What good is God-with-us?

This Tweet is where my sermon prep for Advent 4 started. I was grateful for the engagement it generated and the ideas it spawned.

I have been guilty, too much and too often, of using the promise of Emmanuel (God-with-us) to leave my privilege unchallenged. I am quick to hear and offer the cosy reassurance of a Renaissance Nativity scene: pale-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Madonna and child huddled in the straw – peaceful, serene, comfortable. Just like me.

When life is a little tough, it’s ok – God is with us. God is like us. God is for us.

Nothing wrong with this, of course. Except for the reinforcement it gives of my unconscious bias. My failure to see God in those who are different. And to see those who are different in the history of God-with-us.

Told uncritically, the ancient narratives of these holy mysterious become, without our awareness, a toxic us and them. God-with-us-not-them

One of the questions I took to the pulpit today was this:

How do we share in Mary’s vocation to be the God-bearer, without reducing God to be made in our image?

Advent 4 is not really about Mary at all. Mary’s vocation, as with all vocations, points us on to Christ. The one who began life alongside us all, in the dark comfort of the womb, in the trauma of the birth canal, in the cold comfort of swaddling cloths, is the one we are each called to bear to the world.

Except we don’t carry the baby. We carry the Light in the darkness, the Word made flesh.

The deaths of four people – one a teenager – and the rescue of 39 others – eight of them children – was given 48 seconds of time in Prime Ministers’ Questions last week, hours after a rubber dinghy full of desperate migrants, some wearing only thin t-shirts, sank in the freezing waters of the English Channel last week.

What good is the promise of God-with-us, if God was not also with those people, on that boat, under that water?

I couldn’t show a photo of a rubber dinghy this morning. It felt too taboo, too close to home, maybe too challenging? While I’d shown images of the Holy Family from around the world, challenging how we understand God-with-us, this slide remained blank.

Mary’s role as the God-bearer brings comfort and challenge. Mary bears the Christ Child on behalf of us all, to show us that God is not found only in the softly-lit stable scene, nor the rousing carols, nor the stillness of Christmas night.

Christ is found, too, in the darkest, most awful of places:

Perched on an overcrowded rubber dinghy
Dashing frantically across a protected border
Inside a migrant camp, where the tents are trashed and the women are too


Queueing with a crumpled voucher at a foodbank
Waiting in the relatives’ room of a hospital ward
In the deathly crush of a terrified crowd
Under the ice of a frozen lake
In the empty side of a double bed
In the back of a queueing ambulance, an empty field of failed crops, a shelled-out building with blood staining the walls

What good is God, if God is not here?

The Nativity is not the story of triumphalist white pro-natalism that I am tempted to make it.

The appearance of the angel to Joseph heralds the truth of the incarnation: this baby is Emmanuel, God-with-us, Jesus – Saviour – the one who liberates us from the miry, dark, life-wrecking power of sin.

God with us.
God in us.
God for us.

All of us.

So if that’s where God is – in the places where sin hurts – then where are we? And where are we called to be? How are we working, with Mary, with God, to alleviate suffering, to minister justice and work for truth? Because joining in this work of God-bearing – this is what it means to say Emmanuel – God-with-us.

A trauma-informed Advent

“Is it just me, or are things a bit difficult at the moment?”
“Is it just me, or is there a heaviness in the air?”
“Is it just me, or are these burdens feeling a little heavy?”

Is it just me?

I started this term asking these questions of people I work with, for and alongside. By October I stopped asking, and started listening even more intently. Listening to stories of low-level and serious struggles, and, perhaps more cripplingly, a nebulous, pervasive sense of creeping darkness that heralded the approaching winter and yet couldn’t quite be pinned by words and prayers.

By then it wasn’t a question, but a statement of fact:

“Things seem really tough at the moment”.

“Things seem really tough at the moment. How are you doing?”

How are you doing?

I started my Advent Sunday sermon a bit like this, this morning. And the room filled with sage nods and nervous laughter.

It’s not just me and it’s not just you. It’s not about us as individuals at all, although some, I know, are going through awful things right now.

