Saturday, 27 January 2007

Praying for a good City

Address to the Team Quiet Day, 1st November 2006

Why a Quiet Day and why for this group of people?
Why here? Why in the city? Why not go away?
What about prayer? Don't we do enough already?

We certainly say and sing a lot of words together. Whichever building it is that draws our loyalty, whatever the particular tradition from which we come, whatever it is that suits us – formal, not so formal, choral or quiet, when we get together we get on with it. The liturgy, the prayer of the Church, we sort of plug in. It happens. Of course some people have to do a bit of preparation for it to happen as smoothly as we expect, but Sunday by Sunday, sure as eggs are eggs as they used to say, it happens, flick the switch and it all comes tumbling out. Its reassuring, its familiar, its what we know. Give or take a translation or two, and if your lucky a bit of central heating when it gets cold, we could be in any era of the past five hundred years. And even when the sermon gets a bit edgy, its OK because the walls pretty quickly soak the edges up. For those of us who preach at St Mary's, the ultimate sponge was delivered the other day, when one questionnaire about changes in the liturgy delivered the judgement 'Its a shame the quality of the sermons rarely match the rest of the service'. Humility is a great gift!!

But you know, those walls which in each of our buildings give us that sense of security... what is the message that they give out from the other side, from the outside? What do people see as they look in? I don't think in many cases that it is safety and comfort. I invite you first of all to ask yourselves that question, in all honesty. When all those thousands of people walk past St Peter's, day by day, or when they see pictures on the TV of St Mary's as the backdrop to the News (although they don't any more!), or all those students, young business people, prostitutes, whoever it is who have All Saints' as their very visible next door neighbour, what do they think? What are the images that flash into their minds?

Now I know that 'relevance' and 'irrelevance' are words that irritate when talking about the Church. Eternal values – unchanging, unceasing, unresting, unhasting – these are the important things. We know where we stand, and stand there we will. Counter-cultural, firm as a rock, 'not tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming' as it says in Ephesians. Batten down the hatches, the world out there is a big bad place, its stormy weather, and we are safe in the ark of salvation. Well bully for us. I know that is caricature. I know there are lots of ways we all try to be relevant, I know we all get excited by projects like Malt Cross that seek to cross boundaries and say something different, and we are delighted that Steve and Dave and the rest of the team there do what they do on our behalf. I know that in our heads, we want St Peter's to be accessible and reaching out to the people on the streets, many of whom are all that people say they are – on drugs,mentally ill, dirty, intrusive, noisy; and when they sit about on the steps, getting in the way, and creating a bit of a barrier for others wanting to get into church, it is a nuisance, and some people do feel threatened; and, yes, I catch myself thinking – and sometimes reacting to them in that way – 'Why can't you be invisible, out of the way?' And what is that about? It is about comfort zones – and all the time we convey that distaste for a group of people, we are creating an image in their minds too.

I will never forget my first Christmas Carol Service at St Peter's. As we lit the Christmas Tree and the choir sang 'Ding dong merrily on high', there were tanks in the streets of Bethlehem. We included some readings that made connections between Jesus' birth in Bethlehem and the acts of war that had once again afflicted the people there; we may even have included some unfamiliar words to a famous carol tune. It was clumsy. It was too long. It was uncomfortable. I know all that. And the howls of protest that followed (even though it was shorter than a football match), with most of the howls coming from regular church goers, shocked me. The expectation was that Christmas should not be disturbed.

'O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie' we were expected to sing, and somewhere angels were weeping.

I will not labour this further. I hope the question has been asked, and you will spend a bit of time reflecting on this, because it lies at the nub of the questions we are trying to ask of ourselves, and lies at the heart of the tensions that keep on bubbling to the surface. Are we willing to move out of our comfort zone in order to see our work as the people of God from the perspective of those 'beyond'? It was William Temple who said famously that the Church is the only institution that exists primarily for those who are not its members. Hmmm.

