, as agents of God’s purposes of love. They are to serve the community in which they are set, bringing to the Church the needs and hopes of all the people. They are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible.

Deacons share in the pastoral ministry of the Church and in leading God’s people in worship. They preach the word and bring the needs of the world before the Church in intercession. They accompany those searching for faith and bring them to baptism. They assist in administering the sacraments; they distribute communion and minister to the sick and housebound.

Deacons are to seek nourishment from the Scriptures; they are to study them with God’s people, that the whole Church may be equipped to live out the gospel in the world. They are to be faithful in prayer, expectant and watchful for the signs of God’s presence, as he reveals his kingdom among us.

*****

I’m glad it’s a life-long task, because I think I’ll be figuring out what this looks like for many years to come. I’ll be watching and learning from those who been Christians and ministers – whether in a formal role or not – for much longer than me. To be honest, I’m scared at the enormity of the task. I’m nervous about the strangeness of this new identity. I’m worried I’ll get things wrong. I’m afraid of letting people down.

But it’s not rocket science: that description above, it just seems to be about serving.

Wash feet.
Proclaim good news.
Search out the vulnerable.
Take on oppression.
Reach forgotten corners.
Walk with seekers.
Be there.

Be a living, speaking, walking, helping, hosting embodiment of the love of God.

That, at least, is something I do know about. I know how God loves me: as a Father he scoops me up when I’m overwhelmed; as a Shepherd he comes out to find me when I’m wandering off; as an Advocate he lifts me up when I’m slumped down in shame; as a Friend, he comes close in my loneliness; as a Judge he pays every debt I owe and hands me a clean slate. I know how he went to the greatest of all lengths to find me, to forgive me, to free me. If I know nothing else in the world, I know how he loves me.

And I think being a deacon means doing whatever it takes to make that love visible to each person and each community I come across, and especially those who are usually forgotten.

With God’s help (a lot of God’s help!) that’s what I’ll be trying to do – for now, and for the rest of my life!

Please pray for all those being ordained in this next week or so – Rose and I among them. Our ordination as deacons will be at Truro Cathedral at 7.30pm on Friday 28 June. 

65029878_473399716748735_491028574271176704_n

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Permission to breathe: #BecauseofRHE

Screen Shot 2019-05-06 at 15.53.00

 

We’d just ordered pizza, a much-needed treat after a long week at theological college with intense teaching on death, dying and the Christian hope. 

I got out plates, briefly considered making a salad, thought better of it, took the beer out of the fridge.

“Claire?” came a voice, accompanied by footsteps on the stairs. “Have you heard the news about Rachel Held Evans?”

A flicker of hope leapt in my heart. In the weeks since she’d been in hospital, I’d been following the updates closely, refreshing the page day by day. But there had not been anything new in a few days now. Could this be the news I was waiting for? Was Rachel finally out of the coma? Was she awake, alert, talking, laughing again? Had a global community’s prayers been answered, after weeks of waiting?

“She’s died.”

*****

59726505_361806024442670_6342111175001505792_n

I first came across Rachel’s work through her book A Year of Biblical Womanhood, when I was in my final year of university.

Over the past few years, my conservative evangelical faith had been stretched and tested, and I’d certainly felt the tension as it expanded into what felt like unchartered territory. Since turning 18, I’d been a gap year worker for a church, I’d begun my theology degree, I’d led my college Christian Union, I’d helped on Christian summer camps, I’d joined a Bible study group, I’d hosted a weekly prayer breakfast, I’d run evangelistic events, I’d shared my testimony, I’d seen fellow students come to faith. In many ways, it was everything I’d expected university life to look like.

But I’d also wrestled with Scripture, asked questions, dared myself to be honest. I’d changed my views on women in leadership, and especially women preaching. I’d started to learn that genre and hermeneutics might play a part in reading God’s word. I’d realised that I could be attracted to women as well as men – and most surprisingly, I hadn’t found myself condemned by God for it. In other ways, everything was changing.

Was this… okay? I didn’t feel like I was losing my faith, but others were deeply concerned about me. I was called into pastoral conversations, taken for walks by friends, bought more coffees than I could count. I wasn’t getting everything right, for sure – but I knew I hadn’t walked away from Jesus. Was I… okay?

