Monday, 13 December 2010

Launching books and choosing your voice…

I helped launch a book last Thursday. It’s a really good book, actually. ‘Presiding Like a Woman’ (eds. Nicola Slee & Stephen Burns,

As one of the contributors, I was invited to say something. And somewhere between opening my mouth and closing it again, I realised something I’d not been conscious of for a while – that every time you speak, you (to some extent, at least) choose your ‘voice’. On this occasion, partly intentional, partly by accident of the moment, I chose ‘apologetic’. When it’s working at its best for me, it’s a mildly Hugh Grant self-effacing Englishman kind of voice. But I don’t think it was working at its best on this occasion. I was an Anglican priest among four Anglican priests – and someone had already apologised for that, so I felt I needed to do likewise. But I was also the one man in a panel (and a book, quite understandably, given the title) full of women – and so I apologised for that too.

But reflecting back, I realised I could equally well have chosen other voices. Delight at being among friends (and some personal heroines) for one. And for another: excitement at having been given the privilege of a space in which to journey into discoveries, theological and personal, that I feel much the richer for, and the richer for being able to share with others too.

So here’s what I could have said…

The Christian tradition has had a near-2000-year history of making the audacious claim that the person who finds themself standing at the altar somehow ‘stands in’ for someone else. ‘In persona Christi’ is the Latin phrase – at once bold and ambiguous. But the ‘gender trouble’ that has accompanied that audacious claim over the years is rooted in an over-definiteness about who that ‘someone else’ is: ‘Jesus was a man, therefore…’.

So ‘presiding like a woman’ gave me an excuse to tease out a bit of a christology – a theology of what we mean when we say ‘Christ’. And naturally, I turned to the gospels. But what I found in them were the seeds of something more expansive, relational, and subversive than a narrow focus on the singular male body traditionally allows. There are incidents, quite crucial to the narrative, of interactions between – as it happens – women and Jesus, where it is really not clear where the ‘christliness’ of the encounter is located: if not ‘in Jesus’, then perhaps ‘in this woman’, but more precisely ‘in the space between this man and this woman’. Look at the encounters between Jesus and the Syro-Phoenician Woman in Mark 7:24-31, Jesus and the woman with the haemorrhage (Mark 5:21-34), and Jesus and the anointing woman (Mark 14:1-9). Who takes the initiative? Who changes whom? Whose actions – and passions – most clearly embody God as we know her/him?

This ain’t writing Jesus out of the picture. That’d be pretty difficult to do – especially for someone who takes the gospels as the best kind of trustworthy source for revealing who God is and how God works. But it is discovering there is room in christology (or, as I rather clumsily try and re-write it in the article, christ-( )-logy)… for us. And for more than just us. Christ-( )-logy has a space at its heart for encounter, interaction, challenge, questioning, touch, embrace, and mutual transformation. It has space within it for interruptions to what we think we should be doing. It has space within it for the kind of creative improvisation that goes on between people who discover in their interaction something more than any of their individual contributions – and a creative improvisation (what theatrical improvisers call ‘over-accepting’) that can even weave potentially negative, destructive contributions into something life-expanding.

The liturgical ‘presider’, I go on to suggest, “might seek never to occupy for long one of the ‘foci’ of the christ-( )-logical space, but, instead, to move back-and-forth across and to the very edges and doorways of the space (close enough to touch those who may be there and to establish genuine, reciprocal relationship with them), enabling and encouraging the movement of others, and, in the process, making visible and tangible the ‘incarnational flow’ within the ‘space between’”.

