Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Naming the challenge

On Sunday, the feast of Pentecost, we celebrated in both hill and vale with the full seasonal provision that "Times and Seasons" allows. Inevitably, this had a quite different "feel" in each church - probably at least in part because I presided in the valley, which gives you a particular set of priorities during worship. 
There, I stood at the head of the nave and looked down at the congregation, lit on a particularly damp and dark June morning by the light we had shared from the Paschal flame - and was struck above all by the courage of that group of people, none of whom have the easiest of lives...
The commissioning rite that Common Worship includes as a concrete reminder of what "being the Church" actually means, minces no words at all....


As part of God’s Church here in N, I call upon you to live out what you proclaim.
Empowered by the Holy Spirit, will you dare to walk into God’s future,
trusting him to be your guide?
By the Spirit’s power, we will.
Will you dare to embrace each other and grow together in love?
We will.
Will you dare to share your riches in common and minister to each other in need?
We will.
Will you dare to pray for each other until your hearts beat with the longings of God?
We will.
Will you dare to carry the light of Christ into the world’s dark places?
We will.

Those are big words, aren't they....a huge weight of commitment.
It was one thing to ask a congregation if they would live out what they proclaimed. That felt splendid - an affirmation of our common purpose, to be celebrated triumphantly.
Being asked to voice those same proclamations myself not once but twice -both up the hill and in a packed Cathedral, full to welcome our new Dean - was quite quite different.
There, perhaps, we were all carried along by the occasion, by being part of a huge congregation bouyed up by splendid music (Locus Iste, Howells Gloucester Mag. AND If ye love me, all in one service is pretty celestial in my book), and all the high liturgical drama of the day. 
But up the hill, as part of a congregation 2 dozen strong, I felt the weight of every word and all but stumbled.
It was OK to be asked the huge, broad-spectrum questions about walking with God, growing in love, sharing the Christ-light in dark places...While I know that I fail in these every day, I know too that they are intrinsic to the faith that I profess, and actually I do try - and I know that God knows this.
But these are also pledges with soft edges, addressing areas where "success" and "failure" are hard to define.
But what about sharing my riches in common with those in need?
Was I, or anyone else in either congregation, actually up for that?
My voice faltered. 
Giving? - yes - but always with the rider in my head "When I can..." and with the right reserved to determine just what those words mean...
Sharing in common....ummmm.....
I looked around me - at comfortable people in their Sunday best - people like me...
None of their faces registered any disquiet and I wasn't conscious of any sudden diminuendo in the responses.
Were they all crossing their fingers? 
Or was I about to witness an amazing scene in which we poured out of the building to pool our material resources with the rough sleepers of Gloucester, or swept down the hill to solve the financial worries of the valley estates by taking them upon ourselves?
Or was there a shared assumption that we could make huge commitments "by the Spirit's power"
and then blame God for our failure to follow through?
Or worse still, did we not actually mean a word we were saying?
And if not in this context, then where else in our worship might this be so?

I loved the liturgy on Sunday, - but I'm distinctly uneasy when I remember what we promised. Perhaps that unease is the gift of the Spirit....I wish I'd asked to speak Polish* instead.

*Not an entirely random choice - we do have some Polish families at both my valley schools.


Song in my Heart said...

Tough, isn't it?

I can never quite figure out whether "share in common" means I actually need to give away what I have been given (for I certainly cannot say that most of the things I consider "mine" are things I own...almost all the tools of my trade have been gifts, and I spend money I am paid on rent, food and transport; it is only because of others' generosity that I can buy books) or whether maintaining an acceptable standard of living and working to help those in need is enough. Am I meant to volunteer in a homeless shelter, or bring someone home to stay in the spare room? Am I really meant to endanger not only my physical security but my mental health in order to help others?

It's quite terrifying. Yet I know what you and others tell me if I am thinking about teaching when I'm feeling ill: I have needs too. Generosity and martyrdom are not the same thing.

The trouble is, how do I recognise which of my needs I ought attend to in order to better serve God, and which are the sort of idle wants that hinder me in working with and for God's Kingdom?

Alex Hobson said...


Your experience resonates. I've used that liturgy before, and wondered quite what I meant by those words, and indeed what the congregation meant by them.
Is it hypocrisy to say them knowing you don't quite intend to carry them out?

Or is there a sense in which we can sincerely say them because we WANT to be people who can really mean them? And that like so much liturgy, the saying of the words (and the consequent internal response we offer) is part of the slow process of becoming that person, a process we may never actually complete in this world.
I can't really express it, but I want to believe that there is a kind of integrity in that, and that we are opening ourselves up, in however small a way, to the work of the Spirit in our lives, as we say these words.

And so, it's better that we say them (and then worry about how far we can carry them into action) than that we don't say them.

I think!