This is the shout that the whole congregation make during a Methodist Ordination service.
I’m going to one today; I haven’t been to one, apart from my own in 2001, since 2003 when one was held at the church where I was minister.
They said that when you hear the shout it lifts you up; gives you a view of the mountains that can sustain you through the valleys. I guess that I felt that back in 2001 and that sense of being ‘worthy’, even when I have doubted my own capacity has never entirely left me and despite not being in the place I imagined I would be 18 years ago.
I never expected to have any major contact with the ‘mothership’ (Methodist hierarchy) after leaving church ministry in the Methodist Church back in February 2015, so assisting at the ordination of someone who used to be in the congregation of a church of which I used to be a minister is surprising. It is also rather lovely.
Someone asked me what I feel ‘going back’. 4 things:-
- I had a definite sense of call to go into Methodist Church ministry; 3 and a half years out of church ministry, I feel no sense or desire to go back, but it is good to be open to questioning of any firmly held opinion. ‘Going back’ enables that to happen, I guess.
- Conversely, it is more likely to confirm the (uncertain) direction that I’ve been heading. I used to think that the Christian life was a secure castle; now I think it is more like a coracle on a shifting sea. I have no idea where or what I will be doing in the long term, but that feels right.
- A chance to see what the mainstream church is and how it resources what I do and to reflect on the scars that have healed, but still sometimes ache.
- Maybe it is a reminder to me that what I did in churches did touch people in some way & to give thanks for that, but remembering what John Wesley said: ‘If thou art constrained to bless the instrument, then give God the glory’.
So when I hear that shout, I wonder how I’ll feel?
I guess still ‘worthy’, but in a very different way to how I imagined back in 2001.
One of my funeral songs is ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’. It reflects what I’ve found to be true; everything is temporary- to be enjoyed while it is here, but with no expectation that it will be here all the time or that it is mine by ‘right’ forever.
All that I’ve written in the last few weeks about this wilderness is not meant to be fixed or final. I do not think I’ve ‘arrived’ or (pet hate, this) ‘moved on’ or found enlightenment; I could be wrong.
I’ve come to realise that there is no ‘arrival’; over three years ago I thought that a couple of years in I would have found a place of stability. I haven’t found that place; or maybe the fluidity of life, thoughts and being is actually what the future will be like.
Maybe I won’t have that paid off mortgage (unlikely: we own nothing), country cottage and disposable income…ever. Maybe I won’t have a stable role in any church or community. Maybe I’ll just learn that being a stranger and refugee is how it was always meant to be.
I could conclude this with the obvious ‘I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’, but I want to go for the less obvious and far more nuanced ‘The First time’.
I used to somewhat pass over stories and individual lives. Not entirely, but there was always something else to do- something that was more ‘pressing’ & sometimes the focus was on getting people to do things rather than listen to who they are.
I guess that we need planners, people with big ideas and strategy for churches. Sometimes it seemed to me that the people who talk of them did do so whilst ignoring the stories of others, viewing people as ‘blocks’ to ‘the project’or at least those stories of those who didn’t fit and can’t be healed or fixed. Perhaps that is too harsh, but having sat through meetings (true of any organisation) where big things are discussed, individual lives can be forgotten.
I wanted to have those big ideas, but I wasn’t very good at them or at least very energised by them. I wanted to hear the stories of those who would take a time to tell them. I think I began to move more in that direction in the latter years of full time ministry and people allowed me to do so.
I could not see that being a feature if I moved anywhere else. All I was seeing was meetings, meetings and more meetings to deal with the reality of a declining denomination and the increasingly onerous demands of charity law.
Now I get to hear stories; lots and lots of stories. Except this time I feel no pressure to mould them to a predetermined narrative: I ‘just’ have to hear them. Many of those stories have not been told; people have never really trusted anyone with them. When it happens, it is unutterably precious; the glory of a single human soul.
That’s why I have this song; pretty much my story over the last few years- I had an idea/a calling/a feeling/a direction of travel and it seemed that I would have to lose that and ‘grow up’….. and now I don’t; I’ve got it back.
I have seen others taking this route (Chaplaincy) losing their respect for/belief in scripture. I understand that; being able to step back from being a community’s spokesperson/shaman/preacher allows a bit of honesty; you don’t ‘need’ to believe on behalf of others any more.
I think I was just lucky; I always found scripture fascinating; even the bits that seemed to make no sense, obviously contradicted or seemed extraneous and best left on the cutting room floor. In that respect, its messy unpredictability seemed more true to life than anything else. Calls to ‘systematic’ theology, the ‘plain truth’ of scripture or readings that disregarded the untidy story in favour of hermetically sealed truth never did it for me, so I hadn’t got that to lose or be ‘converted’ from. The Bible seemed full colour even if evangelical theology at its worst excesses made it seem like an angry, pale man in a 3 piece suit.