And if that sounds far too complicated or abstract, I suggest that little children offer us the best examples of this kind of ‘presiding’ in action:

“It is not just in their ‘interruptions’ that [little children] question ‘the world as it is’ and gesture towards ‘the world as it could be’. They also are adept at re-shaping liturgical space, transgressing divisions and barriers, finding routes around, over and underneath, and freely walking across allegedly ‘sacred’ spaces. They will, given half a chance, touch those ‘holy things’ which are usually in only the presider’s hands, and with unconstrained imaginations, reverence the most mundane objects as holy. They have a knack of reaching out to those who are at their most fragile, and infusing the most serious moment with surreal comedy. Within the last year, I have witnessed a little child ‘preside’ from behind a pillar in a rabbit costume, minister to each member of the ‘communion circle’ while clinging to the altar rail, comfort a tearful woman from the neighbouring pew, and ‘absolve’ much of a congregation with delighted splashes of font water.”

But lastly, and this is where I think the theological rubber really begins to hit the practical road, these kind of subverted christ-( )-logical spaces begin to unfold outwards:

“We tend to imagine liturgy as a ‘strategic’ activity: safe in ‘our own place’, we are gathered, shaped and empowered for ‘managed’ engagement with ‘the world outside’. Little children introduce us, however, to what Michel de Certeau calls ‘tactics’: opportunist, surprising, ‘ad hoc engagements’ within a space which we do not possess.

“As a parish priest in an area of urban regeneration, Sam Wells discovered that ‘the power of the church’ lay not in the ‘strategies’ of the ‘parent’ – ‘greater resources, more experience, greater physical strength’ – but in the ‘tactics’ of the ‘child’ – ‘stubbornness and doggedness, and the tendency to ask awkward or embarrassing questions… still learning, potentially disruptive.’ What, then, if we were to perform our liturgies not ‘strategically’, but ‘tactically’?

“Presiders and congregations who seek to learn the way of discipleship by embracing, ‘overaccepting’, the interruptive initiatives of little children might, I suspect, be slowly but surely trained themselves in the child-like art of interrupting, and playfully, creatively, ‘overaccepting’ (rather than simply ‘yielding’ to), the ‘liturgies’ of the world: drawing attention to the ‘holes, silences, inabilities’ in the world’s cosmologies that tyrannically claim comprehensiveness; and temporarily creating, or occupying, spaces which subvert the controlling gaze of the state, through an attentive, transgressive touching of the apparently ‘untouchable’. Like the children crying out ‘Hosanna’ in the Temple, we may well anger the authorities (in and out of church), but through such child-like performances the ‘saving word’ might just be heard, the ‘incarnational flow’ between the divine and the human be manifest.”

I wrote these words about a year ago now, and the world, in some ways, now looks very different. The kind of ‘liturgies of the world’ I had in mind then were the so-called ‘war on terror’ and the myth of nuclear ‘deterrent’, the equally destructive myth that we can – and should – ‘buy ourselves’ out of an economic crisis, and the subtly but powerfully formative ‘school for consumers’ running in the background of the Labour government’s ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda.

There are other liturgies that have now joined them, that need just as much child-like passion, vigour and creativity in interrupting: the unspoken dividing lines between the apparently ‘deserving rich’ (and their ‘tax-efficient’ corporations) and the ‘undeserving poor’ (who, out of choice, apparently, sit around on their bums drawing luxurious benefits from the state); and the myth that central government can make us all better citizens and better neighbours by telling us to be so, and by investing less in public services so that we naturally feel the urge to plug the gaps.

From student protests to UKUncut’s tactics of occupation, from the Coalition of Resistance to the Common Wealth network, we’re beginning to see what ‘interruption’ might look like in this harsh new world. But what of the playful, creative ‘over-accepting’ of what the current government seeks to ‘offer’ us? For the predominantly middle-class ranks of the Church of England, there will be much to be said about a radical, sacrificial generosity from our own pockets, to establish genuine, touching, face-to-face solidarity with those of our neighbours who are much closer to the bread line. Movements like ‘Giving What We Can’ ( and ‘Relational Tithe’ ( are showing the way here. An embracing of a model of ‘community organising’ (taking Saul Alinsky seriously) that genuinely empowers the powerless to ‘speak truth to power’ has got to be another candidate.

But we’ve got a whole lot more to learn. And personally, I’m looking to my toddler for leads…

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