I took my question to the emerging world of the Christian blogosphere, and soon discovered this young woman whose words were making waves. Rachel Held Evans had shared the journey of her changing faith in her book, Evolving in Monkey Town: How a girl who knew all the answers learned to ask the questions. Her story had resonated with many – that subtitle was the inspiration for the name of this blog.

But it was her next offering, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, which really got me hooked. I knew some were wary of her experiment, suggesting that her idea of putting every ‘biblical’ rule for women into practice month by month might result in a crass treatment of Scripture. But when I opened the book, I didn’t find someone mocking the Bible – I found a heart that loved the Bible enough to really want to get under its skin. I found humour, gentleness, respect, and a disarming way of asking questions to those who lived their faith differently.

And this was what floored me: she didn’t seem to need all the answers.

She didn’t express this need to be right that so many Christian writers did. Her faith didn’t seem to rest on her own ability to unpick every mystery. As she probed, and learned, and wondered, and worshipped, Rachel’s writing seemed to draw us nearer to the beauty and the character of God, even when there was no neat explanation.

I stopped fearing questions. I started to see them as a gift, a route to discovering something more how wide and long and high and deep is the love of God. Faith became a whole new kind of adventure.

*****

In the days since Rachel’s death, I’ve prayed often for her husband Dan, her small children, her circle of close friends who are reeling from this unthinkable loss. And I’ve been taken aback by the depth of my own grief. The outpourings of love and tributes to her have been both compelling and painful to read. The impact she had on so many lives only magnifies such an awful loss. To many who never knew her personally, she felt like a friend and a companion on the journey; a woman of prophetic courage and a stunning way with words. Her legacy in my life will, I hope, grow with me: I’ve resolved to step up my encouragement of others (“Eshet chayil! Woman of valour!” she taught us to proclaim), and to become more fierce and brave in declaring the scandalous gospel of grace.

But as I’ve grieved, and questioned how on earth this could be, I’ve been surprised at something else too: my faith has grown big enough for this tragedy to find a place.

I’ve been sad at God – so sad at God – and at times, pretty mad at God. And the Easter liturgy has felt painful to pray: “Where, O Death, is your sting?” a friend repeated back to me after morning prayer today, and jabbed sharply at her heart. “Right here, is where it is – its left its sting right here.”

But I’ve not doubted that the words are true.

If anything, it’s felt more like a prophetic act to pray them still. As Rachel said, we are resurrection people. Even when death is all too present. Even when the words catch in the throat.

It’s because of Rachel Held Evans that my faith has grown big enough to encompass the even if and even when and this makes no sense and how could this be. It’s because she taught me that questions, and pain, and uncertainties, and anger, and doubt, and disbelief, and mistakes, and changes of mind, and fresh discoveries, are nothing to be afraid of. Because of her, and the path that her writing encouraged me to pursue with courage, my faith has grown with me – around me, perhaps. It will grow around this strange grief. And I’m pretty sure that one day, if and when tragedy strikes much closer to home, my faith will learn to grow around that too.

When I was young, I knew how to meet God in my certainties. Rachel Held Evans taught me to find him in my questions too.

It’s a gift that has led to firmer conviction of the never-ending mercy and love of God for those often excluded by church communities. It’s led me to embrace a calling to ordination, daring to believe that God has called even me. One day, I’ll enjoy thanking her face to face – for now, there are thousands upon thousands of people determined to honour her prophetic life in their own ways, and I have no doubt the ripples will be beautiful to behold.

Well done, good and faithful servant.
This Easter season, I’m singing resurrection songs with you. 

Posted in Recent posts | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Growing home.

When the last of the lunch things had been returned to the fridge, the dishes washed and put away, and the table wiped down, I set about gathering ingredients for dinner. 

If you’d told me five years ago that I’d be writing that sentence today, I’d have been horrified. What kind of dystopian future was I doomed to? What kind of monster would have me chained to the kitchen table, forever peeling and chopping and slaving over a hot stove?

Five years ago, fresh out of university, my meals at home were few and far between. I was much more likely to be found with a bowl of curly fries at the pub with colleagues. A ready meal grabbed on the way home from an evening that had slipped away at work. Dinner and drinks in the City with university friends. Apart from haemorrhaging money and forgetting what a vegetable looked like, it wasn’t a bad lifestyle: I worked hard, I had fun, I spent time with people I liked and I ate exactly what I wanted at that moment.

