Boarding the sinking ship

This morning, an article with the above title went up on Threads – but for some reason it’s currently not available. It was a response to another article (published at exactly the same time) entitled ‘A sinking ship we should abandon?’ – a reference to a church that is quickly disappearing. The article to which I was responding proved to be very controversial and at points today I’ve pondered whether agreeing to write a response was a good thing. (There is a whole blogpost about that which I composed in my head earlier…)

The missing posts may be owing to a glitch on the super-shiny new website that launched yesterday, or it could be that someone at Threads thought better of publishing it. I’ve had a few requests on Twitter for the text, so I’m posting it here. (My version may be slightly different from the one Threads posted, as I know they edited it for length!) It’s possible it’ll reappear on Threads, in which case this post may come down. I won’t post the other article here, even though I have the text, as I don’t think that would be fair. Hopefully it’ll resurface tomorrow. 

Apparently, I’ve made a bad move, career-wise. On July 4th, I was ordained in St Paul’s Cathedral, into an institution that may as well be irrelevant the majority of the population who don’t believe in the God I’ve committed my life to. I’m not so much a new curate, more a new curator at the ‘faith museum’ that is the Church of England.

I know the stats: the 2011 census showed a drop of 13% in the number of Brits identifying themselves as Christian since 2001. Since 1960, attendance at Church of England churches has halved. Methodist membership’s declined by nearly two-thirds since 1980. The numbers are bleak.

Am I kidding myself that the pension fund I began paying into last month will still exist by the time I retire in 30 or 40 years time? Will I even have a job in my 60’s? How about some more stats: I trained at a college that didn’t even exist ten years ago, and next month, it will welcome a record number of ordinands (over 70). My diocese is aiming to have doubled the number of people entering ordained ministry by 2020. Is this a last ditch attempt to rescue the institution? I think not.

The church got things wrong in the past, but it’s by no means irrelevant today. In parish ministry, I get to meet people at the highest and lowest points of their lives and everything in between – from weddings and celebrating new life, to the funeral of a child that was barely two. I have witnessed how, when the worst of life happens, church communities come together in response. Clergy have a unique role in those spaces and no matter the statistics, society doesn’t seem to be ready to let them go yet.

That’s part of what makes up my ‘calling’. To serve society. It’s not about the Sundays, or being a local celeb. It’s about serving as Christ first served. I know that’ll I never match his sacrifice. I know that many in society don’t give a toss about why I do what I do, but it doesn’t stop me. It doesn’t end at the church door, or the parish boundary, but stretches out far ahead of me – wherever I end up and in whatever role within my vocation.

Countless people question this calling. Some have the right and duty to do so, others are curious. Total strangers, intrigued by my answer to their polite “So, what do you do?” quiz me about my motivations. Often they’re not interested in ‘the church’ – but are curious as to how God impacts someone. “It’s a calling” is never the end of a conversation, often it’s just the beginning.

I could stay hidden amongst those who share these out-dated beliefs, in the security of an emptying church building, but I don’t. I out myself as a ‘professional’ Christian in my dog collar, and get landed with stereotypes, high expectations and abuse. Rather than offering protection, it brands me as one of ‘them’. Not so much a status symbol, as an object of ridicule.

But I carry on wearing it, tucked under my ‘normal’ clothes. I’m just trying to be me, living out what I think God wants me to do. I’m not edgy or trendy (although potentially marginally more so that the kind of vicar Sara Cox had in mind when banning them from wearing trainers). I’m this curate, in this place at this time, looking for God to use me. I’m a feminist who’s made the conscious decision to become Anglican in order to fight the church’s patriarchy – the stained-glass ceiling may have been broken, but it’s left behind shards that can cut those attempting to travel through it.

I’m anxious not to get caught up in a Christian bubble – I’m more interested in getting out into the ‘real’ world than inviting people into ours. If the church is to survive it has to make that its mission. It’s not an easy ride. When things didn’t go to plan and I screamed at God in anger and frustration, the message came back loud and clear that ordination was the way forward.

