Saturday, 24 April 2021

#LamentToAction: making the invisible, visible


‘From Lament to Action’, the report of the Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce published last week, is a specific, limited and vital contribution to a much longer journey – for many members of the Church of England, a hugely painful, costly journey – of wrestling with institutional racism in the Church of England.

It is not the role of this report to present the evidence of institutional racism. The pile of previous reports published over more than 30 years, and countless testimonies over a much longer period, have done that. That case has been well and truly made – and merely affirmed and underlined by Archbishop Justin’s declaration at General Synod in February 2020.

Neither is this report the definitive statement of what needs to change and how. The Racial Justice Commission that will be set up in response to this report will take on this mantle, across seven areas of ongoing work: Theology, Slavery (including Monuments), History and Memory, Culture and Liturgy, Complaints Handling, Participation, and Patronage.

Critical to that ongoing work is a theological conversation that neither begins nor ends with this report. Racism is not just about hurtful words and actions, or about excluding certain people from voice, participation, agency, power and position. Racism affects, infects, how we see the world: what and whom we notice, what and whom we hear, what and whom we believe and trust, what and whom we value and receive as God-given gifts and challenges. To the limitations and distortions of our perception by racism, the Christian gospel responds with imperatives: to follow Jesus in the way of truly loving and embracing our siblings and neighbours; to be led by the Spirit into the fullness of truth; to see and hear with clarity; to know, even as we are fully known.

Critical to the work of change, then – and central to ‘From Lament to Action’ – is the process of making the invisible, visible. To do this, the report foregrounds two significant clusters of recommendations for action: quotas, and education.

Quotas first, then. These range from co-optees onto General Synod and participant-observers in the House of Bishops, to participants in the Strategic Leadership Development Programme and shortlists for Senior Clergy Appointments, from the appointment of non-residentiary canons to membership of PCCs. Quotas are often critiqued as a ‘blunt instrument’. Within hours of the report’s publication, some early objectors have suggested that they may be impossible to implement in some areas, highlighting the uneven demographics across England. To these objections, I want to offer two initial responses.

Firstly, that we in the Church of England urgently need to rediscover a theology of the interconnected, interdependent body of Christ: across geography, as well as across the ethnic diversity of our membership. Augustine Tanner-Ihm’s experience of being told, by a senior Church figure, that he was not – because of his skin colour – an appropriate ‘fit’ for a predominantly white working-class parish tragically illustrates how institutional racism and a ‘parochial’ (in the worst sense) ecclesial mindset go hand in hand.

Secondly, building on this first point, what the report’s quota recommendations embody is a practical outworking of a much deeper desire: that we, collectively as the Church of England, really do want – really do deeply desire – more UK minority ethnic / Global Majority heritage people and voices in our churches, clergy, leadership, decision-making structures and theological education institutions. Of course, with any proposed quota, there will be failures to achieve the aim. But better that we ‘fail towards’ (to use the philosopher Gillian Rose’s phrase) such goals with passionate intention, and in such failure recognize our wider ongoing failures to achieve God’s just shalom, than express vague, gradualist aspirations towards ‘more’ and ‘better’ that are absolved of any sense of urgency. There is an analogy here with CO2 ‘net zero’ targets: set ourselves a 2050 goal as more ‘realistic’ and we will inevitably overshoot it; set ourselves a more ambitious 2030 goal and we may still fail to achieve it by that deadline, but we will almost certainly be a lot closer to doing the urgent work we need to do – and the ‘failures’ along the way will reinforce the urgency of the task.

Another area where there has been some resistant pushback has been around education – at all levels from church schools to local churches to Theological Education Institutions. Recommendations include formally adopting and resourcing the annual Racial Justice Sunday (which ecumenical partners have been doing for years!), racial awareness training for volunteers in children’s and youth work, anti-racism learning programmes for PCC representatives on recruitment panels, and, within Theological Education Institutions, intercultural placements, celebrating diverse saints and martyrs, drawing on liturgy and theology from the breadth and diversity of the Anglican Communion, diversifying the theological curriculum and course bibliographies, and requiring ordinands to participate in either an introductory ‘Black Theology’ or ‘Theologies in Global Perspectives’ module (both already-established modules within the Common Awards programme) within their ministerial formation.

