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

Resilient Praxis: Praying through trauma when you’ve never prayed before

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.

I’ve never been very good at prayer.

Well, not if “prayer” is kneeling by the bed. If prayer is rehearsed immature rhymes and tick lists of requests and begging and grovelling and words I don’t understand to a god I don’t want to know.

Thank God that none of those things have to be prayer. Not if they don’t work.

I’m grateful to a great spiritual thinker, John Drane, for the various conversations he invites on his social media pages about life. John is perceptive, wise, and real. And he says that there are some important questions for us to ask about prayer. Even if – especially if – we’ve never prayed before:

How should we pray?
Who should we pray to?
What should we pray for?
What if I get it wrong? Continue reading

“I’m ready, my Lord” – Vocation for realists

This is a sermon I originally wrote for The Preacher publication, for the coming Sunday (which happens to be Vocations Sunday). Despite the fact it was written before Christmas, I’m reproducing it here without edit, recognising that our preaching is happening in very different ways, at present. And yet still, God is calling, and people are answering… What does it look like to work out vocation in darkness?

Some time ago I wrote a reflection on that, which is a different piece to this. You’ll find it here, featuring Leonard Cohen, who also appears below…

However you are preaching and teaching at this time, I hope this is helpful in sparking your own ideas for reflection. Continue reading