waiting

Today, staffing the Christmas Market tombola, I watched people wait. 

Young fingers, too excited to unfold the small pink ticket. Old fingers, arthritic, trembling; apologising for taking a long time to reveal the number. Pleasure at a win, however trivial. Mothers and grandmothers and Dads and granddads carefully helping toddlers count out their four goes. And children as happy with the consolation pick of a Quality Street as with a ‘real’ prize. Adults, too – perhaps surprised to be offered something they’d seen the children have. 

The simple pleasure of anticipation as the winning or losing tickets are examined. Those who take one ticket at a time, inspect, then repeat. Those who dive in and take all four at once, with an grin or apology for the accidental fifth as it’s returned to the drum. 

We all wait differently. 

Today was quietly moving. 

Tomorrow, we officially begin waiting. Not for a trivial prize but for the greatest gift of all. 

How blessed am I to begin Advent with today’s experience of noticing fingers. Noticing people; seeing how different we all are as we approach the same game. Because in amongst the tombola and the raffle and the cakes and the bric-a-brac and the chutneys and the crafts and Santa and the brass band and the Brownies… there, right in the middle of the hustle and the busle, I see fingers moving. And through the young fingers and the old fingers and the friends’ fingers and the strangers’ fingers, Jesus reminds me why I am there. 

Sermon for Harvest Festival 2016

My tweet is probably the TL;DR version!

Harvest Festival 25 September 2016 Year C
John 6:25-35 | Deuteronomy 26:1 -11 | Philippians 4:4-9

When originally delivered, this sermon was interspersed with stories from users of the local foodbank. I’ve taken them out, in case anyone was accidentally identified, but left the gist of the reasons. Eat or Heat are our local foodbank.

Today we celebrate our harvest festival.

We give thanks for those who provide the food to sustain us. We are t2016-09-27 08.22.06.jpghinking about those who do not have enough. We are going to hear the stories of people that have used the food bank we support. And we are going to think about why Jesus said he was the bread of life.

But first, let’s hear from P. [benefit withdrawal due to mistake by DWP]

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.”

In many places bread is a staple food.
Can we name different kinds of bread? (White sliced, brown with bits, naan, pitta, flatbread. Bread rolls. Bloomer. Cob)

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” Just before this, he’s performed a miracle.
He’s fed five thousand people.

I am going to read a bit here.

One of Jesus’s disciples, Andrew, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’ Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’… so they sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.

Geoff’s harvest loaf here reminds us very clearly of that miracle of abundance.2016-09-27-08-23-08

Deuteronomy, a book all about laws, tells the people of God what they should do when they reach the land that has been promised to them. After forty years of wandering in the desert, they should celebrate with the first fruits once they are settled. That’s got to be the first harvest festival.
So we have heard about saying thank you to God for the harvest.

And we are reminded of Jesus miraculously feeding people.

And we have abundance.

We have 24hr supermarkets. Internet delivery. Great British Bake Off.

B said [fighting a work capability assessment]

Food is such an important part of life. We have birthday cakes, mince pies, Christmas puddings. If we can afford it, we go out for meals for special celebrations. We invite friends over to share our food. We share in the Eucharist together, meeting Jesus in the bread we eat.
But when we’re skint, money for food can often be the only thing we can vary. Rent, or debt, or fares to work can’t be changed. But what you spend on food can. So good, healthy, nutritious meals become a thing of the past. If you’ve got very basic cooking equipment – or only a kettle – then your options are limited.
A said [low paid work and homelessness]

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.”
Jesus can be the staple on which we build our spiritual lives. The essential, for everyone.
Let’s just think about those five thousand people that were fed. Perhaps compassionate provision went to some ‘wrong’ people. The ones at the back, making jokes about cheesemakers.

Jesus didn’t check whether everyone in the crowd was properly hungry, or deserving of lunch. He didn’t suggest that handing out short term provision would make people dependent on handouts.

He didn’t separate people into ‘them,’ and ‘us.’
He didn’t judge people for not having the foresight to bring extra provisions.
He didn’t assume that because one person had the opportunity to bring lunch, all the crowd should have also have done.

So, as we bring our offerings for the food bank to God, let us ask ourselves what assumptions we might be making.

K said [working for low pay and facing large expenses]

Do we assume it could never happen to us, because we are not like them?
Do we judge people’s choices and circumstances without knowing their story?
Do we listen to accusations of fraud, or the foodbank being a soft touch, and assume everyone is on the make?