Resistance here seems to come from either a deep-seated suspicion of such learning and training, or from a concern that it is somehow a ‘zero-sum game’ by which including some aspects of learning and training will exclude other aspects – or both. But the questions here are surely similar to the question of quotas: to whom do we look for our learning and formation? what questions are we wanting to consider, and which are we wanting to avoid? In short, who would we rather remained invisible, inaudible, and to whom are we willing to pay attention? Historically, English theological education institutions have paid overwhelmingly more attention to the voices of white (and male) European or American theologians. These voices have been treated as the weighty theological ‘centre of gravity’, to the exclusion of the gifts of theological wisdom and challenge from those with darker skin, those from other geographical locations, and – critically – those who have experienced the Church of England’s entangling of mission, Empire, colonialism and whiteness from the receiving end – with all the enduring material and spiritual effects of that entanglement.

To be sure, there is more work to do on this disentangling – and the Racial Justice Commission will continue to pursue these questions. But to refuse to pay attention to the questions, and those well-established theological traditions that have been asking them for decades, if not centuries – that is surely the kind of complacent obliviousness that lies at the heart of the Church’s institutional racism, and which the Spirit is summoning the Church, corporately, to now acknowledge, repent, and begin to free itself from.

Friday, 19 February 2021

A close-up encounter with Wintering

I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago. It was raw. Too raw. An attempt to tell a story in public that I realised, very quickly but not quite quickly enough, I was not ready to share. A story of my daughter's sledging accident and its aftermath for us as a family, and for me in particular. A reflection on trauma, and an attempt to link it with the wider, collective trauma that we're all living through right now, the experience of the COVID19 pandemic, however different our experiences of it are, depending on who we are and where we live.

This is not quite a second attempt. I'm not going to share any details of the accident or its after effects. Not here. What I realised, very quickly, was that sharing trauma in public inevitably resonates with - and surfaces - the trauma of others, and that the responsible, caring human being in me then wants/needs to respond to that. And that I didn't - and still don't - have the capacity to do that carefully enough.

Instead, I'm going to share, in a very piecemeal way, what I've been learning through these last few weeks since 30th December. It is not likely to be articulate. It almost certainly won't be coherent. It may not even make sense. But that, in itself, is one of the things I'm learning to live with, and embrace.

I'm learning, then, that in the midst of desperate crisis, part of my brain goes into overdrive planning - down to small details - any number of possible futures, including the very worst case scenarios. And that even when, later on, some of the scenarios are decisively ruled out (by skilled, experienced medical professionals, in our case), they take much longer to ease their grip on my mind, heart, imagination, soul. That there is, strangely, a journey of grief to be gone through - even for a death that has not, thank God, happened, but has still, in some sense, been lived.

I'm learning, that when confronted with the real possibility of death and loss, there is a shift of perspective that means that some things - bodily damage, maybe even irreparable damage - feel much less tragic than they would have done 'before'. 'It could have been worse' has real, weighty meaning to it.

I'm learning that comparison is fruitless, futile and unhealthy. So often in the past, as the pastoral carer, I have gently sought to steer others away from phrases like 'but of course there are so many people worse off than me'. It's meant well, part of putting things in perspective (as I've just owned for myself), but it also seeks to minimise what is genuine pain, struggle and challenges. It's often accompanied by 'I shouldn't grumble'. And yes, grumbling is not necessarily helpful to anyone. But articulating pain, sadness, grief or anxiety - without minimising any of it - is profoundly necessary. What you're going through does matter. What I'm going through matters. I need not apologise for it. And I really don't need to try and fit it on a scale, comparing it against other people's experiences and struggles, to assess whether it is 'more serious' or 'less serious' than theirs. It is what it is, and what it is, is hard, if not impossible, to quantify. Even the attempt to quantify is to deny something of the complexity, and the elusive mystery, of the experience of trauma, pain, and grief.

I'm learning that it is exhausting. And that it lasts. That there are adrenaline-fuelled times of busyness where 'this thing' is front and centre of our attention, and in the attention and care of others. And that there is plenty of less-eventful time, ongoing, where it slips a little to my periphery, and lurks there. And that less-eventful time is no less demanding. And that the 'lurking' means that it can jump into centre-stage again in a moment - the unexpected 'triggers' that throw you back into the body-and-mind-churning intensity of the event itself.

I'm learning that there are times when I want to talk about it, need to talk about it, even if that, too, is exhausting. Often, in those first few weeks, in the middle of the night when no one was up or around. But also in the middle of a busy working day, when something quite different is the focus of attention or conversation. And that it is sometimes hard to know who I am or how I am without this thing as the central, shaping reality.