But there wasn’t much space for being hospitable. In a house shared with strangers, I was awkward about spending much time in the kitchen for myself, let alone inviting others to spend time and eat there. I loved spending time in the houses and flats of friends who had settled down with a partner and had their own space; I basked in a second-hand sense of home. But I had nowhere to welcome them into in return.

*****

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised then, to have discovered over this last year a real joy in cooking for others. It’s not born of any confidence in my cooking abilities – average, at best – but a kind of deep contentment which has grown in the months since we tied the knot and settled in to our first house together.  Maybe it’s because a year has passed and the seasons are on repeat. Maybe because we’re preparing for a cosy autumn this year with the same familiar soft lamps and blankets and candles and bookcases as we did last year. Whatever the reason, the contentment that’s setting in is like a very old friend: for the first time in a decade, I really feel like I live at home. 

And the more I feel at home, not only in this physical building but in the life it represents, the more I want to invite others into it. It’s not because they don’t have homes of their own, but because it’s so natural to want to share the life you love with others. For me, that looks like cooking for them. Something happens to me when friends, family, or even new acquaintances step through the door, especially if they’ve come to stay for a while. I whip out meal plans and dream up new recipes, I set the table with condiments I’ve forgotten we had, I play with the lighting to create a space I’d want to be welcomed into.  And with each evening of eating and laughing, each catch-up brunch, the house grows a little bit more like home.

*****

I find it hard to believe that our emotional, physical and spiritual lives are unconnected, so I can’t help noticing a very similar pattern when it comes to mission: inviting others into life with Jesus. This summer has been a particularly warm season in my relationship with God, and in many ways, it’s been about rediscovering familiar patterns of prayer and worship that are deeply connected with home. It’s settling down in our prayer room in an evening, lighting a candle and curling up with a favourite passage of Scripture. It’s sitting outside with a cup of tea, before anyone else is awake, and talking over the day’s plans with God. It’s seizing on the surprise moments of closeness, pulling the car over to give full attention to this prayer that’s somehow bubbling over.

I keep smiling to myself; I remember this. It’s not that everything’s the same as when I was a teenager; I’ve changed, the place has changed, the people have changed. But I remember the deep contentment. This summer with God, it feels like living at home.

And so just like my desire to invite others in, cook for them and spend time with them in my kitchen, I’ve found that home feeds invitation. It feeds mission. I spent time last month in Byker and Walker, east Newcastle, working with a brilliant team of people to put on a community mission including holiday clubs and family fun days. It was exhausting, but it flooded me with energy. When an eight-year old asked “Why did God want Jesus to die on the cross?” it felt like every one of my cells joined in praying for wisdom, for words of life and hope to offer her. Morning and night, I found myself praying for those young people and their families, praying for the team, praying for the churches. With each puzzle piece played and each cake iced, each football headed and each story enacted, I buzzed with the joy of inviting young people to get to know Jesus, the one who welcomes us home.

*****

Because of the nature of the ordination training journey, we’ll only be in this house about 10 months more. The next one will be for a little longer, three or four years. There’ll be times when everything feels new and unsettled, when the kitchen is full of boxes and I don’t know anyone to invite over anyway. But whatever the roof over my head is like, whatever food I have to offer, I hope that the sense of home with God is one that only deepens.

In another five years time, I’d love to be able to invite family, friends and folks I’ve just met into a warm, family kitchen filled with the smell of roast chicken and an Aga. But even more than that, I hope I’m going all out to offer the invitation of life with Jesus, to anyone who wants to come home.

Posted in Discipleship | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The C Word.

6754961131_f6fa9b0a4a_b

Photo: James Ogley, Flickr.

The C word.

As a kid, it mean ‘crap’. As a teenager, it meant something stronger. At some point in my life – God forbid – it might mean ‘cancer’. But right now, it means ‘curacy’.

It’s the word on everyone’s lips at college. This is the time of year when one cohort are  fast outgrowing the label ‘ordinand’; they’re preparing to move house, be ordained, and begin what they’ve been training for: their curacy. At the same time, another cohort are busy writing self-assessments, searching out their exact student debt figures, and trying to discern the difference between an ‘urban’, ‘inner-city’ and ‘city-centre’ parish. They – we – are at the very beginning of the match-making journey that is finding a curacy.

