Wednesday, September 21, 2005

A long story

Maggi was blogging about her Greenbelt seminars, and the success of the second, in which she abandoned script in favour of story-telling…Having been there, I can aver that it was a fascinating session, which sparked off good questions and discussion…and it made me wonder. I’m working this out on the hoof, so please be patient as I take you round the houses. I promise I’m making you wade through part of a rather dreary sermon for a reason, truly…so either skip the whole post, or stick with it, if you can bear to.

So, - on Sunday I preached a thoroughly uninspired sermon (yes, honestly Mary, it was) on Ezekiel 34. I was hoping to explore some of thoughts about what made an authentic shepherd, in the light of the prophet’s indictment of those shepherds of Israel who had sold out to the occupying armies at the expense of their people. Since the Ezekiel passage is full of echoes of the ordinal, which continues to reverberate around my head at quiet moments, it struck me that this had something to say to a church that has been comfortably at the centre of national life with no visible effect for generations. The close alliance of the church and the State in this country seemed to have, paradoxically, rendered the Church powerless. It was right there with the leaders of Israel, living in comfort but neglecting the task of transformation. I was too stressed and short of time to think it through properly* but there were ideas floating around about what the decision of the Nigerian church to "redefine" the Anglican Communion meant in terms of different views of shepherding. The primary call to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, seek the lost is always right at the forefront of my thoughts on ministry, and I reflected that the Nigerian bishops undoubtedly believe that they are doing just this, and would say that my own attitude to homosexuality was an example of the church selling out to the popular culture (back to those shepherds of Israel once again). There might have been some good stuff in there, but overall I hadn’t managed to work out where I was really going, and I’m sorry to say that it showed. But one part of the sermon was OK. This was where I mentioned the experiences of a gay priest whom I had known some years ago…For a few sentences I told his story. And my words came alive. Briefly, the sermon flew.

The following morning, I took Assembly in a rather posh RC prep school, which has only recently allowed Anglican clergy over its threshold. I was anxious not to let the side down, but pitifully short of preparation time, so in the end I decided to simply tell the story of David and Goliath, -.which I thought could lead into a discussion of the problems of being very small beings (I was with the Infants, aged 4 to 7) in the big new world of school. We had the time of our lives hissing Goliath, hiding behind our hands in the hope that he would go away, helping David count his stones . .I guess I’m quite good at telling stories,- certainly everyone, including the teachers, seemed to be thoroughly engrossed, and we were all quite surprised to find ourselves still in the hall at St X’s when all was over. There was no doubt that I’d connected with those children, just as I knew that I’d failed to reach the congregation the night before. And I wondered what it is about certain situations, or congregations that seems to disable my story-telling abilities, or prevent me from trusting the stories to speak at all.

The pulpit at St M’s somehow makes the story medium almost unusable, even when the material to be shared would be far better expressed in this way ,- but why? Perhaps because, though story-telling may sometimes be formulaic, it is always more authentic, leaving the teller exposed without recourse to another authority. A story stands or falls on its own merits, and on the way that it connects, or doesn’t, with the experience of the hearers… If I tell a story, it and I are out there on a limb together. There is no chance of moving beyond, to draw in an alternative scheme of reference…No way to tell it again another way in case my hearers haven’t “got it” the first time. You only get one go at it.
Hang on, I’m beginning to sound like a passage from a funeral address. We live our lives in terms of story not essay…Stories take us from the cerebral to the visceral. They catch us unawares and push open doors we barely knew existed. I know that most of my current congregation is very very wary of finding itself in any such place. The sad lady on Sunday was above all embarrassed that others might have witnessed her distress…Church is not, apparently, the place to bring your emotions, your honest, vulnerable self. It is a place for order, decorum, somewhere where life’s issues can be tamed and anaesthetised,- but stories creep in under the wire and reveal things we’d prefer not to own.
I hope I don’t need to say that I operate rather differently…but the St M’s factor does tend to exert a powerful, if unrecognised influence. Perhaps it is this that is limiting my story telling there...I'm not keen to collude, so will think hard before allowing myself to be constrained by a didactic style next time I'm preaching.

*Note to concerned readers: yes, last Sunday was exceptionally busy, though we do always have 3 services, and no, I'm not responsible for leading/preaching at all of them, so please don't be too anxious on my behalf. I really wasn't trying to compare hard luck stories in my last post!


Caroline said...

From your literary study days Kathryn you will know all about academic studies on narrative.

But there has also been considerable use of narrative/storytelling in the social sciences both as a research method and as a method of knowing more generally. Oodles of references if you want to add to your already crowded desk :-)

Perhaps the most exciting work for me has been done in the area of therapy. I have used ideas from Narrative Therapy in my own work on learning (I can even send you a couple of papers, but then you might need therapy after reading them!:-)

More than anything, story telling is powerful because we can re-tell stories, we can re-imagine alternative endings and so create those alternative endings.

Caroline TOO

Lorna said...

one of the nicest things ever said about me was by our former bishop Hans (now bishop of Russia) who said - Lorna really can tell a story.

He spoilt it a tad by adding - I wish she could learn to do it in Swedish :)

but I learnt that day that for me to preach I need to be able to move away from the paper at times and use the narrative form. What's more it was more than possible it was good to do so.

Sometimes I re-tell the Scripture story - or then tell a story to explain the scripture. And if I can tell the story as if I am the first person narrator (even if its not my own story) I do so, because it really helps the listener to put themselves in 'my' shoes.

Once I read a story from a blog. (with permission) I knew it almost by heart and afterwards people said that God had spoken to them through it.

But I would like to be more creative in how I preach, free-er and yeah I know there will be days I bomb, and so be it.

Someone once told me "the congregation get the preaching they've prayed for!" - if it goes badly they can pray harder. :) It helped me a lot because preaching IS harder than teaching. People really listen. At times in our noisy church you can hear the silence. It used to unnerve me to be be honest.

so thanks Kat for the great post. The admission that your sermon wasn't great was brave and honest. Well done in the RC school :) bet they ask you back *SOON*


Purechristianithink said...

I've come to believe that if you are going to survive as a pastor, you have to have a narrative imagination. If you think you are arriving to do Some Great Thing, you will crash and burn. If you are able to see that you are entering the story of a particular people in a particular place, you just MIGHT perceive where God is at work in that place and figure out how you can be part of that.

Sophia said...


If you are interested in reading something long and boring that will make you sleepy, please see my answer to your questions over on my blog.

Also, please pray for my fellow Americans (including my aunt, uncle, and cousins) in Texas. This latest hurricane is very very bad. Texans already opened their arms wide to take in so many from Katrina and now they find themselves fleeing along with those they have been helping. It makes me so sad.

cheesehead said...

The first half of my sermon last Sunday was a story I told about myself, my sister, and my grandmother (I was not the heroine of the story!).

Someone who has never said "Boo" to me after I preach told me that it was the most fresh, concise thing she had ever heard me do.

All things being relative, I think sometimes a story is the best way to approach a text.