I'm learning that the question, 'how are you?' can often be too big to answer meaningfully, and that to answer it at all, it is often helpfully reduced to something like 'how are you doing today compared to yesterday, or right now compared to earlier today? are you on an up, a down, or a plateau with energy levels or emotional work?'

I'm learning that saying 'I love you' to my kids, to my wife, has taken on a whole new depth of significance when that 'I love you' also means 'I don't want you to die', 'I'm so glad you're still alive', 'I'm so thankful we've shared this together - and that we're continuing to share it together'.

I'm learning that love also comes in the form of boxes of chocolate, Christmas cake in the post, and meals - particularly meals - delivered to the doorstep. That these are not 'token gestures' but real, tangible acts of love that are received as love and as, quite literally, the things that keep us alive.

I'm learning that the prayers of others feels as tangible, and as life-sustaining, as chocolate, cake and meals. That for the pray-er it may feel like a barely-noticeable drop in the ocean, but that for the prayed-for it literally feels like what is holding us together, up-holding us, keeping us going. And that personal texts, WhatsApp messages, Facebook comments and Twitter responses, however brief, from both intimate friends and near-total strangers, genuinely do make that difference.

I'm learning that the community of faith, and the community of neighbourhood, come into their own at times like these in ways that I've known, in my head and my heart, for years and years, but have never quite felt with such intensity as in the last few weeks. That these communities are genuinely full to overflowing with love, and care, and gifts that are poised to be shared, and when shared bring life. It truly does 'take a village'.

I'm learning that collaborative ministry faces its acid test in times like these, and that when it's there it is priceless. Colleagues - ordained and lay, named roles and not - who can see what needs doing, and get on and work together to do it. Who can move the pieces of the jigsaw around, changing the picture a little, but making it no less beautiful while this particular piece of the jigsaw is absent for a while. Who can liberate me from the burden of worrying about stuff that doesn't need worrying about - because someone else is taking care of it. Liberating me from the illusion of being a necessity, when in fact I am but one contribution among many.

I'm learning that the ministry of presence, of simply hanging around, being there, 'being with', for hours on end, is just incredible. The ministry of the chaplain, who also happens to be a friend. Who was there when what one or more of us needed most, alongside the immense medical expertise of the Children's Hospital, was someone to be with us. Most sharply, during COVID, when as family we were not able to be with each other. But even COVID aside. Someone who has seen it before, who understands something of what is going on, but isn't there to 'do' anything, to 'fix' anything, but just to share generously in the currency of time, smiles, laughter, games, listening, encouragement, affirmation, tears, and silence. In the times when we were feared the worst. In the times when we were bored, or hungry. In the times when we had to let go and wait. In the times when the news was good and hopeful. In the times in between where we're just getting on with life.

I'm learning that my ability to write any new theological words has been profoundly restricted, slowed down, put on hold, while 'this thing' slowly works its way into everything I thought, and wrote, and believed, and practised before now. And that I need to be patient with that, to let it take as long as it takes and not to rush it. That it stubbornly refuses to be rushed.

And I'm learning that what we've been going through, what we're continuing to go through, is, in author Katherine May's words, an experience of 'wintering' - unchosen, and yet needing to be embraced.

So I'm going to finish, for now, with some fragments of Katherine May's stunning book ('Wintering'), and a poem or two which resonate deeply both with her words and with our ongoing experience...

'Life is, by nature, uncontrollable. …we should stop trying to finalise our comfort and security somehow and instead find a radical acceptance of the endless, unpredictable change that is the very essence of this life.' (p.263)

'Sometimes, the best response to our howls of anguish is the honest one: we need friends who wince along with our pain, who tolerate our gloom, and who allow us to be weak for a while when we’re finding our feet again. We need people who acknowledge that we can’t always hang on in there; that sometimes everything breaks.' (pp.267-8)

'I recognised winter. I saw it coming (a mile off, since you ask), and I looked it in the eye. I greeted it, and let it in. I had some tricks up my sleeve, you see. I’ve learned them the hard way. When I started feeling the drag of winter, I began to treat myself like a favoured child: with kindness and love. I assumed my needs were reasonable, and that my feelings were signals of something important. I kept myself well fed, and made sure I was getting enough sleep. I took myself for walks in the fresh air, and spent time doing things that soothed me. I asked myself: what is this winter all about? I asked myself: what change is coming?' (p.269)