For those not familiar with the lingo, a curacy is the first job you get as a newly-ordained Rev. It’s a training post, working under a priest who is called your training incumbent (TI) and it lasts for three to four years, after which you are hopefully signed off as ready to go and lead a parish on your own. The process of acquiring such a job is a little bit complicated: you don’t just apply for one, like the rest of the world. Rather, the DDO (the person who navigated you through the process of getting to training in the first place) and the Bishop (the one who paid your way through training – and therefore gets first dibs on you afterwards) go through a delicate process of matching up their prospective curates with prospective training incumbents, who they then suggest to one another. Both parties get to know each other and have opportunity to turn down the other, which leads back to the beginning of the matching process again. If no match is found within the diocese you came from, you may be ‘released’ into the wild, and a match found elsewhere in the country.

So having not written about anything (beyond 30,000+ words of essays) since the start of 2018, why choose now to write about curacies? Mostly because once the process starts in earnest, over the next few months, I won’t be able to say anything at all. Due to the highly sensitive and individual nature of the match-making process, it’s generally understood that you don’t talk about it until an announcement is made: an engagement, if you like. At that stage, the Church you’ll be serving is told of your imminent arrival, and you are free to share the happy news. But that could be many months away. So, if you ask me in the near future about plans for after college, do expect a vague response… Sorry!

But also, because today I’ve had a timely jab in the ribs from God, and those are often moments I like to document.

*****

I was driving back from a family bank holiday barbecue, three hours up the motorway, and found myself having a heart to heart with God about the upcoming negotiations.

“Lord,” I said earnestly, because you always call God ‘Lord’ when you need him to know you mean it, “Lord, I’d like to talk about this curacy thing. You know there’s so many unknowns, so many hypotheticals, so many possibilities and potentials. You know where you’ll send me, and where you’ll send Rose. I want what you want.”

Disclaimer completed, I went on to discuss with the Lord my hopes, dreams and visions for the next few years. Of course, I’d be pleased to have a lovely house, large and old but easily heated, with a beautifully tended but self-maintaining garden. A vibrant church, with real, messy, honest people who are nevertheless unfailingly ready to love one another and their clergy. A training incumbent who is both professional and warm, profound and hilarious. A great place to live, with both sleepy charm and plenty going on. I realise I was imagining the impossible, but you know, Matthew 19:26.

But a strange thing happened. The more I allowed my thoughts to wander into what life and ministry might look like in a such a parish – or any parish really – the more God blurred the background, and trained the focus of my imagination in on myself.

“Forget what you want from a curacy”, the voiceover seemed to say, “what about what I want to make you to be?”

Instead of the sunny garden and all the trimmings that had caught my superficial eye…

I saw instead people coming to Jesus, and myself walking alongside them – and realised just how much I still need God to deepen my confidence in the gospel, and my boldness to share it. I prayed for the gifts and the passion of an evangelist.

I saw instead broken people interrupting my carefully planned schedule, and myself responding generously – and realised just how much I still need to learn to love people. I prayed for the deep compassion of Jesus looking out on lost crowds.

And as I drove, I prayed and I prayed that God would make me into the curate that those people – the congregations, the communities that I’ll serve, whoever they might be – need me to be. I prayed and I prayed that in the years to come, I’ll find my deepest pleasure not in the trappings of a comfortable parish, but in the joy of seeing people young and old come to discover the love and the life of God offered to them in Jesus Christ.

So, noted, Lord. Thanks for the jab in the ribs. I hear the call away from the temptations of complacency and comfort and convenience. I’ll keep praying – but you might need to keep reminding me.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Look what he’s done!

This year has been impossible, really. Not impossible to survive, not impossibly difficult, but almost impossible to imagine that all things should have come together in this way.

See, in 2015 I’d been restless. I’d lost interest in the kind of work that meant staring at a computer screen for 7 hours a day. I was frustrated with earning plenty of money only to have it drain away into London rents, and frittered away on London socialising. I felt trapped in a big city, and drawn toward the open expanse of small-town community life.

So 2016 became a year of big ideas, grand dreams, and prayers that went: “God, am I crazy to think…?” In 2016, I listened to God with an unnerving intensity. And in 2016, I nailed my rainbow colours to the mast, got down on one knee, and proposed a brilliant idea for the rest of our lives. And in 2016, I moved up north with a strange feeling in my gut that God was asking me to put myself forward for ordination, but no idea what the Church of England might make of me. It was a year of throwing everything up in the air with a crazed grin.

