Silently Speaking

Sunset over the island of Coll

Listening to the silence

Growing up as the youngest of three, opportunities to talk were few and far between.  Each one had to be seized upon in case it would be a year before another would come again.  Silence was my chance to speak. 

Whatever the truth of my memory, the impact was that silence became an entity that I needed to fill; if I didn’t, and it continued, I would become increasingly uncomfortable.  And so I filled them.  I would jump into the silence with whatever opinion, facts or half-baked humour I could muster.  It wasn’t always the best idea. 

Filling the silence risks not hearing the very thing that needs to be heard.  Increasingly I’ve realised that isn’t me.  

I was particularly conscious of the need to keep quiet when the Me Too movement began.  I had opinions but not experience.  I was simply a man horrified by enough knowledge of the endemic abuse enacted by my sex to not jump in with the “but not every man is like that” defence.

Then came examining racism as part of my training for ordination.  I might not have experience of being an abused woman but I did have experience of being on the receiving end of racist abuse (familial experience of death threats, an arson attack and more as a result of being a different ethnic background to those around us will suffice for this blog post).  But as the lecturer’s prompts to examine our assumptions took root I realised that my experience was drowning out the silence and preventing me from hearing the experience of others.  The voices that needed to be heard were those with experience of abuse that had been suppressed by people like me jumping into fill in the silences.  The voices that needed to be heard were the people who didn’t have the protection of being a white male.

In contemplating abuse and racism I knew not to leap in with a defence or a supposed parallel experience.  Instead, I knew my need and place lay not just in keeping quiet so others could speak but in listening to what they had to say.  In not speaking I was exchanging the uncomfortable silence for the possibility of uncomfortable truths. Whether such truths were true of myself or not, by letting other people claim the silence I at least enabled the possibility of their stories changing people, including myself.

But sometimes shutting up to enable others to speak is not enough.  Listening can become a tool to absolve ourself of any responsibility to act.  Passivity can become passing the buck. Silence can become complicity.  Keeping quiet can be seen as agreement with the abuser and rejection of the victim.  Refraining from speaking can allow the abuse, racism or other negative behaviour to continue.  And listening alone can lead to views being entrenched rather than exchanged to build understanding.

It was another issue that helped me to realise that I needed to find the balance between listening and speaking: the ordination of women.  This was not simply an issue of sexism, or of patriarchy, but a theological issue as well – the Bible is used to support arguments in favour and against it.  And the differing views are not easily confined to proponents being entirely female and opponents being entirely male.  This was an issue where listening within a dialogue could be helpful.

On 12th March 2019, the 25th anniversary of the first women ordained within the Church of England brought the issue into people’s social media timelines.  It was a time where experiences and opinions were being shared.  For some it was a moment of joy, for others less so. 

Although I had not been affected by proponents or opponents of ordaining women, I had found myself wrestling with how opposing views can be held together with integrity.  I knew of people, both male and female, who held sincere theological views that supported either side of the argument.  Was the 25th anniversary of the ordination of women an appropriate time to speak out to try to instigate a constructive dialogue?  Or would breaking my silence hinder those whose time it was to be heard?  Those against ordaining women would still be against it after the anniversary so my questions could wait.  And though it might be painful for the opponents, it would be a callous person who denied people a time to celebrate.

It left me wondering, how do we engage to improve our understanding when breaking the silence may be seen as inappropriate or unhelpful?  There is, of course, no simple answer. 

I am beginning to realise that what I saw as a weakness when I was at a child is developing into a strength.  Like many, I would come up with a witty reply to a bully 5 or 10 minutes after they had left.  It infuriated me then, it’s giving me hope now.  

“Silence discovers reality.  Words do too, of course; but only words formed out of silence;  not words wildly ricocheting through the world in search of a target.”, John Killinger

Understanding comes first through listening, not just to the voice of others but to our reaction to their stories.  When we understand ourselves better we can better discern when and how to speak.  And part of that understanding is realising the degree of importance in our own voices being heard.  If we consider the other first our contribution to the conversation will hopefully be constructive, even if that means saying nothing. 

It was in saying nothing that I recently found myself encouraged.  I took my son to see Captain Marvel in the cinema.  As we left he said, “I think that might be my favourite Marvel movie”.  He didn’t mention her gender because he hadn’t thought to question why a woman wouldn’t play the lead role in a movie, just as he hadn’t questioned the ethnicity of the actors in Black Panther.  What he didn’t say spoke volumes.


Post-Script: a BBC Comedy Programme This Time with Alan Partridge gave an example of inappropriately filling the silence when discussing the Me Too movement.  It was broadcasted on 25th March 2019 and is available until 30th April 2019 (in the UK at least)

An Ordinary Office on Iona

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Iona Abbey

Earlier in 2018 a group working to make church and faith accessible to all, called Disability and Jesus, produced a Daily Office – a set of prayers for different times of the day. Their website “An Ordinary Office” includes Morning, Midday and Evening Prayer in text, Makaton, audio and video formats.

During a visit to the island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, I recorded the Morning and Evening Prayer liturgies. They were filmed at various locations on the island including Iona Abbey, Columba’s Bay (where St Columba is said to have landed from Ireland and brought Christianity to the area) and the White Strand of the Monks where visiting Vikings killed the Abbey’s Monks that had come out to welcome then).

I hope you enjoy them and find them helpful (there are subtitles available if required).

Morning prayer from Iona

Evening Prayer from Iona

An ambient tour of Iona

Over 9 minutes of peaceful landscapes filmed for the prayer videos.

Testing the limits

2384200Geraint Thomas riding to victory in the 2018 Tour de France (Source: Eurosport)

Over the course of 3 long-read blog posts I am reviewing my first year as an Ordinand, each post focused on 1 of the 3 words that sum up my first year: tea, testing and transformation.  This, the second post in the series, is all about testing, and no, they haven’t brought in doping tests for prospective priests in the Church of England.  