I don’t know how we avoid the iceburg, but I do know that abandoning ship isn’t right either – someone’s got to be on the bridge to steer a new course.

When Church History & TfL geekery collide

Last week (I am horrendously behind in blogging at the moment, forgive me) I achieved something of a 2014 First – if I was still keeping lists of such things. For the very first time, I had my own byline in the Church Times.

In all the ways thou goest

It had been on the list of ‘hypothetical things to achieve at some point’, and was partly achieved last summer when I was part of the paper’s Greenbelt reporting team. But this was an actual commission, that came about through a random combination of Twitter and a college seminar while in France last autumn.

The article, ‘In all the ways thou goest’, was on the subject of prayer while travelling, in the context of the growth of apps and websites that facilitate praying on the move. It derived some inspiration from friends who regularly pray on their commute, tweeting invitations to share requests with the hashtag #trainprayer.

What actually prompted the commission from the Church Times was a tweet of mine from way back in January, when I’d just finished writing up a hypothetical retreat for London Diocese, based around the concept of retreating on the tube. I’d risen to a challenge from one of my tutors who had speculated as to whether it would even be possible to retreat while on the tube. Surely it’s too busy and too stressful to be a place to meet with God?

For a start, I knew that people did use it for just that purpose day in, day out. Back in my commuting days, I did and saw others clutching Bibles or similar on our morning journey. I also knew that the tube has a lot of religious connections, in terms of station names and the history behind them. Finally, I figured you could use the context as a means of shaping who, what and where you prayed for.

You see most of that in the article, but as I needed to make it whole-of-UK friendly, the tube specific factoids were left out – so I thought I’d share them here instead. That way, next time you feel inclined to pray on the tube, you may want to pray into the history of some of the places on the maps above your head. See, Church History and TfL knowledge comes in handy all over the place!!

[Incidentally, I’m indebted to Morven for going through my copy of What’s in a Name and marking every station that has a religious connection – not the funnest Sunday afternoon activity on a weekend in London, but she learnt lots too!]

Blackfriars – name taken from the colour of the habits worn by the Dominican Friars at a monastery on the site from the 13th Century to 1538 when it was abolished by Henry VIII.

Boston Manor – the ‘Manor’ originally belonged to the convent of St Helen’s Bishopsgate.

Bow Church – named after St Mary Bow Church, which has been a place of worship since the 14th Century.

Camden Town – this area of London was originally a manor belonging to St Paul’s Cathedral.

Canon’s Park – six acres of land were granted to the Prior of the St Augustinian canons of St Bartholomew’s, Smithfield in 1331 & were recorded as ‘Canons’ during the 16th century.

Grange Hill – the Grange was originally one of the manors that belonged to Tilty Priory, until the dissolution of the monasteries.

Highbury & Islington – during the 13th Century, the Priory of St John of Jerusalem had a manor here, which was destroyed in 1381.

Highgate – at the ‘high gate’, tolls were collected from travellers wishing to use the Bishop of London’s road across Hornsey Park to Finchley.

Hornchurch – ancient records (1222) refer to a ‘horned church’ or monastery.

Hyde Park Corner – from 1066-1536, Hyde Park belonged to Westminster Abbey

King’s Cross St Pancras – St Pancras is named for Old St Pancras church. [Which I finally visited last week and is fascinating. It definitely deserves its title of ‘old’!]

Liverpool Street – a priory stood here from 1246-1676.

Mansion House – the station was built on what had been the site of Holy Trinity the Less.

Parson’s Green – named after the area surrounding Fulham’s parsonage.

Plaistow – is derived from the Old English for ‘playing place’ and was where mystery plays were staged.

Preston Road – derived from the Old English for ‘priest’ and ‘farm’. A priest is mentioned as owning land in the area in the Domesday Book.