Do we live with guilt and shame knowing we can’t make ends meet ourselves?
Do we forget that everyone is a loved, and chosen, child of God?

If we enforce ever harsher restrictions on who can be helped by our social security, we hurt those who are vulnerable even more. It seems to be that at best, benefit sanctions or work capability assessments create a dehumanising regime designed around the assumption that all claims are frauds. And at worst, they destroy lives.

Jesus is the bread of life.

Life is more than just existing, getting by, being treated as less than a person because you haven’t got a job.

A full life – an abundant life – doesn’t require great riches.

It does require understanding that we are a loved and chosen child of God.

And so is that user of the foodbank. Or that person struggling to find a job.

The crowds following Jesus around demanded signs. They wanted proof of who he said he was. What would be the proof of who we say we are? What do we do, that proves we are followers of Jesus?

Filling a carrier bag with tins can create a lifeline for some. And we should give thanks for our ability to do that…and recognise that for some, contributing to a food bank represents sacrificial giving. 150 people have been helped so far this year; and the foodbank needs more resources – food, time, volunteers. When I visited last week, one of the things they’d like to be able to do is offer a cuppa to those using the service. Tea, a chat, a chance to be treated like a human being. Like a loved and chosen child of God.

I want us to support our foodbank, because it is a practical demonstration of Jesus’ love for all people. But. There is a danger that we can be happy to lovingly help people out of a river, but not investigate why they are there in the first place. Who is up-river, pushing people in for us to rescue? We need to be in both places.

We need to ask ourselves the hard questions.

Questions about WHY the foodbank is needed. About WHY rent is so high, and housing so scarce. I want us to know if whether the businesses we give our money to make people work for free. I want us to question the assumptions behind headlines, advertising, the pressure to borrow and to spend. I want to challenge the decisions made by politicians for whom £20 is a cab fare home, not a week’s supermarket shop.

Are we tacitly supporting of benefit sanctions, because we believe the ways newspapers and television present poverty? That people are poor because they’re lazy?

Do we think that refugees are having the time of their lives, on five pounds a day?
Are we the sort that think, “they can’t be that desperate, they have a smartphone?” whilst taking for granted our access to the internet?

So. To finish.

We give thanks today for the food we have available. We give thanks in the Eucharist – that’s what the word means. So as we approach the altar to receive bread and wine, let us be sustained by that bread of life. Let us take strength in that encounter with Jesus, here, this morning, in the abundance of his presence. Let us celebrate our abundance, and the gifts we can make to the foodbank.

And let us question why we permit a society that forgets that all are loved by God and equal in his sight.

Trains. (Quite delayed).

I found this post in an old Evernote folder, written in July 2015. It marked a moment, and it amused me, so I thought I would share it… even if it is over a year late.

It is strange to sit in Ipswich station looking at the train that was the 17:50 from Liverpool Street and to think how familiar I was with that service and its regulars. To see City people in smart suits and dresses and to think of the dress in my wardrobe that hasn’t been worn for nearly two years. Or to recall the bustle and fuss of Liv St, the dashes into Tesco or M&S for dinner or traingin… the quieter platforms after nights out…the busy platforms during delays and the scary evenings of wondering if I will ever get home.

(this isn’t the actual train, but one very like it…)

That was my life, the routine of season tickets Platform 3 for the 0810 platform 10 for the 1750 running along the river or in the Barbican at lunch; city pubs and pizza expresses for drinks and dinner. The frustrations of a late night at work missing out on things at home… being home in the dark – not seeing the first flowers on my window boxes until the weekend – the bliss of a sunny Saturday in a flat I only see in the dark during the week. All the knowledge of trains and train times.

Feels funny now. How can I be too busy to do stuff, when I used to do Stuff and fit in 45 hours of commuting and office time?

I don’t miss that life; for all the stresses of Westcott it feels like it is right for where I am. I think I miss having nicer clothes – perhaps it is time to spend a while checking what I have and what I wear. Shoes, as ever, being the problem.

I feel more disconnected from that than I have done previously. A good thing. It would be hard to always be grieving for what has been left behind. I still do miss the flat sometimes but I don’t wake up at Westcott wondering where I am; my rooms feel like Home; the daylight bulbs have dispelled the gloom. Just seeing the space with afternoon sun has helped change how it feels. St Leonards is a place I will be welcome, but it is no longer the place I long to be for comfort and for familiarity.

