I’ve had confirmation of passing training, I’ve been sent details of the service at the Minster, and so after a few years’ discernment and two years’ training I am about to be licensed as a Reader in the Church of England. It hasn’t always been terribly easy, and there were several points when I honestly thought I would have to abandon it. But it seems that my cassock, surplice and blue scarf shall be flitting around the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire border after all. I’ve even been invited to preach at the Halter-Devil Chapel at some point, and who wouldn’t accept that invitation?
Reaching this point inevitably causes a certain amount of retrospection. I’ve learned a lot of things over the last couple of years, and the Church itself looks very different to me now. So there may be an occasional series on the subject here on the blog. I’ll start with this – that I’m not as radical as I thought I was.
I had begun ministerial training thinking of myself as a bit of a radical. In fact training made me more theologically conservative, but that’s another story. It also revealed that what I thought of as my radicalism was rather shallow. It had too much in common with the figure of Uncle Giles in A Dance to the Music of Time, the fading, rather selfish character who spends most of his time trying to get an advance on the money from the family trust, whilst declaring his radical opinions.
I think the problem stems from the assumptions I had about the Church. As I’ve just mentioned above, that Church does not really exist. I had imagined churches full of people who more or less believed the same things. I expected a kind of standard English Protestant traditionalism, long on personal responsibility and charity towards others. Fond of quoting Bible stories but little knowledge of Biblical criticism as a scholarly field. Congregations of people who had been in the Church since Sunday School, who knew their parables and knew the popular interpretations of them – who would tend to look for how the day’s readings proved that we should trust Jesus, not put worldly things before God, and put others before ourselves.
In this Church, it would be my job to shake things up a little. People would like that, if I didn’t do it too drastically. I looked forward vaguely to preaching how the doctrine of the Incarnation gave us a Christian basis for human rights and dignities. To pointing out that the early Church, as depicted in the Bible, would be accused of being hippies or Communists if they tried any of that holding property in common these days. To describing Jesus as an immigrant and a working-class man from a small town. As an academic, working in a socially liberal atmosphere, it would be my job to rephrase the familiar and long-held doctrines and beliefs into challenging contemporary shapes.
But the Church I had imagined was not there. The congregations were much more various than I had expected. The same went for the Christians I came into contact with during training and visiting other churches. There was no standard Christian, brought up on middle-of-the-road Protestantism and secure in the slightly old-fashioned doctrines of Creation, Incarnation and Atonement. Or if there was, I couldn’t find them. People’s beliefs ranged across a much wider spectrum. Far from being complacent from years of church-going, and sure that they knew what each Gospel passage meant, they were keen on hearing expositions of them. Many had not been Christians for most of their lives, or had left as children and were now coming back.
The sheer diversity of the people I met in and around the churches baffled me. They obstinately refused to be who I thought they should be, and almost none of them thought what I expected they should think. One might have been to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, but was unfamiliar with the name of John Henry Newman. Another might mention an American feminist preacher approvingly, but be unclear on which books were in the Old Testament rather than the New. I wasn’t sure how to address people in this situation. What, for example, was the point of quoting St John Chrysostom to the effect that if one did not find Christ in the face of the beggar at the church door, one would not find him in the chalice? I had expected that sort of line to be a rather daring challenge to a congregation’s assumptions. But it would hardly have the same effect if some of the congregation thought of the Church as essentially a social justice movement and others already knew Chrysostom’s works?
It became clear that the Church I expected did not exist, and nor did my role in it. If I wanted to be a licensed radical, subverting the stolidity of the Church’s edifice, then I would have to build that edifice myself, and then subvert it. Which would seem a pretty peculiar way of going about things. Put another way, no-one else was going to be the standard, traditional, normal Church against which I could show myself to be a bit of a radical. They were busy being members of the Church in ways which surprised and confounded my expectations. My ideas of my own radicalism suddenly looked rather adolescent and selfish.
So if I couldn’t do that, what could I do? The answer – at least for the moment – was suggested by a book I had been reading. When my training course set me chapters from George Herbert’s The Country Parson, a priest I knew advised me to make sure to read some of Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor as well. Quite unexpectedly, the words of the great English Puritan suggested what I should do. Preach the Gospel. Expound the Bible. Teach the Christian religion.
The prospect boggled me slightly. I had expected to find a tightly-meshed religious system, where everything in the Bible lead round to the same few conclusions – and which it was my job to prise open a little by showing how many interpretations there could be of the same passage. Instead it seemed to be taken as read that there were loads of possible meanings, and it was my role to show how Christianity offered a view of the world and a system which made sense of them and revealed God in Christ. There were to be no provocative epigrams delivered at the centre from the self-consciously far-out position. If I wanted to take this on, I would have to be in the muddle at the middle. Preaching the Gospel. Expounding the Bible. Teaching the Christian religion.