Ruislip Manor – the area once held a priory dependent upon the Norman Abbey of Bec.

St Paul’s – named after the cathedral, which was first built in the 7th Century.

Upminster – means ‘the church on high land’.

Walthamstow Central – derived from the Old English for ‘welcome’ and ‘holy place’.

Whitechapel – named after the white stone chapel of St Mary Matfelon, which was first built in 1329.

Tube Angel

You see, sometimes, having a geeky interest in the tube comes in very useful!

Singing the praises of C. Jane

When you blog, it pretty much comes with the territory that you also read blogs. Blogging can’t work in isolation. Sure, it’s not so much about community as Twitter or Facebook are (perhaps it was once upon a time, at least pre Twitter), but writers have and will always be influenced by other writers, particularly those of the same genre as them.

At the start of my particular journey, I was influenced by friends who were also engaged in this peculiar pursuit. Along the way, I discovered bloggers who were friends of friends, and then became fans of total strangers’ work. Of these, the one that I will always check first in my reader is C. Jane Kendrick.

I’ve read Courtney’s writing for years, probably since early 2008, and definitely prior to her sister’s near fatal air-crash later that year. In many ways, I think we’re quite similar – which is probably why I enjoy her work so much. She’s just a few years older than me; has insecurities about the narcissistic nature of blogging, her body shape, her faith and her writing; she writes honestly and movingly about her relationships, her journey through infertility and life as a family of five.

Over the last year, she’s set about writing her life story, which she concluded in the final days of 2012. The last post in the series brought the reader full circle, to the point in her life when her blog began. Even though I was fairly sure I’d read most of her archives, I clicked the link and went right back to the start. Courtney’s archives got me through a slightly rough start to the year, and became a major tool of procrastination during my essay crisis. (Going through a difficult time? Find an excellent blog and read it from start to finish, you’ll be absorbed and will forget all your woes.)

C. JaneThis is one of my favourite photos of Courtney. As it’s the one Hannah used in her post, hopefully she’ll be happy with me using it too!

As I read, I was struck by how much her writing had developed over the years and how her character and faith had been shaped. But I was also shown something of me, which I hadn’t quite expected. I read post by post, which meant that I had to scroll through the comments in order to get to the ‘next post’ link. Every so often, I’d come across a comment I had left. Sometimes it was on a post that I had remembered commenting on, other times I’d totally forgotten and my words were a literal blast from the past – an indication of how I was feeling on that particular day in 2009, or whenever.

Read through some of the comments, and you’ll also witness some of the ridiculousness that a popular blogger has to deal with. Negativity, trolling, downright rudeness – it’s a wonder that anyone puts anything on the internet! According to more than one commentor last summer, a post in which Courtney revealed that she’d gone bra-less for an entire holiday was the final straw and resulted in them abandoning the blog! To be honest, who needs readers who would be offended by such things – I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t last very long around here! Despite – perhaps in spite – of these comments, Courtney continued. Sometimes comments would be turned off, sometimes she leaves them on. Her choice, as it should be.

I know of several other fans in the British blogging circle. In fact, a few weeks ago Hannah Mudge published an interview with Courtney on her own blog. [Confession: I may be slightly jealous of Hannah. She and Courtney tweet each other. Courtney has no idea who I am. I should get over this. On the plus side, I finally get to meet Hannah at a meeting later this week.] That post focused more upon Courtney’s development as a feminist and it’s worth a read, but also highlights the ways in which her readers respond to the issues she raises.