In 2017, the cloud of dust began to clear, and I was amazed at where it settled.

In January, a panel of diocesan advisors said they thought my gut feeling about ordination could be right, and the Bishop agreed to send me to a national panel to find out.

In March, I found myself sitting in an office in Cranmer Hall, excitedly chattering about the Masters course I could do if, by some act of divine intervention, I ended up studying there.

In May, my heart almost beat right out of my chest as a short phone call told me the national panel had agreed that I should train for ordination, and I spent the next week wondering if I’d really heard the Bishop’s words right.

Fortunately, I had a hen party to distract me, and as June hurtled past, I filled every waking minute with cutting up confetti, phoning coach companies, searching for shoes and writing a speech.

When July arrived, swathes of our family and friends descended on Cornwall to join us in a whirlwind of worship, prayer, colour and joy as we made our vows and joined our lives together forever.

Later in the summer, we arrived home from the holiday of a lifetime to move into our first home, delighted and overwhelmed in equal measure by the fun of filling a house and learning to share the ins and outs of everyday life with another human.

And as autumn arrived, I was thrown into the washing machine that is theological college, churned around for a while, and enlarged rather than shrunk! We spent the term making friends, making bonfires, making a mess, making cocktails and, when necessary, making amends.

All the while, we’ve giggled away in disbelief, the two of us looking at one another and saying, “Look! Look what God’s done. He’s given us a house to live in, a house just for us!”

And we’ve flopped on the sofa after an evening with wonderful people, and said to one another, “Look what he’s done, he’s given us people, lovely people, to be our friends!”

And we’ve chattered over Sunday lunch about baptisms we’ve seen, or ideas we’ve read about, or sermons we’re writing and we’ve realised, “Isn’t God kind? Isn’t he good to give us a way to do all that we’re made for, to give us purpose and a way to exercise it?”

He is kind, the God we know. I see his kindness to us every day. I couldn’t escape it if I tried.

It might seem dishonest to pick out the highlights and credit them to God, without staring into the face of 2017’s pain and blaming it on him too. And in truth, there’s been plenty of times when it’s been hard to hear God’s voice; when there are more questions than answers; when sackcloth and ashes seem the only right response to very real human suffering.

But a little voice inside me keeps whispering, “Look! Look what he’s done. You thought it was impossible, but he has done it.” 

There are plenty more impossibilities in 2018, and plenty more unknowns. What will the Church of England do with a pair of civilly-partnered evangelical ordinands in need of curacies? Where will God find a place for us? How will I ever fit in all the work that needs to be done? Do I have enough focus in me to write a dissertation? Can he dampen the pride and selfishness in me, and will he transform my ambition into prayer?

So I’m very glad of that little voice, then, who is so persistent in her whispers.

“Look! Look what God did. I wonder what he’s going to do next? What an artist he is, and what a joker – how much joy it brings him to surprise you and delight you with his clever ways. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Because look, look what he’s already doing!”

Next year may well be impossible. Not impossible to survive, or impossibly difficult (although perhaps it might), but impossible to imagine how all things might come together.

But God is already doing the impossible; it would be daft to think he’ll stop it now. 

Posted in My life and faith | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

From nun school to vicar school.

Candle with Bible, cross and prayer beads

It’s been two years since I began my time with the Community of St Anselm, and over at Lambeth Palace, a new cohort will be just getting to grips with their rule of life. As they step into a challenging daily rhythm of prayer, study and service, as they start to sacrifice their social media and social lives, no doubt some are already wondering just what they’ve let themselves in for.

Meanwhile, 261 miles away, I am a couple of weeks away from beginning my training for ordination. Without intending to worry the new St Anselmers, I’m not the only one – there’s a good handful from my year group who are now somewhere on the path towards ordination. It seems that spending a year focused on listening to God can have dangerous consequences…! And I too am wondering just what I’ve let myself in for.

The two experiences – being part of the Community of St Anselm and studying at theological college – are by no means the same. One was for ten months, with no specific goal but the participation: taking time out for God. The other will take two years, and is all geared towards ‘formation’: that is, preparing me spiritually and intellectually for ordained ministry in the Church of England.