It’s country-wide, perhaps global (although perhaps some parts of the world are much better at living in this ominous space than we in the privileged West) and it’s more about our collective sense of wellbeing and cohesion than it is about me or you alone.

The Gospel reading for Advent 1 captured the mood well. Perhaps especially coming, in the wisdom of the Lectionary, after weeks of Revelation and Daniel in the Morning Prayer readings. “No one knows. Stuff will happen. World-changing stuff. And no one knows when. So stay awake”.

The problem is, we have had to stay awake for a long time. David Kessler wrote near the start of the pandemic about the heightened state of existence that he calls “anticipatory grief” – the fear that something bad, or worse, is just around the corner. Through the early days of the pandemic we lost a sense of control – or at least, we woke up to the illusion that we ever had such a thing.

And ever since, we have remained on the edge, simultaneously recovering and rebuilding while uncertain about where the axe will fall next: cost of living, fuel shortage, nuclear playthings, strike action, a health service on its knees, a rise in extremism, the climate crisis, displaced people – in their millions, viral mutations… Stay awake, stay awake, stay awake – something bad is going to happen.

We can’t go on in this heightened state. We need to find an anchor – and trauma theory argues that the anchor is about safety. It is a sense of safety that will enable us to break free from the processes of fear and trauma that have grown to become so normal that we don’t realise we are cycling round them fuelled by ever-decreasing adrenaline.

The STAR (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience) team at Eastern Mennonite University use the Cycles of Violence to talk about the affect trauma has on individuals and communities. When we are traumatised we “act in”, causing harm to ourselves, and we “act out”, causing harm to others. These cycles are difficult to break, and we rationalise them by telling ourselves, and others, that these are the path to healing and recovery: we will make things good by shutting down (acting in) and repelling further threats (acting out). We write “well-meaning scripts that can lead to deadly cycles of violence” (Carolyn Yoder, 2020, Chapter 4).

Trauma theory argues that we have to break free from these cycles by seeking safety and security. It is not until we feel safe, until we are safe, that we can begin the journey of trauma recovery. We’re not there yet – we don’t feel safe.

So this is where we find ourselves. At the start of the Advent journey, living through the aftermath of collective trauma, anticipatorily grieving, seeking safety. Disorientated, exhausted, but together. It’s not just me, and it’s not just you.

What is safety, anyway? The primary theme of Advent is that we wait, we anticipate (that word again – can it be redeemed?), we hope, we hold on – but nowhere do we become safe. Quite the opposite – Advent is a reminder that in the turmoil and darkness of the hardest moments in life, something better is on the way.

Hope in oppression
Light in darkness
Wisdom in foolishness


And yet the people of God through time and across place have rarely been materially, physically, emotionally safe. The safety we seek, the safety we crave, has to be about more than this. The world has been uncertain and dangerous, for more people, across a greater spectrum of time, than it has been secure and safe.

That is why the people of Isaiah’s vision look ahead to judgement, justice, and peace:

In days to come
   the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
   and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
   Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
   to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
   and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
   and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
   and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more.

Isaiah 2:1-5

But more than this, the Church has, at times, failed to be the place of safety it should have been. This isn’t a post about safeguarding, but neither can any conversation about trauma and safety shy away from the work that MUST be done to establish this most basic sense of safety: to place survivors of abuse front and centre, to redouble efforts to establish the policies and procedures that create healthy culture, to recognise and own our complicity in cultivating not safe, but dangerous spaces, and to affect culture change from the inside out so that all this work is not ‘head’ work but ‘heart’ work.

So what might a trauma-informed Advent look like?

We have to learn to live again in uncertainty as people of hope, in fear as people of faith, in darkness as people of light. Safety has to be something we seek out in ourselves, in one another, in God, however ungraspable and fleeting those glimpses; a re-orientation that establishes our footing and sets our faces towards the mountain once more. We have to be aware: aware of our trauma-driven tendency to act out and act in, and aware of our need to break free and move beyond. Aware of our own failings and failures and frailties, and ready to allow another to help us move around these.

Beyond this, I think there will be more. Good times and bad – hard work and deep rest, and the significant task of continuing to rebuild, and (at times) tear down, to establish places of healing and sanctuary, to work out which path to take as we head to the mountain.