'At its base, this is not a book about beauty, but about reality. It is about noticing what is going on, and living it. That’s what the natural world does; it carries on surviving. Sometimes it flourishes – lays on fat, garlands itself in leaves, makes abundant honey – and sometimes it pares back to the very basics of existence in order to keep living. It doesn’t do this once, resentfully, assuming that one day it will get things right and everything will smooth out. It winters in cycles, again and again, forever and ever. For plants and animals winter is part of the job. The same is true for humans. To get better at wintering, we need to address our very notion of time. We tend to imagine that our lives are linear, but they are in fact cyclical. … we pass through phases of good health and ill, of optimism and deep doubt, of freedom and constraint. There are times when everything seems easy, and times when it all seems impossibly hard. … Each time we endure the cycle, we ratchet up a notch. We learn from the last time around, and we do a few things better this time… But one thing is certain; we will simply have different things to worry about.' (p.269-70)

'we must emerge slowly from our wintering. We must test the air and be ready to shrink back into safety when blasted by unseasonal winds; we must gradually unfurl our new leaves. There will still often be the debris to shift of a long, disordered / season. These are the moments when we have to find the most grace: when we come to atone for the worst ravages of our conduct in darker times; when we have to tell truths that we’d rather ignore. Sometimes, we will have to name our personal winters, and the words will feel barbed in our throats: grief, rejection, depression, illness. Shame, failure, despair. ... And besides, we have a kind of gospel to tell now, and a duty to share it. We who have wintered have learned some things. We sing it out like birds. We let our voices fill the air.' (pp.272-3)

Lines for Winter, by Mark Strand (in Neil Astley (ed.), Staying Human, p.68)

Tell yourself
as it gets cold and gray falls from the air
that you will go on
walking, hearing
the same tune no matter where
you find yourself -
inside the dome of dark
or under the cracking white
of the moon’s gaze in a valley of snow.
Tonight as it gets cold
tell yourself
what you know which is nothing
but the tune your bones play
as you keep going. And you will be able
for once to lie down under the small fire
of winter stars.
And if it happens that you cannot
go on or turn back
and you find yourself
where you will be at the end,
tell yourself
in that final flowing of cold through your limbs
that you love what you are.

‘Winter’, by Nicola Slee (in Nicola Slee, Praying Like a Woman)

Where the wood is dry
Where no green things lie
Where the wild things fly
There am I

Where the stream is still
Where the wind is shrill
Where the ice forms chill
There am I

Where the ground is hard
Where the earth is scarred
Where the path is barred
There am I

Where no leaf is seen
Where the year is lean
Where the grief is keen
There am I

Where the blood runs slow
Where no waters flow
Where the hope is low
There am I

Where the dark is strong
Where the night is long
Through the winter’s song
There am I

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

What can I offer? A sermon for Christmas Eve

(for context: since Pentecost, our Hodge Hill Church community has been following a journey of exploring and deepening our discipleship that we've been calling 'Trees of Life' - sharing together in weekly readings and reflections that can be found here:

What can I offer

this Christmas Eve?

This Christmas Eve
in particular,
when this year
there has been
so much…

so much…

so much…

And so much
has gone unmet

And we have lost so many
and so many
have fought
for breath
and we have been sick
and tired
and have had enough
more than enough
of this year.

What can I offer?

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan;
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

Christmas at midwinter
is no coincidence.

for those
who set the date
back in the mists
of time
amid the longest of
Northern hemisphere

when the waiting
for dawn to break
seems to take

when moods
can be as dark
and icy
and low
as the temperature
of the air

when food
is scarce
unless you are lucky
to have squirrelled

when the earth
is cold
and hard
and all life
is hiding
or hibernating
or dead

at midwinter
is no coincidence.

Not then

Not now

when the waiting
for dawn to break
seems to take

* * *

And yet.

Under the surface.

In the depths
of the dark night
and the depths
of the dark earth
and the depths
of the dark womb

is stirring

That was
our Advent

* * *

So now

in the darkness

we offer

our wintered world

our wintered earth

our wintered longings

our wintered hearts

this unending


and we wait



this space

* * *

Our God, heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain,
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When He comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty —
Jesus Christ.