Perhaps Westcott has done the job of being that place of transition… growing me from the person in the pews to the potential leader; the painful part of last year was in feeling adrift and friendless in the place – rootless – and now I am preparing to leave there. Last (ish) term of responsibilities. After Christmas it’s head down, write stuff. Plan exit. Focus on the end. I am a leaver not a newcomer. It’s interesting that I’m called that right from the start of the year – it helps, I think, because I really am.

Sunday 4 September: All-age sermon

scourerspongesmall
Image source: http://www.ycf.net/images/products/scourers/scourerspongesmall.jpg

Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25:33

First time preaching at our main Eucharist here at St Edmund’s, and it was an all-age service. Each person was given a pan scrubber as they came in. I set the children (and any interested adults) to building a tower with them in the middle of the aisle. Using pan scrubbers as building blocks is an idea I discovered during our children’s week earlier in the summer. Current record is 42 for a freestanding tower. I digress. Here’s the rest of the talk.

Jesus uses the example of someone building a tower to try to explain that following him is hard. He says that there is a cost to what he asks.

Jesus says we should hate our families and give away all of our possessions.

I don’t think we need to take this literally today. Wouldn’t it be silly to give our house away, and have nowhere to live? Or give all our clothes away and have nothing to wear?

But

How seriously do we take our discipleship?

Jesus is telling us that those who want to be his disciples must make counter cultural changes. Counter cultural means not doing what everyone else does. And sometimes that’s hard.

September is a time of change for many. Our little ones start school or nursery; older children perhaps moving school or starting the year without a best friend. We want to fit in, find friends, and be liked.

In a world where bullies seize on differences, and can make lives truly horrible, seeking to stand out can be hard. That holds true for work as well as school.
Now, if you had given all your clothes away and were going into work or school wearing nothing but a smile, you would definitely stand out.

I wouldn’t recommend it.

But what if you decide to spend a bit less, and are teased for wearing something that’s not the right label? What if you are at school, and you make a choice that goes against your friends? Or you stand up for a colleague at work? Or call out someone being dishonest? Or walk away from malicious gossip at the school gate?

Those times can be hard.

Is taking up your cross being willing to be a doormat and be bullied?

No.

It’s not about being deliberately, openly, proudly making ourselves a victim.

Jesus asks us to think carefully about our priorities. He tells us that following him will be hard. But the cross he asks us to take up can be a cross of comfort, not just pain and difficulty. The cross shows us that God loves us. The cross gives us hope of resurrection and new life. The cross shows us that change is possible even in very difficult times.

Jesus asks us to be prepared to be different from the crowd.

In our epistle, we see a demonstration of exactly what that looks like.

Paul is asking Philemon to be different from the crowd.

Now, let’s be clear that whilst slave owning is something we find abhorrent. Being a slave means a complete loss of individual humanity. But in Paul’s time, it was an accepted part of society.

Yet the story tells us something important about discipleship.

Onesimus was a slave. And he had run away from his owner, Philemon. Philemon was a follower of Jesus, Paul reminds him at the start of the letter how pleased he is with Philemon’s work. Paul is, essentially, buttering Philemon up, because he’s about to ask him something really hard.

In Paul’s time, a slave who ran away could be killed as punishment. Philemon as a slave owner would not want to lose face, to be seen to be lenient with Onesimus. Otherwise where would it all end?

You let one slave go free, you encourage the others to run away.

Philemon would have to be persuaded to be compassionate.
Philemon would have to be persuaded to bear the cost of discipleship.

We don’t know for sure what he did, and whether he was persuaded by Paul’s appeals. There are reports of various Onesimuses in the history of the early church,

But we can see that from the very beginnings, to live as a follower of Jesus has asked people to be different.

You let one slave go free, you encourage the others.

You let one refugee in, you encourage the others.

You start one food bank, you encourage people to shop for free.

You give one person debt counselling, you encourage poor choices.

Those are all objections I have heard to actions that churches have taken. But aren’t they exactly what Paul was asking?

He’s asking Philemon to value the person, not the status.
He’s asking Philemon to think differently about the values he has inherited from his upbringing.
He’s asking Philemon to give Onesimus his humanity back.