But as I get myself ready for this next adventure, I want to bring with me much of what I discovered during the St Anselm year. In that time there were practical lessons, painful lessons, and the odd spiritual insight – all of them gifts from God, not to be quickly discarded.  Some struck me at the time as deeply significant, and began shaping my life right away. Others have only risen to the surface in the months since we dispersed, perhaps gifts God held in reserve ready for the time I’d need them.

So, here are a few of the things I’ll be carrying with me from ‘nun school’ to ‘vicar school’:

Get God’s priority

When I showed up at Lambeth Palace for the first time and met my ‘sharing group’, we each nervously said a little about why we were there: what had led us to join the community, and what we were hoping for out of the year. My introduction essentially consisted of telling the group that I needed a kick up the backside. I thought I needed fixing, a good clip round the ear and my character seeing to – I was sure that’s what God would give me.

Looking forward two years to when I’ll be (God-willing) made a Rev, it’s easy to feel that’s still what I need. There’s plenty of academic learning to do, but as a vicar I’ll need to be generous, kind, wise, self-disciplined, patient, sacrificial… And the sense of needing to be more of those things could become a heavy burden.

But what I learned over the course of my Year in God’s Time is still very true now: what God want’s to do with me most is draw me ever closer to him. It’s intimacy with him, sharing each moment of each day with him, hearing from him and responding in the ordinary fibres of life. That’s what he cares about. It’s me that God wants, not a hypothetical, polished version of me. And as I look more intently at his face, I’m sure I will find myself changed. But that’s God’s work to do, not mine. I’ve only got one job: draw near.

Commit to community

Alongside the personal disciplines of prayer, study and service, a key aspect to being a member of Community of St Anselm was committing to one another. Before we’d ever met, or even had a list of names, we signed up to share our lives deeply and lovingly with  35 other people from across the world and the Church.

Some were people I could instantly connect with, folks I’d have wanted to be friends with however we’d met. But naturally, some relationships took more work. Sometimes people were irritating. Sometimes we didn’t understand each other. Sometimes it was hard to find the energy to make conversation when it didn’t come smoothly. But what underpinned it all was a sense of safety: we had each committed to take the others as a gift from God, just as they were. And that shaped everything.

Of course, at vicar-school, there’s not such an explicit commitment to one another. The group who happen to be in any one training institution at any one time is created by a whole range of factors: the speed of each person’s discernment process, family circumstances, individual college preferences, recommendations of each diocese… the list goes on.

But that said, it is no less true for this community, transient and accidental as it might seem, that God has called us together at this time, in this place. And while I can’t control how anyone else approaches our common life, I can choose to take each person as God’s gift to the rest of us. I can choose to have the same confidence that I had as a St Anselmer: that God has called me to be his gift to others there too. And I can be active in looking for the ways that God uses the most unlikely and the most difficult of people to help me draw closer to him in the end.

Stay and face it

One of the main differences between committed community and any other social group I’ve been part of, is the way that conflict is handled. Or rather, that conflict has to be handled. I am not one for conflict at all: I’d much rather take a deep breath, walk away, perhaps write an email if something really needs saying. But face-to-face difficult conversations are really not my thing. It’s all so awkward.

In the Community of St Anselm though, it was inescapable. From minor grievances to ongoing and more serious struggles, everything was meant to be brought out into the open to be dealt with in our regular Reconciliation Times. For the most part, these somewhat intense evenings, held in the context of prayer and reconciliation with God, worked well as a space to take one another aside for a quiet word of apology, thanks or even confrontation.

Inadvertently, I found myself at the centre of a rather large controversy during the course of the year, and the kind of conflict it caused was uncomfortable to say the least.  With all eyes fixed on me, my face burning and my stomach twisting, there were times when I really wanted to walk away. But through the painful conversations, the anger and the awkwardness, we found a way through – it was imperfect and clumsy, but we found a way through that looked something like reconciliation.

I would never have chosen that experience. But it’s been fascinating to see how God has used it through my vocational journey. And knowing now that I can be brave – that awkwardness doesn’t kill me – I’m more determined to face up to the tensions and conflicts that theological college may bring. Most Anglican ordinands (in my experience so far!) are pretty nice people. And much as that makes for pleasant conversation over tea and cake, it does sometimes mean we ignore the elephants in the room, hoping they’ll  get bored and wander off. I’m certainly not going seek conflict over the next two years. But where honest, gracious conversation could be more helpful than strained silence, I want to be the first one to offer it. Tea and cake still included, of course.

