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.

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.

Invisible barriers

I wrote a separate post about the idea of intentionally letting go. Currently, I am at a conference. I am not a delegate, as I have been in the past, but an exhibitor (a job I have also done in the past in a different context). This is remarkably odd for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, people that don’t know me, are wary of talking to me as I am by virtue of my different badge colour, an alien species. No matter that this time last year I was a practitioner, or that this time two years ago I was a speaker. Blue badge = sales pitch = avoid, even avoiding eye contact. (People who do know me are nice, and a couple of people I talk to on Twitter have come to say hello. But, no-one’s responding here to my tweets).

Secondly, it’s odd being at something but not part of it. Following tweets about sessions I’m not in – but would, had life been different, been interested in feels oddly remote.

Thirdly, I am actively hating having to lie to people! There are some who are interested in the fact I’m now working for a vendor, and they’re asking me why I moved, how I find it, what I am going to do next. I cannot give an honest answer to any of those questions this week. I was knackered yesterday from the sheer stress of trying to remember what the cover story is. Truthfulness is so much easier. I was pondering resigning even earlier, but I cannot risk losing another week’s pay.

Finally – it’s strange to be back in this world in any capacity because I know it is only for a short period of time (ten weeks yesterday). In a way, then, this conference acts as a point of letting go. Of being able to see people that have helped teach me the trade I am leaving and mentally say goodbye to them. To be thankful for the community for which I have worked in various volunteer capacities and which will go on supporting new entrants in future years. There was stealth prayer in the venue yesterday.

There is also a learning point here. The blue badge is a divide. I am in the same venue as the community of which I have been part, but by taking a different job, I am now not one of them. Eye contact is to be avoided. My cheery hellos go unheeded. People are surprised to see me in this capacity, and not as a delegate. So there are invisible barriers, changes in behaviour towards me (and my lovely, longsuffering colleague). I suspect there’s a parallel here. For if I am collared up in a couple of years, as much as that may gain me entry to places I’d never go otherwise, it also acts as a barrier, a suggestion that I am not a normal person with all my normal foibles.

So, there will be friends made in this life who will come with me to the next version – who will send me emergency gin, listen to me swear, or rant about life in college (actually that might not be an OR connector there). But there will be others who won’t be able to see past the change in circumstances, who see the religious nature of my life to come as a barrier. And I think I understand a bit more about that particular shift than I did 24 hours ago.