For now, we travel on, we travel together, and we travel towards Christ.

Sitting at the tomb

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.

Matthew 27:61

The challenge of trauma is the challenge of witnessing to a phenomenon that exceeds the categories by which we make sense of the world.

Shelly Rambo, Spirit and Trauma.

We sit in silence, our tears baked by the sun and crisp upon our skin. The horror of the past day lurks somewhere beyond us. Too awful to absorb and too persistent to turn away from. And so we keep watch. A silent vigil of grief and mourning. The loss of a friend, a leader, a dream. The loss of what could have been. What should have been! It is finished, he is finished, but for us the turmoil is only beginning. Exhausted from adrenaline and heroics we have little left to give. Finally left to make sense of the senseless.

Which of us in the West can make sense of the world right now? The privileged security of we who had everything has been shaken to its core. Yes, pandemic and war and growing political instability all threaten to overwhelm. But the channels run deeper too. The injustice and wrong that has always dwelt among us has been exposed, and we can no longer avert our eyes from racism, sexism, from abuse of human rights on our doorsteps, from the way the actions of white British people on the global stage threaten to pull apart the fundamentals that we thought had glued us together.

We are traumatised. Individually, collectively. Those of us with the privilege of economic, political and social security – at least in a relative sense – are now having to learn to navigate a world more uncertain, more dangerous, less forgiving, than we have ever known.

How then, shall we live? How do we begin to make sense of the senseless that fills our newsfeeds and dominates our headlines and creeps into towns and households and families not too far or too different from our own?

The pressure to get over, to forget, to wipe away the past, is often reinforced by one particular way of reading Christian redemption. The narrative of triumphant resurrection can often operate in such a way as to promise a radically new beginning to those who have experienced a devastating event.  Linear reading of cross and resurrection places death and life in a continuum; death is behind and life is ahead; life emerges victoriously from death. This way of reading, can, at its best, provide a sense of hope and promise for the future. But it can also gloss over the realities of pain and loss, glorify suffering, and justify violence.

Shelly Rambo, Spirit and Trauma.

Trauma theologian Shelly Rambo calls us to live carefully through Holy Saturday. We rush, she argues, from Friday to Sunday. From despair to hope. From sorrow to joy.

There is no rushing survivors of trauma.

The work of trauma healing demands that the survivor faces the worst before they move beyond. Safety and acknowledgement before reconnection and re-creation, argues trauma psychologist Judith Herman.

Right now, we are all trauma survivors. And right now, it’s Holy Saturday. The bleak place between death and life. Tomorrow, churches across the land will celebrate resurrection and joy.

But for many of us it is too soon. We will go along with it, but inside we are not yet there.

What if, for now, God is calling us to sit together in Holy Saturday? In the place of mourning, the place of disorientation, the bed of loss from which the slow work of healing might grow?

It’s not a triumphant place. And for many of us this will not sit comfortably. Collective triumph has been easy for at least a generation – although perhaps we hardly knew it.

Holy Saturday is not the place of triumph, but it is the place of the Mission Dei – the work, the sending, of God.

Holy Saturday is the moment when God did God’s greatest and most hidden work.

Holy Saturday is not a place of the quick fix, but it is the foundation for new life.

As Rambo urges us to heed, there is no rushing through this place. Somehow, we need to establish safety here, in our traumatised selves. We need to find the language and resources – the confidence to use these – before we can move on.

Perhaps for some of us this is about repentance. About a reckoning that we are still to fully attend to. In the words of Sanjee Perera, the Archbishops’ Adviser on Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns, this Holy Week: ‘How much do you want to change this world that suits you so well?

For others, it may be about rest. Certainly it is about prayer.

Holy Saturday is a place of powerlessness. And so we need to find some new sense of agency, beyond ourselves, that will take us from this lonely tomb. There is something in the work of God this Holy Saturday that draws us into the waiting, the watching – the utter helplessness of the salvation which is beyond anything we ourselves could enact or imagine.