Make space for silence

With community life sometimes becoming a challenge, it’s perhaps not a surprise that I discovered the value of silence during the St Anselm year. I won’t repeat everything I wrote in 7 lessons of a silenced extrovert but finding time for silence has remained an important part of my life over the last couple of years.

Now, of course, I don’t have silent retreats and designated hours of personal prayer time handed to me. Instead, I’m learning how to live with another person (which is just the most wonderful thing, by the way!) and the new routine and rhythm that brings, as well as beginning to immerse myself in the newly forming college community. So, knowing what a difference space and silence makes to every aspect of my spiritual and social life, I want to be conscious to balance time with other ordinands and their families, time with my partner, and time in silence (whether on my own or not). And if I find I’m getting grumpy, frustrated, lacking focus or motivation, this balance will be the first thing I check. (Well, after checking if I’m hungry or need a nap.)

Discern when you decide

And finally, there’s a habit that began to form over my year with the Community of St Anselm that I want to nurture until it’s entirely instinctive. It’s to consider choices I need to make as times for discernment, rather than simply decisions. During the course of the year, we were encouraged to bring everything to God in prayer, many things to our spiritual companions in one to one sessions, and some things to our sharing groups – all to help us listen to God and act accordingly.

In theory, that’s what the whole lead up to ordination training has been – a discernment process, by which I and the Church have sought to discover God’s calling for me. But it doesn’t end here. And while there is a structured and lengthy journey toward being selected for ordination, most of the other choices I will make in the next few years won’t come with such obvious instructions.

From what subjects to study and essays to write, to roles in college and placements in holidays, to a curacy and all that that entails – there are going to be many more decisions to make. And everything that I’ve learned about listening to God, especially from the Ignatian tradition, is going to be vital. If only I can remember to pause, hold myself back from jumping into everything two-footed, and ask the question: “Where are you in this, God? Where is your Spirit beckoning me to follow?”

I suppose it brings me back to where I started: what I took away from the Community of St Anselm and what I want to take with me to theological training, is the most simple and most wonderful thing I’ve ever learnt.

Draw ever nearer to God. Everything else is for him to work out. 

Posted in Community of St Anselm | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

White privilege and me.

Photo: Alex Klavens

It’s been a few months since I’ve written anything here, and that’s because things have been pretty busy – I’ve finished a job, had a civil partnership, been on holiday, moved house, celebrated family weddings, and enjoyed the glorious glimpse of heaven that is Greenbelt festival. Every so often, I’ve had a quick glance at the news – then promptly turned it off again. Too scary. Too depressing. Too rage-inducing. And while the world at large seems to be going up in smoke, my small corner of it remains pretty calm. Life, for me, is as good as it’s ever been, and probably better.

Why? Why can I relax in the safety of my home and the apparent security of future plans, even while the political world and the natural world are battling it out to cause the most destruction?

Two words: white privilege.

It’s something I’ve been blind to for most of my life, and I want to try this exercise if only to show me how little of it I’m still seeing. Before we start, a pre-empting of the comments: getting to grips with the privilege I have as a white British person is not about:

a) denying the ways in which I don’t have privilege. I’m a woman, a queer woman, a bisexual queer woman. But being white makes those disadvantages much easier to handle than if I were a queer woman of colour;

b) denying the positive influence of other factors in my life, like hard work and supportive friends and family. But being white is like having the wind at my back, making those other factors so much more effective than they might otherwise have been;

c) denying the difficult and painful circumstances, big and small, that make my life far from perfect. Of course every individual has really tough stuff to face at times. But being white means I am always benefiting from a society that works in my favour, even when my personal life isn’t so great.

With that said, here’s the very beginnings of an exploration into my white privilege:

Let’s start with my name. Without seeing me, both my first name and my surname mean I’m assumed to be white. That’s because I live in a culture where white is considered the default – unless you have a name that is, for instance, Arabic or African-Carribean. My name meant that from the moment my parents applied for a nursery place, I’ve started in new contexts with a clean slate: with no race-based assumptions or stereotypes laid over me before I even arrived. My teachers would not have presumed to know anything about my behaviour or my personality before they met me; a privilege which children with names that don’t sound white aren’t afforded. And when I did arrive, people weren’t surprised at my name and my face belonging to the same person. No one struggled to pronounce it. It didn’t stick out on the register. In fact, I barely noticed I had my name. White privilege is often not noticing.