Some might think it’s odd that many Christian Brits are fans, given that Courtney’s a Mormon. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I’ve been genuinely touched by several of her posts about her faith and spirituality. Yes, there are major doctrinal differences between Mormonism and Christianity, but the relationship an individual has with God has the same importance. [Incidentally, in case I’ve offended anyone by differentiating between Mormonism and Christianity, in Britain, it’s not a Christian denomination.] Yes, her posts are often hilarious (try watching one of her regular Friday vlogs), but they’ve also had me in tears – like when she took the incredibly brave step of sharing the story of an abusive relationship she was trapped in. (Despite him sending threatening messages after she’d begun her life story.) God is crucial in those stories, it’s where she got the strength to leave, to say no, to refuse to be treated the way she had been. God is there in her birth stories (the most recent of which – ‘Squishy’ aka Erin’s birth just over a year ago – is one of the most beautiful in the genre you will ever read), and in stories of loss, confusion, or every day life.

As I read post after post, I was inspired. I might be blowing my own trumpet, but I sometimes feel that our writing styles are similar – particularly in our relating of ridiculous every-day happenings. But, for a start, she is a lot more skilled than I. Plus, she is way braver than I am. In her writing is true vulnerability and true honesty about where God is in that.

I think bloggers can learn a lot from that. Is there much point in writing a blog that is just a sanitised window into your life? A version of events that has been edited and passed through a filter? Perhaps there is, if all you want is high stats, regular readers and glowing comments. The reason why Courtney’s comments get so divided is because she says what she thinks and feels, she doesn’t sit on the fence and to try and please everybody. I know that I sometimes refrain from being controversial in my writing because I’m scared of negative comments, but am I just kidding myself? There are things I don’t write about because I’m nervous of revealing parts of my life I keep private. (Although I think it is also helpful to make good decisions when your life and the things you might write about relate to other people who may not want to be featured on your bit of the internet.)

The moral of this post?
If you write, read.
If you’re not going to be put off by a writer who sometimes goes days without wearing a bra, read C. Jane.

The crisis will pass…

On the first day of my second year at vicar school, I had a revelation. Not one of a spiritual nature, but of a decidedly practical variety. My revelation was that, all of a sudden, our workload had ramped up considerably in comparison to the first year.

For much of this year, deadline day requires multiple pieces of work – not the single essays of last year. That first day back in September, I’d submitted two essays written over the summer. (Ok, who I am I trying to kid, both were written the week before term began. In my defence, I do a lot of planning and writing is the very last element in my style of essay writing…) Some people would have three pieces due just before Christmas, though, thanks to the Guide Badge of Vicar School, I had just the one.

To make essay planning more bearable, I like to use as many different coloured pens as possible.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve talked of little else other than the two essays I had to undertake over the festive period. Partly because they were on interesting topics (Israel and the land & the atonement) and partly because it was a flipping nightmare to get them in on time. In the end, it took a near all-nighter on Thursday (till 2am) to get the second one in on time. Now that they’re in, my attention has turned to a 5,000 word exegesis of Galatians, due in under two month’s time and a church presentation (which has to have been completed by the same date). I’m vaguely aware of another essay due post-Easter, and more before the summer term ends. There is no time for a celebratory study day day off this week.

People often ask me about the pros and cons of mixed-mode training (the official name for the style of ordination training I’m doing), and it’s got to be said that these deadlines have illustrated several of the cons…

  • It’s all very well having essays to write during the holidays, but our ‘holidays’ usually coincide with major Christian festivals (Christmas, Easter and of course, the summer season of Christian festivals in tents). This Christmas holiday, I had 3 carol services to prepare for and was preaching on December 23rd. Then there’s family to be with and rest and relaxation to be had.
  • When you work at a church half of your time, you will often have other demands upon your time, which means that you (or at least I) can’t go with the usual student tactic of sitting down and working at something until it’s done. You get a day a week and whatever extra hours you can snatch from the rest of the week.
  • A sermon is effectively an essay (at least at my church, where 20mins plus is the norm), so the fact that I’ve preached three times in the run up to this deadline has added considerably to my word count. Fitting a sermon in within ‘normal’ work hours is also generally an impossibility.
  • Stuff happens. I got sick – even worse, I got sick the week all my church’s clergy were at a conference in California. I was down to preach and no one would have been able to fill in, so I had to get on and do it. I took a day I would otherwise have studied as a sick day, but the next day couldn’t catch up on work because a sermon absolutely had to be written. On Thursday morning, when I awoke knowing I had 3000 words to write on the atonement by bedtime, my day began with the news that a close friend’s mother had died. Dealing with the ramifications of that had to be more of a priority than theological ruminations.