What does our life, together and as individuals, look like in this place of Holy Saturday? So many unknowns. We cannot dream or strategise ourselves out of this place. This is a place of growing trust and deep patience. The place of the night watch, where we wait in solidarity with all who have known exile and pain. It is not a place for heroics – the time for that is long gone. Neither is it a place of nothingness – that too, has passed us by. It is the uncomfortable in-between. The liminal space where some will feel called to action and others to rest. Where some will need to heal and recover, and others will need to plant seeds afresh. How do we hold together the varying and sometimes competing agendas, priorities, concerns, interests and needs that pull us so strongly both apart and together?

I do not know the answer to this. But I do know that we must tread gently, slowly, and with deep kindness for one another. We are tired, and many of us are in retreat because we just cannot bear any longer the frenetic doing that has shaped our corporate lives of faith for so long. We must find new ways of being together. Being and not doing. Perhaps it will be work enough to cultivate this art of being-simply-together.

The joy of tomorrow, of Easter, is not that everything is all over.

The joy of tomorrow is that in our watching and waiting, our moment of Holy Saturday, still we are not alone. However long this season lasts, God is still speaking, still with us, still at work. Together we wait, with our eye fixed on the awfulness of the tomb, and we wait for the dawn.

Book Review: Listen, by Dr Kathryn Mannix

I spent yesterday with colleagues who are training for lay ministry in the Church of England: all of them experienced in and committed to the deep, tough work of listening. Those training for Pastoral Worker ministry reflect on listening in three spheres: listening to God, listening to self, and listening to others.

Yesterday wasn’t about listening. Yesterday we talked about the mission of the chuch: the work that each of us, as disciples is drawn into as we work for transformation; bringing integrity to that line of the Lord’s Prayer “your kingdom come, your will be done” prayed, as Grace Thomas reminded us, not in the future tense but the present.

Yesterday wasn’t about listening. Except it was. Time and again conversation came back to the reality of mission not as “doing to”, but “being with”: as Sam Wells has so helpfully expounded in his recent work.

The work of being with starts and ends with listening. And Kathryn Mannix knows this too, using in her recent book Listen: How to find the words for tender conversations, the same language as Wells to argue that we root our work for others not in “interfering”, but in asking first, and listening, “Being with, walking alongside: not doing to” (118).

Mannix writes out of her context as a palliative care doctor, and yet she writes not only for the clinical environment, but for those who might find themselves needed to engage in tender conversation – that’s all of us. Using a clear structure on which to hang both treasures of wisdom and anecdotes that ground them – as well as the encouragement that it’s normal to get this wrong sometimes, that we get better with practice – she talks her readers through how to create, shape and finish difficult conversations, likening the art of conversation to a dance: “forwards and backwards, sharing and preserving the space” (3).

There is much in Mannix’s writing that we can bring into dialogue with questions of power and leadership. I remain deeply moved by Rosie Harper and Alan Wilson’s reimagining of an episcopal ministry rooted in attentive, responsive listening in To Heal and not to hurt: their exploration of harmful culture in the Church of England. Towards the end of the book, they reshape the narrative of one survivor of abuse, imagining how a tender conversation may have brought healing rather than fresh hurt.

Al Barratt and Ruth Harley, in Being Interrupted, touch on the power dynamics of tender conversations through Nelle Morton’s ideas of ‘hearing to speech’: “speaking first to be heard is power-over. Hearing to bring forth speech is empowering” (137). Mannix draws this out in her anecdote about ‘Mr A’ and ‘Jake’: “By suspending all judgement and offering him a space for shared thinking, Mr A surprised Jake, who was expecting a disciplinary conversation” (54).

Few within the Church of England would argue that attentive listening to others is unimportant, or irrelevant for the mission and work of the church. So why are we still so bad at it? Perhaps because we parody the ministry of listening as a passive add on to be done by those who are calmer, gentler, less busy, less important, than me? Sure – listening is not glamorous and it asks us to shut up. Dedicated, intentional, attentive listening is hard work. But it’s not passive, and it’s far too fundamental to God, to a life of faith, to what it means to be a human being, to be left as an add-on to the Church’s ministry, done by a gentle few, while the rest of us get on with the important work of talking.