That then, I want to suggest, is where our prayer must be rooted. Firmly in that gap. That is the context in which we together need to be examining ourselves, our assumptions, our basic principles. That is the context in which we should read scripture and reflect together on it, and the context in which we should try to understand our history. We are not living fifty or a hundred or five hundred years ago, or even two thousand years ago. We believe in a God in Christ who is with us today, who is immersed in this city now, and who is crying out to be recognized and regarded now, a God who turns the values of the day upside down and that includes our values. We are not immune from the values of the day. Just because we go to church does not mean that we have it and the rest don't. The Gospel challenges us as much as the world. Whether we are on an ark of salvation or not is irrelevant, and is a good example of how we get diverted from the real theology to the ivory tower theology that most people on the street (if they understood the phrase at all) would accuse us of. Its the angels on a pinhead stuff. If we are, bully for us. But only God knows. And in ages past, we would have gone to the stake for it, literally. And sometimes it looks as though we are still there spiritually.

'Mind the Gap'. That was the theme for One World Week, just finished. Not a bad theme for us. We have to occupy the gap. But before we move in there, we need to be pretty sure of what we are going to do and not do when we get there – and believe me it could be a very, very uncomfortable place to be. But if we are going to be a part of the work of Christ in this place we have got to be there. You see it is not about abandoning the Church. That is not part of the agenda, and I do not believe that all those people who look up at our buildings in bafflement want that either. That is not what they long for. We know that lots of people do come inside in search of something. Actually people are very fond of our buildings. Read the visitors' books, listen to what people say. They do want them. They do recognize a longing within themselves that leads them into church buildings...that leads them into questions....the beginnings of a quest. And our life goes on. What is the offer that we make to them? Sorry, but here comes the moment of controversy and cynicism.... Come and join us, come and sit in serried rows, watch, listen to what those people in funny clothes are doing, saying, singing, sometimes in a dead language, join in the singing of second rate poetry to tunes you may or may not know, but which you wouldn't be heard dead doing anywhere else in your life about things which mean absolutely nothing to you. And really, if you wouldn't mind sitting quietly around the edges for at least ten years until you have learned how to behave like the rest of us.

And before you say I've gone over the edge, there are people in our congregations today who experience what we do in just that way, and I wonder why they stay – partly because the urge to keep on the journey of discovering God in Christ is actually unbelieveably powerful for some, and despite everything they cannot give it up.

Occupying the gap. Beware. It is where we have to be. But the gap is a chasm, and that's the problem. We could fall right into it. Beware of my blind prejudice leading you in your blind prejudice. I do not have the answers. You do not have the answers. We do not have the answers. The trouble is we have been brought up to believe that we do have the answers. So when we pray, we pray with confidence... not confidence in the Father, but confidence in ourselves. Oh I know we say all the right things... Our Father, its all yours, you are holy, you are the sustainer, you are the one who will put us on the right road, lead us, deliver us, because you are great... but actually we are much better at living in the temple, where everything is secure, where its all laid out for us, where we know what's what and who's who', who belongs and who doesn't, who's right and who's wrong. It's four square, solid, not even a tremor under our feet. Here we are confident. Egypt, the world of our captivity is on the other side of the desert. We are free. And we are sure.

The gap, the wilderness,tents. The city of God, the Promised Land, they are still a long way hence. We are a long way from home, and the landmarks are unclear, mirages, many of them, and the travellers, the nomads with no resting place are not even sure of who their companions are, let alone which are the authentic signposts on this part of the journey. It is God alone who leads and prompts. Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee. What beautiful and familiar words. But we are far from home still. Restlessness. In a restless world, we are really not too enamoured with that concept. We want to be providers of rest. But we cannot rest until the journey is complete.

Occupying the gap. True prayer. A determination on our part to be restless in our search for God in Christ in our world. Emptying ourselves in order to make space for God. That's a reasonably theological aim isn't it? Can we be faith-ful enough, full enough of faith to just peer outside the door? To step outside, never mind the storms, be they fearsome, drowning hurricanes or dry, stripping sandstorms?