The light,
says John,
shines in the darkness

And all the ends of the earth,
says Isaiah,
shall see
the salvation
of our God

The God
who cannot be

The light
that cannot be
put out

The song
that cannot be

The upside-down kin-dom
that cannot be

The mighty
the rich
the lofty

the lowly
the hungry
the thirsty
and out
and into
in all
its fullness…

* * *

in the bleak

in the dark
of the longest
of nights

has the brightness
of mid-day

has midsummer

is the desert
in full flower,
the trees
the bees
the birds
the lion
and the lamb
in the

* * *

Or is something
less dramatic

in the shadows,
at the edges,
betwixt and

in the common
as muck
decomposing on the
compost heap

the quietest
of dew drops
on the leaves

the tiniest
of buds
on the branches

* * *

‘The unchristmas tree’,
by Rosie Miles & Nicola Slee

The unchristmas tree has no lights
except what filters through its spaces

no tinsel
except its own astringent needles

no star
except those caught in its branches

no presents
except the gifting of itself

The unchristmas tree costs nothing at all
except the grace to notice where it grows

* * *

are these
the signs
of the kingdom
we are
looking for

the humble
in our

will these
be full
of grace
and truth

if we
but the grace
to stop
and look
and look
and notice
where life –
unbought –
where life
as gift

will that

Enough for Him, whom cherubim
worship night and day,
a breastful of milk
and a mangerful of hay;
enough for Him, whom angels
fall down before,
the ox and ass and camel
which adore.

‘and a little child
shall lead them’

not the usual
un-kind of

but the only
who can lead
in hand
with love

vulnerable love

patient love

slow growing
trust growing
walking speed

falling and
getting up
again love

feeding the
turning the
tables love

gurgling love


Angels and Archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and 
Thronged the air;
But only His Mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.

so simple.

And yet
in our bleak-masked
locked down
with iron-hard
from each other
a stone’s throw
or more,
a kiss
a hug
a cuppa
a song
none of these
is simple
and for that
we grieve
we are torn
hollowed out

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am? —
If I were a Shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man
I would do my part, —
Yet what I can I give Him, —
Give my heart.

writes a wise woman friend,
‘presents people
of faith
with challenge.
Not least
among the challenges
is a question
of how the arrival
of God
as a baby
can be any sort
of serious gift
at all;

when we ask
what on earth
our own gift
to God
might look like
in return,
we find
an analogue…

The God worshipped
by Christians
cannot be held
by heaven
or sustained by earth
and yet is –
in the moment of Nativity -
nothing more
than a baby.

He is helpless,
unable to feed
or look after himself.
He is so vulnerable
that he could not
defend himself
if we sought
to hurt him.

his only gift
is to elicit
our love,
our kiss,
the offering
of a beating,

(Rachel Mann)

The offering
of our faith,
we might say,
as a leaf’.

is what I can
what you can
what the child
the stable-place
that suffices

The breath
of this child

our wintered world

our wintered earth

our wintered longings

our wintered hearts

and where
it warms
there Spring
and branches
reach out
break forth

* * *

Drawing near, by Jan Richardson

It is difficult to see it from here,
I know,
but trust me when I say
this blessing is inscribed
on the horizon.
Is written on
that far point
you can hardly see.
Is etched into
a landscape
whose contours you cannot know
from here.
All you know
is that it calls you,
draws you,
pulls you toward
what you have perceived
only in pieces,
in fragments that came to you
in dreaming
or in prayer.

I cannot account for how,
as you draw near,
the blessing embedded in the horizon
begins to blossom
upon the soles of your feet,
shimmers in your two hands.
It is one of the mysteries
of the road,
how the blessing
you have travelled toward,
waited for,
ached for
suddenly appears,
as if it had been with you
all this time,
as if it simply
needed to know
how far you were willing
to walk
to find the lines
that were traced upon you
before the day
you were born.

* with deep gratitude to Rachel Mann for her wonderful commentary on Christina Rosetti's carol/poem, 'In the bleak midwinter' (in the book by the same name)

Thursday, 15 October 2020

#BeingInterrupted - HeartEdge zoom conversations


A series of online conversations hosted by Al Barrett, Ruth Harley and Sharon Prentis, as part of ‘Living God’s Future Now’, the HeartEdge online festival of ideas.