There is also something much deeper for us to hear. Mannix’s writing didn’t just speak to me about one to one conversation. I wanted to draw out what tender conversations might look like not just in the pastoral encounter, but in the interactions of a group, a community, an (can we still say it?) institution, as it engages with the world around it. What might it look like for the Church to hear God’s call not to be the dominant voice, the place of knowledge, the loudest shouter, but instead to be the one who joins (not leads) the world in tender conversation? The place not where answers and solutions are given, however unasked for and unneeded, but where questions can be posed, the unspeakable can be uttered, and comfort can be found not in words, but in attentive, loving presence?

Mannix’s approach to listening and problem solving has echoes of a ‘Third Chair‘ approach to spiritual accompaniment, or an Appreciative Inquiry model of supervision: “Each person is best placed to solve their own difficulties; the style we have adopted is one of curiosity and interest, being present as a companion and not as an expert or ‘fixer’ (94). And so what might this look like not just in one to one settings, but as the Chuch engages with the world; as communities of faith engage with the places in which they are set? “Where are the listening spaces?” asks Mannix (257) and I want to shout out in response “over here!” – but are we ready for that task?

Might it be that as we enter a listening space we become aware that we stand on hallowed ground? Might it be that as we commit again to collecting, corporate listening to others, we hear the still voice of God in the most unlikely of places? Might it be that God will find us, once we quieten down and stop our desperate noisy search for and signposting to God?

I’ve made this much more complicated than it needs to be. And that is why I am so grateful to Mannix for writing something so accessible, readable and simple. Reading her work is like being taken by the hand and guided through a rich woodland of wisdom and practical tips. And if you get lost on the way, it hardly matters: her Listening Style Guide acts as a helpful map to refer back to. No panic necessary.

So we need to start small and we need to start big. We need to practice, time and again, this most simple but profound art of conversation, It doesn’t mean never speaking. It doesn’t mean we might not sometimes be able to offer insight, wisdom, direction.

But we have talked too loud for too long. As we emerge from a global crisis, as we wonder how on earth we begin to rebuild and serve and find the strength to go again, might it not be an idea, both locally and nationally and at every place inbetween, to stop, to listen, and to rediscover the art of tender conversation? I suggest we start with listening to Dr Mannix, who might just have something to say to us about the art of listening well.

Fearless and fierce: Following after Mary of Nazareth

Behold, for I am fearless and therefore powerful.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein.

For weeks I have wanted to bring this quote into dialogue with my emerging ideas of leadership and power, but I’ve not known where to start. Shelley’s words, spoken by her monster as it torments Victor Frankenstein, are not comfortable ones to sit with. A power rooted in fearlessness is surely dangerous power? Isn’t fear a key regulator of leadership? Fear of inflicting pain (and the correlative desire to bring healing), fear of making mistakes (and the correlative striving for excellence), fear of letting co-labourers and those we serve down (and the correlative other-ness at the heart of Servant Leadership) – these fears are surely healthy, in moderation, and enable leaders to keep their power in check.

And yet the quotation has not let me go, and I need to ask why. What part has fear played in my own leadership? Was it healthy? What about in others I observe? Has fear been the positive driver for healthy exercise of power, or does fear, like anxiety, actually infect, paralyse and harm institutions, spreading through groups in the virus-like ways that Edwin Friedman identified so well?

Fearlessness makes us powerful, but so does fear. The drive to constantly cover our mistakes lest we are found out, to cast others aside for fear we ourselves will be left behind, the relentless push for success and growth that leaves us paralysed with exhaustion and still no less fearful of our fate: these are powerful forces that have great potential to cause harm. The current Netflix hit Squid Game offers gruesome but insightful commentary on the power of fear to as it feeds discontent, paranoia and egotism (content warning: that links direct to the horrifically violent episodes on Netflix).

I want to redeem the idea of fearlessness, not as recklessness or lack of self-regulation, but as a way to seek transformative power: power that brings change and builds wellbeing.

And in the midst of these reflections, I discovered both Ann Loades’ book, Grace is not Faceless, as well as Elisabeth Frink’s sculpture Walking Madonna, at Salisbury Cathedral (both courtesy of Edward Dowler’s review of Loades in the Church Times).