Can Philemon think in terms of love and reconciliation instead of rights and punishment? Can Philemon see Onesimus as a person, beloved of God, a brother in Christ – not just as a useless slave?

Let’s remember that in our Gospel reading Jesus asks us to count the cost; to put him first above our family, security and possessions.

Often it’s hard to do the different, Christian thing.

It’s hard to bite our tongue, and back down in an argument.
It’s hard to find more money to support more charities to help more refugees.
It’s hard to be teased for believing something different, or for believing something at all.

But remember, the cross we are asked to bear is a sign of hope in the darkest times.
Was anything worth having ever gained easily? We built fun towers with sponges…but real foundations and real building takes effort.Perhaps you can take a pan scrubber home, and when you’re using it to do a bit of cleaning, remember that God is with us in the ordinary, and have a bit of a pray about what’s on your mind.

We all have a role to play as disciples. We all have different gifts, talents, personalities and ideas. As we all brought our individual scrubbers to be part of a tower, we all bring our own selves to build the community of the church.

Our parents and carers with a vocation to parenthood know well the personal cost and sacrifice of bringing up children, and grandchildren. But we know there is great joy sometimes – making the cost worthwhile.

If we want to nurture a society that is guided by love, compassion, reconciliation and respect, we’re going to have to work at it.

That means that to fulfil our role as disciple, we need to be prepared for it to be bumpy along the way. And we can’t say that we weren’t warned, for Jesus sets out his terms and conditions very clearly.

So let me leave you with some questions.

Jesus asked us to give up everything to follow him. What might we be unwilling to let go of, and why?

Paul asked Philemon to do something that might make him look strange in the eyes of his society. Are we willing to respond to that challenge today?

Are we willing to accept the cost of discipleship?

Safety Collar.

Churches need bouncers, says the Telegraph. Western churches next likely target, says the Mirror. Vicars shouldn’t wear clerical collars in public, says the Mail.

Interesting times.

Headlines in response to Home Office guidance issued after the death of Fr Hamel. Yesterday, I showed the Met Police adviser around church – listening to his recommendations, discussing likely threats.

Sobering times.

We might need to think a little bit more about our “bouncers” (aka sidespeople and churchwardens) and how they keep an eye out for suspicious behaviour, as recommended.

And then: invite those people in. That was the comedy part of the conversation yesterday, as the Met’s idea of keeping out the undesirables met the church’s idea of loving the undesirables. Aren’t we concerned with the troubled, the lonely, the ill? Those who act differently, because their lives are different? If we start filtering people at the door because they’re Not Like Us, we are in real trouble.

One recommendation was for a ‘sanctuary room’. A place to where those targeted – those up front, in clericals (and likely, the Servers, too, as they’re robed) could flee. Whilst, presumably, the rest of the congregations flees outside.

The conversation had shifted from a general chat about security, to recognising that in the Home Office’s eyes, my uniform is a target for hate. I mean, I knew not everyone loved the church…most are ambivalent at best…But the realisation slowly dawned that we were not talking about a general incident, like a fire, where we’d be concerned about getting everyone out. Instead, we were looking at a specific scenario. Someone intent on causing harm to clergy.

I’ve had general safety worries before, about things like parking and security lighting at home. I’ve spent years running alone, constantly wary of those around me, planning routes that are well-lit and dull, instead of interesting footpaths. (Wouldn’t it be nice to not have to be suspicious of everyone?)

Somehow, this was different. This was a shift in thinking I wasn’t really prepared for.

The idea that the uniform I wear, worn in part to remind people that God has a presence everywhere, the collar that I so looked forward to being able to wear: that makes me a different kind of target.

And you know what?

There’s no way I’m taking it off.

 

 

The Graveyard Shift

Would a graveyard in Chingford be your first port of call for a breather from urban life? It’s been done before: as Anne of The Island says, it’s a place where one can get at trees.

2016-08-04 19.21.35On holiday in West Wales, I saw sparrows in ubiquity…a quarrel… in quantities I have not seen for years. I did not realise, until I moved to a house with a practically wildlife-free garden, how much I missed garden birds, their song, and trees! I was spoiled, of course, with Westcott House’s lovely Old Court, but even before that, Batty Towers II looked out onto garden-y areas.