Using selected content from the book Being Interrupted: Re-imagining the Church’s Mission from the Outside, In (co-written by Al Barrett and Ruth Harley, to be published by SCM Press, 30 November 2020) as a starting point, these 6 sessions will seek to confront the multiple privileges, divisions and obliviousnesses that haunt both wider society and the church itself, and especially race, class, gender, and the marginalizing of children and the non-human world. We will tease out the ways in which these fault lines are reinforced by the ways in which we imagine, talk about, and practise ‘mission’ – and explore how they might be interrupted, disrupted and transformed.


The sessions will be introduced and facilitated by Al Barrett, Ruth Harley and Sharon Prentis, and also include contributions from special guests, opportunities for small group conversations in breakout groups, and a final plenary putting some questions and comments to the panel...

  • Al Barrett is Rector of Hodge Hill Church in east Birmingham, and has spent the last 10 years living and working on a multi-ethnic outer estate.
  • Ruth Harley is an ordinand at Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham, is attached to Hodge Hill Church, and came into training for ordination as an experienced minister with children and young people.
  • Sharon Prentis is Intercultural Mission Enabler and Dean of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Affairs in the diocese of Birmingham.


Session title & details

Invited guests

Fri 16 Oct, 2pm

‘Fault lines in society and Church’

multiple privileges, divisions & obliviousnesses

·         Anthony Reddie

·         Lynne Cullens

Thu 22 Oct, 3.30pm

‘Missional economies and institutional anxieties’

…and how we imagine our neighbours

·         Guli Francis-Dehqani

·         Robb Sutherland

Thu 5 Nov, 12pm

‘Jesus, interrupted’

…how and where we think about Jesus, when we think about mission

·         Jennifer Harvey

·         Augustine Tanner-Ihm

Mon 9 Nov, 4.30pm

‘Life at the edges’

…exploring an ‘alternative missional economy’, discovering abundance (and challenge) in the edge-places

·         Paul Wright with Clare McLean & Sahra Farah (Hodge Hill)

·         Cathy Ross

Mon 16 Nov, 4.30pm

‘What would the Roman centurion do?’

…cross and repentance

·         Azariah France-Williams

·         Rachel Mann

w/c 23 Nov (TBC)

‘Resurrection from the compost heap’

·         (TBC)

·         Annika Matthews

How to book...

Keep an eye on the HeartEdge website - and their 'Living God's Future Now' Facebook page- to book your place in any of these conversations - or search Eventbrite for 'Being Interrupted'.

How to buy the book!

Being Interrupted: Re-imagining the Church's Mission from the Outside, In, by Al Barrett & Ruth Harley (with illustrations by Ally Barrett), is published by SCM Press on 30th November 2020. You can pre-order it from SCM Press here:

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Living through liminal times

'Living through liminal times'
A reflection for Wed 24th June (Birth of John the Baptist):

  • Isaiah 40:1-11
  • Psalm 85:7-end
  • Luke 1:57-66, 80

Psalm 85, ‘righteousness and peace kiss’,

Do you remember when ‘going into someone’s house’ was something we took for granted?! When we didn’t give a passing thought to the moment we stepped over someone’s doorstep? When ‘popping round to see someone’ meant going into their kitchen for a cuppa, not knocking on the door and then taking four steps backwards?

The Latin word for ‘doorstep’ is limen – from which we get the English word ‘liminal’, the name for those ‘threshold’ times and spaces that are ‘betwixt and between’, ‘neither here nor there’ – times and spaces of ‘comings and goings’, of transition and change.

We’re in one hell of a liminal space right now. As a church, we’ve just (Sunday 21st) said farewell to Jenni, our curate for the last 3 years; we’re just about (Sunday 28th) to formally welcome Gloria into her new role and ministry among us as curate. As a country, we’re entering into a new phase in the easing of the COVID-19 ‘lockdown’ – and there are more possibilities for where we’re allowed to go, and what we’re able to do, whilst still having to be very careful to limit the risk of spreading the virus that hasn’t simply ‘disappeared’. And as a world, we’re continuing to dig deep into the questions of how we might live life differently, order our societies differently – what a ‘new normal’ might look like, in the wake of COVID-19, with the ongoing global environmental emergency, and in a world where, finally, many of us who are white are waking up to the racism that is so deeply ingrained in both our collective history, and in the present-day structures of our society. And then, to come full circle back to church, we who are Christians in Hodge Hill need to spend time asking ourselves, what might/should ‘church’ look like, in this different world? Yes, we really are in a profoundly liminal space right now.