Frink’s introduces us to Mary of Nazareth in her old age. Her she is, not as the pious virgin that so many preachers and commentators would like us to imagine, but ravaged by the sword destined to pierce her soul from the moment of her “yes”. The Walking Madonna is fearless. Turning with her back to the Cathedral, she strides boldly towards the town. This frail elderly lady turns her back on the mammoth structure of the institution, and hurries away to – to what?

Nicholas Mutton / Walking Madonna statue, Salisbury Cathedral / CC BY-SA 2.0

Let’s take Frinks’ Madonna back in time for a moment. I have written before about my encounter with Bellini’s painting The Presentation of Christ. I have shared my own journey of motherhood, and how Bellini helped me unlock the narratives of Mary of Nazareth not as pious virgin, but as fearless mother of Jesus Christ. What I noticed recently was not just the torment in Mary’s eyes, but the position of Christ in the painting.

Unlike Luke’s Gospel, in Bellini’s painting, Mary doesn’t let go. She holds that boy with all the lioness passion of the postnatal woman. Mary stands flanked by women: the world of women coming alongside the world of men. And where is Christ? Turned towards the women, eyes fixed on the one who brought him fiercely to birth, with his back to the men who might so easily stand for the patriarchy of institutions whose “deep cultural structures legitimate women’s exclusion” (Beard, 2017,83). Christ turns his back on the power and privilege that long to take him, shape him, and raise him as their own. It is a turning away that we see Christ do time and again in Luke’s Gospel: away from power and privilege; towards the oppressed and the marginalised.

If women are not perceived to be fully within the structures of power, surely it is power we need to redefine, rather than women?

Beard, 2017, 83.

It was Mary of Nazareth who helped me to use my own experience of motherhood to redefine power. The attentiveness I had to give to each present moment as gift (and having no energy to do anything else!), the fiery compassion as I came to see every person as someone’s child, the letting go of ambition and strategy – these things formed my vocation as a female leader. Motherhood affirmed, proclaimed and enriched my identity as priest and disciple.

We need to redefine power. Isn’t that what Mary herself said, as the seeds of divine rescue plan took rest within her?

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour…

…He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

Luke 1, NRSV.

There was something about motherhood that helped me to find my fearlessness. Motherhood took me through the worst pain I had ever experienced: physically and emotionally. Motherhood brought me face to face with the reality of death: in the lives lost in my womb, in the trauma and danger of childbirth, in the postnatal depression that left me suicidal. Motherhood was the sword that pierced my soul, and left me standing with Mary in solidarity, and fearlessness.

It is this fearlessness that helps me stay alert to the dangers of exercising leadership. It is fearlessness that stops me in the tracks of self-interest, that reminds me to speak out for the voiceless even at a cost, because so often I have a voice where others don’t. It is fearlessness that keeps me serving within an institution that leaves so many dear friends burned out. It is fearlessness that focuses my gaze back on the present moment: attentive to today without too much concern for next year.

Fearless leadership can be powerful leadership, but not how we might think. This is not the power of Frankenstein monster, intent on tormenting its creator without care for consequence. This is a leadership which is powerful in its letting go of self-centredness. This is a leadership which is powerful in its commitment to the present moment. This is a leadership which is powerful in its deep awareness of what is “going on” in any given context: resisting anxiety and fear as drivers to quick words and action, and knowing the power of silence and stillness when all around is chaos and panic.

Beware, for I am fearless and therefore powerful.

The Walking Madonna leads us in this way of fearless leadership. Where is she walking to? Perhaps that’s not so important as what she is walking from. There is great power in this small figure, with her back to the Cathedral, echoing Bellini’s portrayal of her infant son, similarly frail, similarly fierce: united by their turning away, and their turning to.

Is this how we begin to redefine power? With a fearlessness that makes us all for the other and which is unapologetic about the ‘turning from’ that we need to do if we are to cultivate a healthy leadership that will last the course, no matter how many times the swords pierce our souls?