There is very good stuff in this report – Faithful Cities, published last year by the Commission on Urban Life and Faith. It celebrates twenty years since the 'Faith in the City' Report. And it asks some fundamental questions about what makes a good city, and what might 'good people' (i.e. people who are concerned to look outwards to the needs of others, which it is assumed would include members of faith communities) offer towards the transformation of our cities? It has at its heart that desire – transformation, and is crystal clear that it is the transformation of the lives of people that will transform the city, not the other way round. But that transformation has to be about all people. And this is where we get onto the danger ground for Christians. It is the temptation, castles in the air. We think we are on firm ground. This is the language we understand. Transformation. Regeneration even. This is what we are about. Whatever anybody else may say or think they have, we know that we have it more, we have the truth. And that may be so. But we also have a lot of other stuff which has nothing very much,necessarily, with Christian truth. It is the baggage of centuries, some of which may be related to the truth, some of which may be very nice, and some of which is just that, baggage, and it actually gets in the way on the journey, but we are so used to carrying it that we don't know what we would do without it. We must be very wary indeed of assuming that niceness, politeness, decency, education, middle class values, preferably with a bit of high culture thrown in as well – you know mass settings by Palestrina or the poetry of Henry Kirke White or even R S Thomas – are of necessity part of what makes up the good Christian life.

The godly life does not carry cultural values with it; but we are subtly and not so subtly vulnerable to an innate cultural superiority complex, or to put it bluntly – a snobbishness that is deeply off-putting to many people. And we in the centre of the city – unlike our sister churches in, say, Radford or the Meadows – are in the frontline. One of the key concepts in 'Faithful Cities' that is encouraged by the Commission is 'churches of place'. There are many new 'churches of choice' these days, including lots of Anglican churches – churches to which people choose to go from all over the place. St Peter's and St Mary's stand in the midst of confusion and have done for a very long time. Congregationally we are churches of choice. But visually, we are churches of place, obviously. And we have developed split personalities, and this is what we are struggling with at the moment as we develop our lives. In order to be churches of place – and whether we continue to attract people from elsewhere and why is a different issue – in order to be churches of place, we are going to have to be very courageous. Because our 'place' is a very confused place, with all sorts of different pressures and tensions and possibilities, all wrestling with each other. Our place is a place which is being engineered to be one thing, but is actually a whole lot of different things for different people. It is a wilderness – some might say a jungle. But it is not God-forsaken. Nowhere is God-forsaken. That is what the incarnation is about. What astonishing, unlikely, remarkable life is to be found in the desert. But it needs eyes and ears and hearts to discern it sometimes. Those strange men and women who went out into the desert to live extraordinary lives of astringency, asceticism and prayer were not abandoning the real world, escaping from reality. Absolutely the opposite. In Egypt, metropolis and wild place sit side by side, all part of the oneness of life. They went deeper and deeper into the desert not to reject, but in order that they might see more clearly God in the world. As Laurence Freeman says in his introduction to Rowan Williams' book 'Silence and the Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert'
“It was renunciation not rejection; a passion for the absolute but not intolerance or fundamentalism; and above all not self-righteousness. They knew how easy it is for religious people to fall into the self-contradictory sin of pride, and the monks of the desert feared this pitfall more than any other....They were fighters not escapees, pilgrims not tourists. If this phenomenon erupted where it did it is perhaps because religion and geography are not unaligned. In no other country does the desert come so close to the populated world. It is not an abstract idea as the 'bush' or wilderness can be to modern people. The desert is always present to the Egyptian in the dramatic contrast between the rich black soil of the Nile valley and the sterile sand of the desert.”
It needs discernment to see God in Christ at work. And that is exactly what prayer is. It is not a question of us rushing blindly around trying to do good because that's what we think we should be doing. It is about immersing ourselves in the wilderness, about occupying the gap, about knowing that it is God who leads all his people towards the Promised Land, about clearing the debris from our lives individually and corporately so that we can pay attention to God, knowing that as we journey on in the footsteps of Jesus, we will encounter the leper, the tax collector, the demoniac, the army officer, the prostitute, the Jew and the Gentile, the Muslim and the Hindu, the Samaritan and the asylum seeker, and in them we shall see such faith that they are healed and we transformed.

But this can only ever happen when the eyes of our hearts are enlightened to see and know the hope to which he has called us, the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.

Andrew Deuchar

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