Last week in the graveyard I saw squirrels, gulls, and a large gang of parakeets.2016-08-16 18.59.34 In my garden, I have seen a heron, and been overflown by gulls and crows. I think I saw something bluetit like in a tree two houses away this morning, but that could have been wishful thinking. If I listen really hard early in the morning, I can hear snippets of birdsong over the noise of the A112 & neighbours.

Around me, if I remember to look, I see grass and plants springing up and surviving in unlikely places. I see the cultivated flowerbeds planted along Old Church Street, a defiant antidote to the litter-throwing car-driving population.  2016-08-22 18.40.33A few days ago I saw ducklings and cygnets in part of the ancient forest, at Highams Park lake.

Somehow, I feel sorry for this urban wildlife. I wonder if these birds know the freedom and fresh air of their country cousins. Would their song be sweeter without diesel fumes?  Are the bees I’ve rarely seen exhausted on their search for spaces not filled with neat shrubs, or covered in concrete? It feels wrong that we inflict traffic pollution, noise, litter and interference from unsympathetic humans on our urban wildlife. But, nature is persistent, and tolerant. Plants grow in small, unlikely spaces; birds find food and roosting places.

I’ve put a bird feeder up in my garden. It’s been there a week, and so far has had no visitors. I’m torn between knowing I need to be patient, to give the bird I think I saw next door (and its friends) a chance to find the food, and a sneaking and unpleasant suspicion that I look foolish to my neighbours.

That, however, may just be a metaphor for this life of faith. Sticking with something that needs patience, risking ridicule, waiting to see what happens.

(With thanks to @vivmendham who made me notice birds in the first place)

 

 

The Ministry of Cutting Things Out

The Ministry of Cutting Things out, or: Reflections on Mothering Sunday

IMG_20160306_120828I went to church today. Nothing remarkable about that: I am, after all, a trainee vicar. It’s what I am meant to do. However, I can count on one hand the times recently I have been to a main church service on Mothering Sunday. (Last year I was at St Andrew’s, Alresford – guessing it might be my last non-working Mothering Sunday for a while, I popped in to surprise my mum).

I am one of those people for whom Mothering Sunday services can be dreadful. I won’t rehearse the reasons, that’s not what this post is about.

But. Today was a challenge. Today, I was preaching at an all-age service. Twitter friends will know that I struggled a bit preparing the talk… my supervisor sent me encouraging emails during the week as I was unusually tardy in being able to suggest hymns… but finally, I found a thing that would work. I don’t have access to huge amounts of craft supplies, so this was fairly basic.

I thought I would share the idea.

Who cares for us? was my starting point… and I wanted to make this more about community and everyone who cares. I had been thinking about paper chain people, but in reverse. So I cut out a number of paper people – using this template printed as large as I could get on A4 paper. (In the process I discovered that 7 sheets of A4 is the most I can cut at once). As people came into church they were given a couple of paper people and some pens. Of course most of the kids started colouring straight away, which was an added bonus.

During the talk I asked people to draw themselves (or write a their name) on one of the people, and a bit later, we added one or more people that had cared for us. Then, I stapled them together to make a paper chain – ta-da – community!

We ended up with several metres’ worth due to industrious people production by some of the children. Adults who weren’t so much into colouring in could write names instead.

I was quite pleased how this worked, but already have several ideas that could make this a better idea:
– more than one stapler would have been quicker
– different coloured paper and different sizes of people
– I hadn’t thought through what to do with the paper chain once created, it might have been good to have hung it up or taken it to the altar
– music or singing during the stapling process
– if the people were on card, I could punch holes in their arms to join with ribbon / string – it could be a messy church activity with participants decorating (GLITTER!)

There was an opportunity during prayers for people to light a candle which gave space for the difficult things, and I should have flagged this up during the talk.

On the whole, though, I was happy with this activity. And Mothering Sunday was all right, after all.

A bit of news.

I’m really pleased to be able to say, God willing, that I will serve my title post (translation= continue my training at) St Edmunds Chingford with Revd Lesley Goldsmith. Ordinations are on 25 June. I will be in Chingford for about three years. Please pray for the parish, for me, and for all those who are in the process of finding their first posts at the moment.

I know there will be a few people reading this who usually get their next job by more traditional means… so by way of explanation…

The process by which an ordinand (what I currently am) is matched with a training parish is a bit like a blind date – the Diocese look at your details, and the places they have identified as training posts, find a likely match and send you off to meet the incumbent (=current vicar and person who will be mostly responsible for your training). There’s a bit more information here and a whole bunch of questions about what being a deacon or a priest or a vicar or what ‘being ordained’ means here.