During my education, I was encouraged to achieve my full potential, and no one put limits around it. I had every possibility open to me, because every role model I was given looked like me. From athletes to academics, every achievement was something that white people could do. Of course, I didn’t notice that there were platforms and brochures and posters full of white faces. White privilege is often not noticing. In particular though, I was encouraged to apply for Oxford University, and I had enough confidence to do it. After all, there were people in my social circles who had studied there and the websites were full of enthusiastic faces like mine. I could see myself there. No one told me I’d have to grow a thick skin. No one warned me I’d be the only person of my race in my college, or year group. And no one ever suggested that I’d only got in because of my race. No one questioned my right to be there.

I didn’t notice I was white in Oxford because no one ever asked me to represent all white people. I was never asked to be in a photoshoot for the prospectus, I was never used as a token ‘other’ on a panel, and I was never required to educate others about racism or diversity. No one looked to me for the ‘white person’s experience of Oxford’. People of my race were already very well represented in absolutely every sphere of academic and social life. I was therefore free to be entirely myself, representing no one but me (and Jesus, naturally…).

Coming from a state-school background, and a middle-middle class family, I sometimes felt I had to up my class game to fit in. Rightly or wrongly, I sometimes found myself at fancy dinners and among distinguished guests polishing up my accent and adapting my vocabulary and exaggerating my experiences, to be considered one of them. The thing is, it was easy. Everyone bought it. No one found my accent a surprise, or cast suspicion over my inflated credentials. Because I looked the part, it was easy to fake.

When it came to looking for work, there were again no limits on what people thought I might apply for, excepting my subject choices and skills. But as I threw around ideas and options, no one told me “I haven’t seen a white [career name] before”. It wasn’t hard to find friends, mentors, professional people whose experiences I could relate to and were happy to take me under their wing and give me a chance, because they could see their younger selves in me. I didn’t have to work twice as hard to be taken seriously. I didn’t have to worry about being paid less because of the colour of my skin. And when I frequently made mistakes, I was never made to feel that I was letting my whole race down.

I’ve always felt relatively safe, both as a child and now that I live on my own – even during my years in the depths of South London and the outer estates of Sunderland. That’s because I’ve never worried that my family or I could be victim of a racially motivated attack. I’ve never had to stay calm in the face of unprovoked aggression, knowing that in any altercation I’d be disproportionately blamed. I’ve not have to laugh off racist “banter” for fear of the repercussions if I challenge it. In fact, although I’m sure I’ve sat in groups where such “banter” has gone unchallenged, I’ve quickly forgotten it. Because white privilege is not being affected.

Once, I had to talk to the police about a particularly nasty incident. As an innocent person, it didn’t occur to me that they’d be anything other than kind, supportive and fair. That’s because I haven’t been stopped and searched, or watched people of my race suffer undue suspicion, excessive force, brutality and death at their hands. When my little brother grows up, I won’t worry about him suffering that treatment either. My family and I are white, so we are considered innocent until proven guilty.

With my mind freed from such serious concerns, I can use my energy on trying to be a little more beautiful. I don’t pay too much attention to it, partly because I already have the main feature that society tells me is beautiful: white skin. But when I do choose to browse make up sections, I find products geared towards my skin tone. I find shades called “nude” that match my naked body, and “flesh-coloured” tights that are the colour of my flesh. Hair products that line the shelves are made for my kind of hair, and the models I see plastered on TV screens and billboards aren’t all that different from me, behind all the airbrushing and lighting and products! People didn’t swipe straight past me on dating apps because of my race, and never have I heard someone tell me they’d never be attracted to someone with my colour skin. Society makes me feel ugly in many ways, but not this one.

What have I missed? For every instance of my white privilege that I’m starting to notice, there’s bound to be 100 more that I still don’t see.

What do I do in response? What do we, white people who benefit from systemic racism, change about our daily lives to counter it? I’m working on that. I’m trying to listen to those who are already speaking so eloquently about the need for white people to step up and tackle racism. But for now, the very least I can do is try to open my eyes.

 

Posted in Social justice and politics | Tagged , , | 3 Comments