We need to talk about power

Last week, on International Women’s Day, I attended a virtual book launch for Gabrielle Thomas’ monograph For the Good of the Church. Gabby was joined by Tina Beattie and Paula Gooder, both of whom spoke about their experience as women navigating their ways through male-dominated spaces: the volume of the male-authority voice, the silencing of women, male fragility and guilt, the idealising of women including the pressure to ‘mother’, the requirement to dialogue in male ways rather than female ways, and the locking away of the authentic female voice, which is often neither heard nor understood. Continue reading

Blood, mess, and tears: A Candlemas song

This is a reworking of an earlier blog post, so please forgive the self-plagiarism!

Her silence screams through this story. Voiceless amid the raging hormones, she presents herself and her child: vulnerable but strong; polluted by blood destined to make others pure. This is her story, told by men, through men, for men.

This is Candlemas. A scene unfolding around the healing body of a woman who would have been torn open in childbirth, and who was about to hear the terrifying prophecy of a sword piercing her soul at the pain she would watch her son encounter as he grew. Continue reading

A pregnant pause: waiting with Mary

The last few days of pregnancy were terrible. I thought it would be all Downton Abbey boxsets and chocolate on tap.

It wasn’t.

It was anxiety and discomfort and last minute jobs and mad rushes to the hospital for monitoring and wondering and second guessing and mess and pain.

It was the physical strain of being so close to the end, so close that every hour mattered. Every hour the pregnancy went on was another hour of my body stolen from me. Of comfort taken away and of a tortuous, drawn our anticipation of the tiny life which would turn my own completely upside down in ways yet to be realised. The fear of what might happen – could happen – even with the reassurance of modern medicine. Lonely hours spent in hospital bays, waiting, wondering, hoping… Continue reading

Resilient Praxis: Together Apart

Resilient Praxis is a new series of blog posts here on Out of the Chancel, exploring “Pastoral Theology in the wake of a pandemic”.

In the middle of a crisis it is difficult to reflect effectively. We are learning and adapting in ‘real time’. There will be time, in the months and years ahead, to tidy up this work of reflecting and learning. To trim the edges and plump up the middles.

But for now, pastoral care is still happening. Ministry is still happening. In fact we never stopped. And so these posts will give some space for reflection on what has been, what is, and what is to come. Not tidy, packaged praxis. But praxis that is rough around the edges. Praxis that hasn’t stopped. Praxis that will get us through. Resilient praxis.

Together; apart.

The lovely people of Timperley Parish might be fed up of hearing me use this phrase! It’s one I used early on in the pandemic, quoting Leo Varadker: to be together… we have to be prepared to stay apart”

Together; apart is a motif that has stayed with my preaching and reflections through this pandemic. It describes so much our scattered life – each of us within our various bubbles, but still networked together through friendship and prayer. Continue reading

Resilient Praxis: Prayer is not private

Resilient Praxis is a new series of blog posts here on Out of the Chancel, exploring “Pastoral Theology in the wake of a pandemic”.

In the middle of a crisis it is difficult to reflect effectively. We are learning and adapting in ‘real time’. There will be time, in the months and years ahead, to tidy up this work of reflecting and learning. To trim the edges and plump up the middles.

But for now, pastoral care is still happening. Ministry is still happening. In fact we never stopped. And so these posts will give some space for reflection on what has been, what is, and what is to come. Not tidy, packaged praxis. But praxis that is rough around the edges. Praxis that hasn’t stopped. Praxis that will get us through. Resilient praxis.



O blest communion, fellowship divine,
we feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

Hymn: For all the Saints

As places of worship in the UK are asked to suspend gathered, in-person acts of worship, we’re seeing the rise of a phrase I’d hardly heard before 2020.

“Private prayer”.

As in: “The church will be open for private prayer”.

I know what we mean by it. We mean that buildings are accessible for anyone to come and pray quietly. That the sanctuary and peace of these thin places is open to all who need it. And that the activity that takes place within will not be “co-ordinated”, or “synchronous”, or “organised”, or “gathered”. “Private Prayer” is a helpful shorthand for this.

But our language matters. And prayer is never, ever, private. Continue reading