Our readings today, on the day the worldwide Church celebrates the birth of John the Baptist, offer us a number of images that help us think a bit more about this experience of being in ‘liminal’ space.

In our Isaiah reading, we’re in the wilderness. The people of Israel – or many of them, at least – have been invaded, captured, and taken into exile. They’re a long way from the place they’ve called ‘home’. The place where they find themselves isn’t a desert, where there is hardly any life at all, but a wilderness, a wild place, where there is plenty of life, but that life feels strange, uncomfortable, threatening even. The wilderness is where nettles and brambles thrive, and the kinds of animals that we call ‘wild’ because they’re not necessarily friendly, and certainly not domesticated. Wildernesses are, by definition, not places that are easy to spend time in, or to travel through.

And it’s into this experience of wilderness and exile, that through the prophet Isaiah God speaks words of ‘comfort’ and ‘tenderness’. Enough is enough, the time has come, ‘here is your God’, coming to you, coming to feed you, gather you, carry you, lead you. God is coming to be with you in the wilderness, and to guide you through it.

I wonder, what parts of life – for you, for our church community, for our society and our world – feel like ‘wilderness’ right now?

I wonder what it might mean for us, to know that God is with us in the wilderness, and is guiding us through it? I wonder what we might do, very intentionally, to actively put our trust in that God, in the midst of everything that is going on in the world?

In our reading from the beginning of Luke’s gospel, we find ourselves with Elizabeth, in the middle of childbirth. As moments of transition go, giving birth is one of the big ones in many people’s lives – and being born is a universal experience, even if we probably don’t remember it! Childbirth can sometimes be quick, and can sometimes feel like it’s taking forever. I remember, over the hours in which Janey was giving birth to Rafi, praying the ‘how long, O Lord’ of Psalm 13, repeatedly. And however good the drugs are, labour always involves pain – a pain that some of us who’ve not been through it can barely imagine. When we talk of ‘new beginnings’, we would be wise not to forget the real, lengthy, painful labour that our most embodied of new beginnings involve. It can’t be rushed – it will happen in its own good time. It’s painful, and it’s fraught – even today – with risk, and the potential for grief as much as joy.

And then there is something quite particular about this birth, to Elizabeth and Zechariah. A birth heralded by an angel, a messenger of God. A birth that has involved a literally dumb-struck father – for a whole nine months – because he can’t believe what is happening. A birth that sees the child’s mother breaking with tradition, because it is she who names the child (not, as expected, the father), and because the name she gives him is a new one to their family lineage. Truly God is doing something new here, and Elizabeth, who had been cruelly labelled ‘barren’, is the one who brings it to birth. The onlookers are right to wonder, ‘What then will this child become?’

I wonder, what signs have we seen of something new coming to birth – in our own lives, in our church community, in our neighbourhood, in our society and our world?

I wonder where it is time to break with tradition, time for different voices to be heard, or time for us to use a new name, or new language, beyond the familiar?

And finally, in between Isaiah’s prophecy and Luke’s story of John’s birth, we have the words of Psalm 85. Words of a people longing to see God’s presence, to hear God’s voice, to live in God’s peace. ‘I will listen,’ says the Psalmist, ‘to what the Lord God will say’. The Psalmist who elsewhere says, ‘I will wait for the Lord’ (Psalm 130:5-6), ‘I will seek your face’ (Psalm 27:8), ‘I will hope continually’ (Psalm 71:14). Wait, seek, hope, listen. These are Advent words – for today’s Advent story. The Christian calendar does this at times – throws us into different seasons, especially in the long expanse of what is called ‘ordinary time’ that we’ve now entered. But even in this time of lockdown, when every day blurs into the others, there is no such thing as a time when ‘nothing much happens’. Now is the time for waiting, seeking, hoping, listening. Now is the time, even when our attention spans feel limited, for straining to pay attention to what is going on – both within us, and around us. And when we pay attention in a way that cuts through the media hype, the political spin, and the excitable adverts of re-opened shops, what will we hear, and see? Even in the midst of this time of distancing, disconnection and division, we will, with the Psalmist, see faithfulness springing up from the ground, justice looking down from the sky, steadfast love and faithfulness meeting together, justice and peace kissing each other – and inviting us to join them.

I wonder, how can we practise ‘listening to what the Lord God will say’? What will help us to pay attention, beyond the media hype, political spin, and advertisements to consume, to what God is doing? And when we do, what are we hearing and seeing – and how can we join in?