We’ve had lots of help from Westcott House in terms of identifying the ‘first date’ questions, possible things to think about, and what might be ‘warning signs’ that it’s not a good match. The piece of advice though, that most people gave, was that the actual context (rural vs urban, modern vs old church, etc) was far, far less important than whether you can get on with the incumbent. My first date (back in June!) was a very encouraging experience, I went back in August after I’d finished the Manchester placement just to check as I was pretty sure in June I wanted to train with Lesley.

In the first instance, I am ordained deacon – and for the best job description of what that is, here are the words from the ordination service:

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.

So what next? For now, I’m just getting on with it. Like last year, I have a busy round of lectures, supervisions, essays to write; fun to have; plus Sundays in the Lordsbridge team ministry (Harlton, Barton, Coton and Haslingfield). I’m helping to organise the ‘tat fairs’ when we final year students will choose and buy our clerical uniforms (Liz writes about the emotional and sartorial trauma of that one…

General end of term news.

It’s a long time since my last blog post. Sorry about that. Life just seems to get in the way. I’m writing this one racing a 10pm deadline as it is…

So, my first year is over. I have laughed, cried, prayed, sung, bicycled, read, studied, examinated, sneezed, slept, rejoiced and despaired, drunk gin, fed a tortoise, served, preached, been exasperated, argued, won an election, lost two others, welcomed, remembered, played with kids, half marathoned and acolyted and now I am two days in to my long summer placement in Manchester. No wonder I am tired…

Exam results were good, and I was pleased. Overall I got a 2.1; with two papers graded as firsts. Including, and you’ll have to excuse me for being excited about this four days after results were released, 75% in Greek. I am truly astounded and rather pleased at that. And just to clarify, no, I have no intention of continuing… I’m happy with what I know.

I did get really rather stressed during the exams (embarrassingly so, with hindsight) but I am quietly confident that next year I will be more prepared, in that I won’t be doing everything for the first time. Not a fan of the unknown unknowns, myself.

Here in Manchester I am contending mostly with the known unknowns. What is the area really like? How do I go about understanding this inner-city place? Who are the important people? What is the church community like? Where is God in this? Will it ever stop raining? (that latter might be a known known, to be fair).

I’m going to be preaching and praying, of course…and singing – but also deaconing (doing stuff for the priest at the Eucharist), putting together my first all-age talk; going into a school, plus other bits and pieces. It all sounds really exciting and I am looking forward to meeting the challenges. Reflecting too, how easily I seem to be able to embrace new ideas and things – I have lost a lot of fear of making mistakes, which is a good thing.

Manchester also allows enough of a shift of the pace to find time for some decent running – I really missed this last year. I have to commit to getting fit and finding time to go. I have been very much out of the habit, and I can tell. Not just because my clothes don’t fit, but because I have less energy overall. I miss that endorphin rush! Hence the 10pm deadline. I want to be able to get to bed in time to get up and run before the day really starts tomorrow.

In which I have an Opinion about theological education.

This week I have mostly been writing assessed essays, which of course means I’ve spent time catching up with Twitter friends, and giving the window a thorough looking out of.

One conversation revolved around the point and purpose of the academic theology I’m studying. I horrified a student here when I shared with him that I do not really mind the class of degree I obtain. Let’s face it, I already have three, including a doctorate, so I don’t need to prove I am an academic. For me, the theology I’m working on this year is about understanding the broad ideas, becoming familiar with the language and learning how to use it myself. It’s like a map. I want to understand the landscape at a relatively detailed scale. I’m learning a new set of symbols and a new terrain. So, when I draw a sketch map for someone else, I know what I am leaving out that is irrelevant for their journey. I’m not selling someone short or dumbing down – I’m just giving a relevant set of directions across a complicated landscape. This is, I believe, the idea that Alister McGrath is suggesting in his Church Times piece this week.