One section of life where tests for performance enhancing drugs is common place is sport, and in particular cycling.  Each July athletes race in the most famous cycling race in the world, the Tour de France.  For 3 weeks cyclists mix sprinting for glory with climbs up some of the highest and toughest mountains that Europe have to offer.  It is a tremendous feat of endurance just for a person to make it to the end on the Champs Élysées in Paris.  This first year of training has similarly felt like a feat of endurance.

Continue reading

Mr Tea

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More tea, Ordinand?

Tea.  Testing.  Transformational.  Three words which capture the essence of my first year of Ordination Training.  This post, the first of 3 blog posts reviewing the year, is all about the power of a cup of tea.  Well, partly.  It’s also about self-awareness and mental health.

A travelling tea set I found in the French town of Périgueux seemed just the thing for a trainee vicar who would often be away from home at a theological college.  Contained within hinged cylindrical metal case, held closed by 2 leather straps, were a trinity of tea caddies and an infuser.  It played up to the stereotype of “More Tea Vicar”, but did so on my terms: the blends of tea inside were drinkable.  Just as I don’t like instant coffee but love coffee brewed from the bean, I love lots of varieties of tea but can’t stand the crowds’ favourite of English Breakfast Tea or ‘Builder’s Tea’.  This, I know, is potentially problematic for someone who may be doing pastoral visits in England, but there is always the simplicity of a glass of water!

What was brought as a piece of amusement proved to teach me an important lessons that carried me through the year: the need for solitude and reflection, and to care for my mental health.   Continue reading

Now, what was I here for?

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The Night Before Christmas (Clement C. Moore, illustrated by Niroot Puttapipat)

Transforming something unknown into something known lies in the future. We can use our imagination and other people’s knowledge to paint a picture of what it might look like but it is only when we catch up with it, when the future becomes the present, that we begin to know the unknown. And so it has turned out with my Ordination Training.

As the training reached full-speed in early October (my studies in September were fairly light) the impact on my daily life quickly became clear: each day would be filled from rising to sleeping. My wife and I both needed to continue with our full-time jobs, my children still needed to be taken to school and clubs, household chores still needed to be done, and occasionally we even needed to eat. The only space for study was my ‘spare-time’, something I enjoyed using to spend time simply being with my family and friends. The study mean that this time would be limited, I would not be able to socialise quite as much as I did and this blog would not be added to quite as often as before. As such this post is as much an account of what it is like to train for ordination whilst working full-time as it is a reflection upon it. Continue reading

An Experiment with Daily Prayer: Part Two 

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In my previous post I wrote about my determination to find a pattern of daily prayer that suited being a working parent.  The combination of the school run, a days work, family life and church had made if difficult to find enough space and time to connect with God through dwelling on liturgy and scripture.

I decided to take 3 different sources of the Daily Office available in multiple formats and focus on each for a week: Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, the Northumbria Community’s Daily Office and the Church of England’s Time to Pray. which together combine a mixture of books, the internet, smart-phones and music.

This post is part reflection and part review of these and the impact focusing on applying them to an inconsistent and complicated schedule had on me.  As I found out when trying to do Morning, Midday and Night Prayer, not each format is necessarily suited to each part of the day. Continue reading

An Experiment with Daily Prayer: Part One

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Starting my Ordination Training has once again made me examine my pattern of prayer.  Over the years I have used lots of different patterns and sources in my attempt to take my focus off myself and onto God and others.  I have had times when it has worked, when I have tapped into a rich seem of inspirational liturgy but such times have ebbed and flowed with an unhelpful inconsistency.  This inconsistency has meant that the focusing and calming effect of prayer became vulnerable to be lost, drowned out or shut out by the distractions and pace of everyday life. Continue reading

Top 10 Tips for Starting Ordination Training

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Sarum College in Salisbury

For some, September and October marks the beginning of their ordination training. My training at Sarum College in Salisbury began a little earlier with a week-long Summer School in August. It was a welcomed opportunity to build a sense of community with the tutors and other students, and gave me a chance to pick up some tips for theological study that may be helpful; so here are my Top 10 Tips for Starting ordination training. Continue reading

Tears for Fears

The Font in Salisbury Cathedral

The Font in Salisbury Cathedral

I am now, officially and undeniably (even to myself) an Ordinand.  This week I have begin my training at Sarum College in Salisbury, a place which echoes from my past and which will be embedded in my future, for the next 3 years at least.  Although it is largely a non-residential course it has started with a weeklong Summer School: a chance to build community and get used to the fact that I really am an Ordinand.

Part of the week’s programme has included a mini-silent retreat: from Midday Prayer to Evening Prayer we have been silent.  Having been on a silent retreat before my BAP I was looking forward to this part of the week with eager anticipation.  And as I did during my pre-BAP retreat I gave control of my fingers to God and let Him reveal to me what might be on His heart and to help me articulate what was on mine.

What you will read is the result of the writing.  Normally I type away on an computer with a large screen but this time I used a phone, with interesting results: I could only see a limited amount of what I had typed and only saw the full picture when I read it on my iPad later.  It isn’t polished but it is, with a few spelling corrections, what was the silence revealed to me as I sat in Salisbury Cathedral on the afternoon of 23rd August 2017. Continue reading

Nothing to lose

 

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Preparing to worship at New Wine

 

The New Wine festival is taking place in Somerset this week and next. I can’t be there but reading tweets from those who are, and listening into some of the sessions being streamed live on the internet, has reminded me what a key moment my last trip to the festival turned out to be on my journey towards ordination training. Continue reading