Journeying with the Other

Work today has been very stimulating. Three hours with the Masters students at Coventry University’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies, where I am a visiting Research Fellow. This is my annual lecture / seminar on Northern Ireland, the peace process and the role of religion in the conflict. Around twelve eager students from twelve different countries, including one from Northern Ireland, the majority from Africa or Asia.

It is not a paid gig but it comes with year round access to the University resources and library, engagement with an interesting academic team in CPRS and, what is more important, a university staff card which gets me 10% academic discount on my Apple products!

Then this evening it was a two hour conversation on the local implications of the legislative process within the Church of England on the consecration of women to the episcopate. It provided a real insight into Anglican polity and was a good honest conversation. And in case I become too seduced by life in a Cathedral, a useful reminder of why I remain at heart Anabaptist in theology and church polity!

Both involved considerable reflection and discussion of what is involved in compromise and accommodation. What can we compromise on to reach agreement and when is it a case of finding ways to accommodate deeply held differences? What and where are the limits of accommodation when compromise is not possible?

So would the election in May of Sinn Fein as the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly break the compromise and accommodation embedded in the Belfast Agreement and its subsequent renegotiation? In short would accepting Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness as First Minister (the nomination goes to the largest party) be an accommodation too far for Unionists, even for the sake of political stability and strengthening the peace?

Indeed, this must be the ongoing dilemma for the UK Coalition government. Having compromised to form a government and then found a way to accommodate ongoing fundamental differences, at what point do events and political tensions make the accommodation untenable for the two parties?

For the church it remains a critical question. When all is said and done there is little room for compromise between the various positions. Yet is space for accommodation possible? Holding deep convictions, while remaining in a structured relationship with those who differ is difficult when the convictions we hold, in practice even if not in intention, question the values and even the essential personhood, of the other.

It is tempting to look to St Paul for an answer, especially in his handling of the question that vexed the early church. Can Jews and Gentiles be authentic followers of Jesus together while retaining their essential identity as Jews and Gentiles? At first glance it seems that the relationship between faith and handling such difference set out by Paul should provide a way ahead.

A closer look requires us to think again. When it comes to the question of eating a bacon butty, those matters of cultural practice, ritual, tradition and sometimes belief informed by our cultural values, then there is room for accommodation and even on occasion compromise.

Yet for Paul when it comes to the fundamental question of human personhood, then there is no room for accommodation, and certainly not compromise. Paul is insistent and willing to argue strongly with Peter, that whatever cultural or liturgical limitations he may take on for the sake of others, he will not back down on one fundamental issue. No one will be considered second class in the company of those who seek to faithfully follow Jesus because of who they are as a person.

This was the new thing that God had done. Jesus is good news for Gentiles as well as Jews, and Paul would not accept any practice or ruling from the church leaders that undermined this reality.

The Journey Begins

Growing up in East Belfast in the 1960’s and 70’s, Ash Wednesday was one of those times when what was understood in a knowing sort of way became acknowledged by the simple application of a visible mark to the forehead. The dark smudge which began to appear on growing numbers from late morning was as clear an indicator as possible that someone was a Catholic. It was what happened in chapels and not churches, a sign of something religious we Presbyterians didn’t care for.

We enjoyed the pancakes the day before of course. There was some sort of talk about what had to be given up – chocolate, sweets, drink! Lurking in the background there was suspicion of some of the Church of Ireland types, who were meant to be Protestant, but they too could be seen with the dark smudge. Might as well be Catholics, a comment that I now realise many of my Anglican friends would have taken as a great compliment!

It was somewhat special therefore when the first formal service of worship in a Catholic (Roman that is!) Church that I fully took part in, apart from attending to observe, was an Ash Wednesday service when I too received the smudge. It was 1993 and I was 34.

Clonard Monastery in the heart of West Belfast as the guest of my friend Father Gerry Reynolds where I was spending time getting to know its Redemptorist community better as part of my induction to my new job as Cross Community Co-ordinator at Belfast YMCA.

“From dust you have come and to dust you shall return. Turn from sin and be faithful to Christ.”

Powerful sobering words. Some of my Ulster Protestant friends would no doubt question the last injunction, indeed would believe I was doing the opposite. Yet this short and simple act marked a major step on my journey of faith in community with those of a tradition I had been brought up to suspect of such grave heresy that it no longer bore the authentic marks of church.