The Psalms do it all the time for me and increasingly so. The mix of joy, lament, vengeance, praise, belief, disbelief, humble acceptance, anger and so many many more themes often fill me with a sense of everlasting life. Mornings when I pause, as my NHS computer tries to load up, and I try to keep stillness and prayer and a Psalm can be times when the veil between heaven and earth seem very thin. There is no silence of an empty church, but rather the whirring of a fan over an ageing hard drive and the chatter of people passing wherever I’ve managed to hot desk that day.
Sometimes the stories of an ancient people and an inspired, sometimes dissonant library seem more real in the ‘real world’ that I inhabit.
There was a time that if you offered me a prayer meeting or a special service, I’d be there. In hindsight, I grew immensely through the experience of doing so and being there. If you offered me one now, I’d most likely not go and I’d be thinking about how time is precious and I would not want to ‘waste’ it (working 9-5 ‘ish’ , juggling teenagers and getting older does that to you).
Yet if you offered me connection; real connection with people, I’d be more willing to make the effort than I ever was.
As soon as it percolates into you that your time is really your own, it is a heady feeling. There is no external or internal voice telling you that you ‘should’ go to something when you’ve already been out 3 or 4 nights that week. You come to realise that you were gradually allowing yourself to be drained by ‘shoulds’; your internal voice has gradually begun to change and be more affirming. After a while you end up positively choosing – as opposed to being a rebellious teenager-what you want to do.
Years ago this would sound very, very selfish. But you also get twinges of guilt about the times you laid false obligation on tired people to do the same. You know you preached a gospel that talked about engagement with the world where you lived, but you also felt responsible for running an Institution.
You ask yourself; ‘Is this a sustainable way for a church to function?’ In your current form of engaging with the institution, no. Do I feel guilty about that? No; not anymore- I can only do so much with the time, energy and inclination that I have. If there is a call to be more ‘busy’ or active, it will come…but it hasn’t yet.
Maybe, you realise; you are still coming to terms with ‘Institutional church PTSD’ and the things that you believe that you experienced will never lead to the old ways coming back.
And maybe that will be ok.
Much as I do not like labels, some part of being ‘Methodist’ helps me. I like the emphasis on community, informality and the strong emphasis of a practical outworking in what you believe. I like that as a minister you are not considered to be of a separate order to others. I like Wesley hymns. I like….so much, really. However, I also recognise that I cherry pick what I like.
Someone once told me that the church can be like the little girl with the little curl: when she is good, she is very, very good and when she is bad she is horrid. I’ve experienced much of that undeserved, gracious good and the kindness and generosity of ordinary people has been wonderful. Unfortunately in one or two significant incidents I’ve experienced the reverse where I’ve felt significantly threatened.
As a result, whilst I still remain in faithful communion with my denomination and ‘fulfil all righteousness’ to do so, I have a critical distance between myself and the formal structures of my church; in 3 years I have felt unable to attend anything more than one evening meeting and (by choice) have no formal role in that organisation. One of the experiences of this journey is that I’ve found others who feel themselves in a similar position and have experienced affirmation: you are not alone, unusual and your experience is not an isolated one: it is ok. Indeed, reviewing a book on NHS whistle-blowing for a professional journal, I found the feelings of transference overwhelming: the sense of any hurt or difficulty you feel in saying ‘this is wrong’ being made very much your own personal problem.
At the same time I feel profoundly grateful to those who against the odds, keep the flame of my denomination flickering. However I do not (yet? Or forever? Or somewhere in between?) feel able to rejoin them in that sense.
But that is ok: sometimes the road to forgiveness does not mean that the relationship will ever be restored in the same way.
Three years or so ago someone said to me something like ‘When you get this job; they won’t want you living in this parish- you’ll have to move’. I remember saying something like ‘ ‘they’ have no power over me’ like that’. I can still recall the delicious feeling of freedom that I felt.
‘They’ have no power over me.
Even saying that phrase now, I feel the same sense of freedom. I travelled for years under a false sense of obligation. I’m part of a closed Facebook group for ministers of my denomination; often I can sense that unhealthy feeling of over obligation; mostly it is self perpetuated, but with ‘they’ controlling your accommodation and in some ways your life it is a living reality. In hindsight, it was a reality that was slowly draaining the life out of me.
I’ve realised that part of my make up is to resist; if ‘everyone’ seems to be doing something; I’ll often desire to do the opposite. That wasn’t the reason why we chose to stay in this village that we’d lived in for over 10 years- no one could be that petty- but sometimes it comes back to me; I’ve done something that ‘they’ wouldn’t like.
I guess we stayed in this place because of ‘community’: that feeling that you get where-as the theme to ‘Cheers’ goes- everyone knows your name. If not ‘everyone’, many people. The unforced and random conversations that result in pubs, shops, churches and on the street are lovely: you don’t have to be always working to establish yourself. The impact on my mental health of not changing everything all at once and keeping many of the same friends and community activities has been incalculable; it has given me the basis to make new friends and try new things.