That’s not to say that it doesn’t work. It does – you just have to be organised and sometimes we (ok, I) aren’t so good at that. It requires planning, dedication and a brilliant working knowledge of the different libraries of London.

I am thankful to be working at a church whose clergy are academically inclined and (seemingly) always interested in what I’m reading or writing about, and who understand the occasional need to drop everything and write essays.

It might sound odd, but I’m thankful for the essays themselves. At a traditional vicar school (particularly those based in cities beginning in ‘Ox’ or ending in ‘bridge’), you might be churning out an essay a week – becoming a veritable essay machine. Here, it’s usually two per module (and a module might last two terms) and it’s the main way in which your learning’s assessed. It’s great to get your teeth stuck into a meaty issue and have the time and space to explore it. Plus, the questions themselves don’t allow you to simply dwell in the sometimes dry world of theology. Instead, they bring the theology into the context of ministry. Take last week’s epic atonement essay – it could simply have asked me to compare and contrast the different models of the atonement, but actually asked me to do that in the context of which might work best for the mission of the church. Surely that’s a good thing to think about when you’re training to lead a church?

Essay crises are wonderful in that they are by their very nature not permanent. These things will pass, and I am very grateful for this fact.

I appear to have written a children’s book without knowing

It’s long been an ambition of mine to write a book, though I accepted a long time ago that this hypothetical literary work was unlikely to be a novel, thanks to my massive lack of imagination. The only way I’d manage it is if I made it semi-autobiographical, but let’s face it, my life’s not really been interesting enough to justify 300+ pages of reading.

However, today I discovered the existence of a book that could, quite feasibly, have been written by me. The lovely Miss Bush sent me this photo, presumably taken on a walk through London Town:

The message that accompanied the photo read: “I know you went to Durham, not Yorkshire, but still – is this you?!” I’m imagining that she was struck by the words ‘comedy’, ‘boys’, ‘bonkers mates’ and ‘bearded northerners’ – all things that I’m known to like. [For those wondering at the Durham reference, in September I had an amusing weekend in the city where I learnt all sorts of things about acceptable clothing and amenities in pub toilets. It’s not the only place ‘up north’ that I’ve been too and I did in fact live in Yorkshire briefly…] 
I was initially drawn to the stripy tights (I own two pairs of such hosiery) and then thought I ought to look the book up on Amazon. Here, things got weirder. The main character is called Tallulah – one of my all time favourite names (think Tori Amos song on Boys for Pele, not the character in Bugsy Malone) and, hypothetically, the pseudonym I’d use if ever I was writing an anonymous blog or a semi-autobiographical work of fiction. 
The synopsis of the plot explained that Tallulah was off to Yorkshire to spend a summer at a performing arts camp – even spookier, this book was about a theatrical child, my favourite sub-genre of children’s literature. She’s stuck in some rural ‘idyll’, with bearded men (and women), plus “wildlife of the squirrely-type”. Squirrels? Really? My arch nemeses ever since they attacked me in Regent’s Park while on my foraging expedition in December?? 
The final straw was the synopsis’ final sentence: “…cos it’s the THEATRE dahling, theatre!!”
Erm, if ever there was a person likely to use those actual words, with that emphasis, it would be me. In my world, ‘theatre’ always gets emphasised because of the (apparently ridiculous) way in which I say it. 
All very bizarre. Perhaps I should read Louise Dennison’s Withering Tights (great title, don’t you think?) just to see what other characteristics of my life crop up? In the mean time, it also means all those elements will now need to be excluded from my hypothetical novel…