That journey began with another simple act. Lighting a candle as a conscious act of worship in a Coptic Orthodox church on the banks of the River Nile in Cairo. That was in 1988 in response to an amazing set of Coptic Icons painted by one of the first western women to have officially studied as a Coptic iconographer. This church was at the site where the holy family was said to have landed on their journey into Egypt.

Since coming to Coventry Cathedral I have now received ashes on each of the three years I have been here for the beginning of Lent. The first was in Claremont Parish in Cape Town, just before being taken on pilgrimage by the team at St George’s Cathedral to their chapel on Robben Island.

Ash Wednesday has rich associations for me. So in the stillness of the service I reflected on the journey that it represented; of personal faith, for the people of Northern Ireland and South Africa and today for a journey begun for the people of Egypt. And I wondered if it is often the church with our sensitivities over doctrine and desire to impose ecclesiastical authority and order, that too easily fails to see the radical nature of the journey that Lent calls us to.

Listening tonight to Allegri’s Miserere Mei I was struck afresh by the phrase the Imposition of the Ashes. Quite an evocative term, but resonant with the fact that we need to be forcefully reminded of sin in all its complexity to get us to stop, take note and begin the journey of renewal.

Pancake Blog

Time to get rid of the trivia and prepare to slow down for lent. Easier said than done.

Today began with breakfast in Berlin, lunch in Dusseldorf, followed by afternoon tea at a Chapter meeting in Coventry and pancakes for dinner at home in Meriden!

Diary and plans had allowed for a break from air travel from now until after Easter, except for the honourable exception of a weekend visit to Belfast over the Palm Sunday weekend for my mother’s 80th birthday. The travel diary for the first few months had also been well synchronised to allow for rugby weekends at home.

Alas however the best laid plans have come unstuck as I now have to travel to Hanau just outside of Frankfurt for a presentation of a Cross of Nails to a new CCN partner (Community of the Cross of Nails) church on 20 March. The devastating point is not so much the extra travel, but that I miss the last weekend of the six nations championship AND the critical Ireland / England game. Critical not in the sense of the tournament, but in the now living in England and needing the home team to win sense! Just like Ireland cricket last week.

However it is time to stand still for a season to catchup. Since leaving my previous job and beginning the process of taking up the job at Coventry I have travelled on 124 separate flights to 31 destinations using some 17 airlines and over 40 different beds! The sky blue or night blue view from the plane has been made up for with 3000 photos, 10 car hires, numerous taxis, trains, buses and car rides with new friends.

Herein lies the blessing, the countless hours in the company of the most amazing and inspiring people. Projects that challenge the status quo of hate and prejudice, initiatives to create the space for peace to take root, risks in reaching out to the historical enemy for the sake of a better future, moving acts of worship in German, Russian, Icelandic, Arabic, Dutch and Hebrew. With this comes the challenge to try to at least learn the Lord’s prayer in some of these languages of my new friends. Something to take up for Lent?

For now, time to slow down.

To cook up this pancake of memories and ingredients of movement across the globe.

To clear out the trivia of frequent flyer points and fantastic food.

To hold in my mind’s eye the wonders of nature.

To listen again to the stories of peoples and communities, division and hurt, suffering and loss.

To give thanks for those things that make for peace in communities, especially in the church.

To remember with gratitude the people, their hope and pain, which has made it all worth while.

Tomorrow Lent begins.

Lent Approaches

Living a disciplined life has never come easy to this impulsive soul. The many ideas and articles that have existed merely within the confines of my grey matter bear ample testament to this fact. You just have to take my word they did exist in this form and the large void between last new year’s declared intention to blog regularly and the threadbare product throughout 2010 prove the point!

Now another ritual of Christian discipline approaches – Lent. I’ve never been much for giving up but three years of the rhythms of an Anglican Cathedral are beginning to have their impact. Yet the contrarian in me has decided to take something up rather than setting something aside. Writing a blog comment everyday for Lent.

Of course to do this does indeed require me to give something up – an impulsive unstructured approach to reflective writing – and to take on board a disciplined approach to setting time aside each day to reflect and to do so in an ordered way that will make some sense on this blog.

So as Ash Wednesday approaches it is time to get rid of some of the old ingredients in the cupboards of my head – pancake blogs sound fun – and prepare for the fresh perspectives that the discipline of a blog may bring.