Friends who are ministers have often asked how that is possible: to live in an area where you were a minister. If you have friends outside the Christian bubble (which many full time, paid, church people seem to struggle to do), it is natural and easy: or at least I have found it to be the case. Some of the same ministers have also wondered if church people can ‘cope’ with that. I think that betrays an unhealthy view of people who attend churches to be almost like children who cannot cope without a change in role of the ‘adult’ minister. I’ve found what I already knew: that view is manifest nonsense, people are ‘adult’ enough.
…oh and perhaps ‘they’ never thought that possible: it is.
Even souvenirs that I had held on to for years.
I got rid of a lot. At first I went through things slowly, carefully filtering what to keep and what not to keep.
And then we moved. At first the pile of boxes slowly diminished and then when all of the unpacking was done, there was still more to do. Eventually, some of what was unpacked was repacked for the tip/recycling/charity shops. What began as a slow stream became a raging torrent.
Contemplating that months before gave me some anxiety: how can I get rid of that? Where am I going to put that? How can I live without that?
But when you are in the middle of a change it gets easier.
It is challenging though: I have become wary of very wealthy people in big houses and secure finances talking about how we don’t need possessions to define us, who at the same time seem unwilling to part with what they have. My educated middle-classness was (and still is) defined by what I have accumulated and held on to. At 49, as I was then, you have a tacit expectation of stability, security and mortgages paid off and you become defined by what you have. Getting rid of large amounts of that and having little financial stability threatens all of that: Who am I? What will I be? Why am I somehow ‘different’ than my peers?
At times the process went:
I can’t move.
This is too hard.
And then, slowly and fleetingly, yet the frail flame of faith is always guttering and threatening to be blown out:
I can move.
We can do this.
We are doing this.
The financial stability, 3 years down the line, has not yet come, but the feeling of release and freedom has; I haven’t missed much of what I’ve let go. And with that freedom, comes openness: what shall I be? Where will we go next?
It is always hard and yet easier to get rid of what can can never hold on to for ever: I don’t think that you find Grace without it…
Someone said to me that what I would experience when I ‘left’ the church, or at least when I left the direct pay of the church, would be the sensation of that denomination disappearing from me like something seen through a rear view mirror.
I understood what they were saying- sort of- yet it is hard to imagine what change will look like until you experience it. All that you really know is what you are currently experiencing. I think it became more apparent when I went to a conference a few months after beginning my new role; one other chaplain referred wryly to the experience of connecting briefly with his denomination as ‘connecting with the Mothership’
To all intents and purposes the formal structures of my denomination have dropped out of the ether; I have only attended one evening meeting in 3 years and I reckon I have made around half of the various synods (all day meetings) that I am supposed to attend. One I forgot about: so far has my world changed.
Suddenly you begin to realise that you are not ‘compelled’ to be at things you often struggled with: you have choice. Initially this is both bewildering and liberating. As time goes on, the heady feel of liberation goes stronger: the delicious feeling of ‘the hardening of the oughteries’ gets stronger.
Whilst your admiration for those who remain ‘inside’ begins to increase, you lose the guilt and realise this uncertain path that you are on is your ‘new normal’. There won’t be a fixed point or destination any more.
Over time, you experience a craving for this thing called ‘church’: you can’t exist without it. Yet over 3 years in, you have no real desire to engage with its formal structure ; at some time you may engage more closely with the place that birthed you, although perhaps you never will.
But you feel ok with the liminality…
There is a line from Dark Side of the Moon’ that goes: ‘Then one day you find, 10 years have got behind you’.
I’ve just realised that it is around 3 years this week since I had my leaving service from being a Methodist minister in a regular church appointment. My local friends tell me I am ‘defrocked’; I’m still very much ‘frocked’ (although mostly in pantomime).
I don’t know what I imagined on that day: we still had nowhere to live (that is a long and painful story & one reason why I still don’t preach regularly), I had no model of what the future looked like, it was nearly 20 years since I last had a contract of employment and I had no live model of what spirituality looked like outside of being a rev within a church.
3 years later and I’m still standing: sometimes that has been ‘just standing’ and sometimes it has been ‘thriving’. Mostly it has been somewhere in the middle; often a mix during the same day.
In the next few days, I’m going to do a bit of thinking out loud about what these 3 years have meant. Once thing I have learned, however, is that change, huge change is possible and I never thought it would be for me. Most of us spend a huge amount of time, energy and money trying to fight it off and ultimately we can’t. At best, it makes you feel more ‘alive’: the highs are higher and the lows are lower than you’ve ever felt.
Nothing is sacred. Perhaps because of that; everything is sacred- even the bits that you’d prefer to skip.