I understand for myself, and then I can pass that understanding on. I cannot draw an accurate map for someone else if I do not understand the landscape we’re on. I want to continue to learn – and I suspect I will want to take another Master’s at some point. But, I don’t see the need to retain the entire map in my head at all times. If I need to check a detail, I will. That’s why I have bookshelves, after all. The map is not the only thing I need. I also need the compass, walking boots, fitness, and ability to weather whatever weather appears. And so as long as I am confident I have got the idea, I’m not going to put all my energies into essay writing in order to raise my grades to the exclusion of other activities. I know, shocking. I might actually want to attend the practical theology or practical vicaring sessions which some seem to see as an optional nuisance. “But the theology is important, Sara,” they say, with shocked faces, as I look forward to a session on poetry, or an intensive course on art & worship. I want to feel this is an integrated path I follow. So I want to learn how to walk, or run, or hop and skip the paths we have set out before us, not just to concentrate on the map. I hope the analogy holds up.

I was asked by a college chaplain last term which theologians we discussed at Westcott. He said he worried for the future of the theological education in the Federation when I answered that I don’t spend my social time talking about academic theology. I also said that I was insulted by his insinuation that I wasn’t committed to learning. He was expecting me to be poring over the latest Landranger, whereas I was interested, in space outside my lectures, in other aspects. I’m not slacking or skiving off – I have 100% attendance at lectures and supervisions  so far, and I enjoy the academic work.

The formation criteria are varied, and many. The focus seems to be on applying the theology and history I am learning. They do not exclusively at any point suggest that academic achievement is, in itself, a criterion. It is easy to believe, particularly in this Cambridge-focused place, that academic achievement is the only thing that is prized. Yet the non-academic things will be teaching me as much – working with different age groups; with the vulnerable; the military (just back from a hugely challenging week on an RAF base) or the students in my attachment. If I’m thinking about ‘sustaining relationships,’ then going for a coffee and a chat instead of an extra hour of writing to again an extra 5%  is by far the better choice, as far as I can see. I recognise that study of theology can be a spiritual discipline and not always a deadline-driven chore…

I am immensely privileged being here. I will receive some of the best quality teaching possible, in a place dedicated to intellectual pursuit. They have an awesome map collection, if that isn’t stretching the analogy too far. In term time weekdays my meals are cooked for me and I have few domestic responsibilities. I am not juggling assignments and a family. I know how to read & take notes and how to structure an essay. I do find myself with ‘essay title envy’ as my colleagues following the Common Awards programme have assignments which make clear the need to reflect on the way their knowledge will impact their ministry, but equally, I feel my approach is the right one for me and for my formation.

I have been reading the correspondence in the Church Times with interest. The argument about the quality of theology taught is highly relevant. I don’t want my teaching dumbed-down. But I do want the leaders to understand that the academic pressure can be immense, and distracting. I choose to reject the peer pressure to aim only for high marks, because I believe I have an incredible opportunity here to learn in all sorts of places. Inhabiting the role of ‘trainee vicar’ (explorer) rather than ‘theology student’ (map reader) makes me see the world in a different way. I have felt ‘academically dishonest’ as the time I have available allows me only to dip into extracts or skim the book chapters I need. After sitting with my PhD topic for five years, writing two or three supervision essays in quick succession feels superficial. I am almost looking forward to revision as a time to re-interrogate some of that fast thinking and writing. I want my theology to inform my ministry – not for the academic study to push everything to the sidelines, and for the integration to be an afterthought. I never want to feel that the corporate daily offices are a ‘waste’ of time that could be spent in the library. It seems to me that that is the ultimate distortion of perspective that time spent praying with the community is sacrificed to individual academic achievement.

I wonder, too, what the effect of the emphasis on academic study is on the gender balance of full-time ordinands. At the risk of speaking in clichés, and huge over-generalisations, I wonder if the idea of a pathway with an intense workload puts people off. I’m not for one second suggesting a part-time course has a lesser academic standard. But as I am interested in seeking explanations as to why there are so few women in residential training, in a longer blog post I might perhaps have been able to explore the effect of a male academy on women’s understanding of training options.

However, as it is, this post is 33% of the number of words I needed to write for one of my assessed essays, and it’s taken a lot of thinking time today. So I have no more time to consider any of the gender- or age-related issues around this nor the RME report on which I have Opinions. But, I’m a third of the way through my two years here, and I wanted to think out loud about the debate. None of the foregoing should be taken as any criticism of the Federation, or my current lecturers (they’re all pretty awesome) and I don’t suppose any of this is new to anyone with more than my 6 months experience of residential training. But I think the Church Times piece is right to ask what exactly are the reasons I’m learning this stuff.