I am over half-way through my Ordination Training and thoughts are starting to turn to curacy. When my diocese asked me to indicate which type of church I would and wouldn’t work with my reaction surprised me. The question saddened me. It was asking me where I belonged. At once I realised that I belonged everywhere and nowhere.
Rooted and rootless
I have always felt rootless, and it’s no secret or surprise why. As a child I moved every few years. A new place, a new school, a new set of friends to find, a new set of bullies to avoid. And when I did return to my birthplace I never felt at ‘home’. Such experiences shaped my adulthood too. I abandoned a childhood dream because the career meant multiple moves, but then moved multiple times in search of something to fill the void I had created.
I have always felt rooted too, to a place on a map but not in my memory. I have never been to my father’s homeland but it feels part of who I am – circumstances have always conspired to keep it in my imagination. When I travelled through neighbouring countries and similar cultures I felt at home. The birthplace that I hadn’t visited felt more like home than the one I had. Home was an alien place.
This has all proved to be an excellent foundation for being ordained in the Church of England, because in it I simultaneously feel both rooted and rootless.
My baptismal birthplace ostensibly rooted me in the Church of England soon after my physical birth. I didn’t stay in either place for long. When I did return to both in my twenties my birthplace felt alien to me, but childhood experiences peppered my memory to make the church feel like a home. The experiences were fewer and more oblique than any physical connection to my birthplace so, if anything, I should have felt even more rootless within the church. In reality the church and the Christian faith felt as familiar as my father’s homeland.
Having been to churches of different denominations, theologies, styles, sounds, smells and sizes I had simply considered myself a Christian. When I finally gave in and began exploring my calling I didn’t choose the church I did it within, but I did examine the church I was within. Whether ordained by God or circumstance, I found that I had rooted myself within the Church of England, but where? Labels of churchmanship, styles and theologies were being banded about that I hadn’t stopped to consider or considered important when I went to church – I’d simply gone to church.
I examined my Anglican roots more and more as my time of discernment transformed into a time of training. I discovered that the Church of England is in one sense the perfect place for the rootless Christian. Being such a broad church it isn’t hard to find a place to belong, even if it isn’t where your journey with God began. But it is also a church, whether you are rooted within it or not, where it can feel like an alien place.
Belonging but not belonging
My training has exposed me to church styles, theologies and traditions that I hadn’t fully comprehended beforehand. As I experience more of the richness of the Church of England I feel more excited and feel my roots get deeper, wider and stronger. Yet as I continually examine who I am, where I have come from and where I belong in the church I find churchmanship, traditions and tribes within it that increasingly make me feel rootless. I feel like I’m a tethered balloon, floating above the diversity of the Anglican Communion. I can see much more than when I first took off but now I’m unable to see where I am anchored. And I’m unable to see the boundaries of my belonging.
From above I sometimes see people in a superiority contest, seemingly competing to be the dominant branch. I see tribes insisting on people being either in or out. I see labels and stereotypes applied that deny complexities. Some show little respect for the broad nature of the Church of England. Some show little inclination to understand or learn from difference. Some show little appreciation of the struggles that those of other traditions have with their own, let alone others. Instead of dialogue and understanding I see such groups casting difference out. Instead of people welcomed I see people being shunned. Instead of bridges I see barriers.
There is much to love, respect and learn from in aspects of the Christian faith and church that we do not wholly subscribe to. I have been to churches with whom I disagree fundamentally about a key aspect but have still been blessed by. I have been to churches that fit my comfort zones but have left aggrieved by something I have seen or heard. In other words, I have found love where I expected to find despair and found despair where I expected to find love.
Settling for unsettling
When I consider my future I consider my past. I thank God for all the people and prayers that brought me to where I am. I thank God for the things which I now disagree with and the things which have stayed the same.
When I consider my past I consider my future. I see disagreement but I don’t feel the need to agree, instead I seek to understand. When I see arrogance and superiority, I seek to consider the other. When I see the cliques that keep the outsiders outside, I seek to welcome all. When I see the condescension that leads to division, I seek to encourage people together.
There is one thing which is certain to be part of my future ministry: to welcome people into the church and to protect them from its tribal nature for as long as possible. If I can do that they can find their own way, they can cross the boundaries between traditions, they can find where they belong. Maybe that will be within the anglo-catholic, evangelical, liberal or other wings of the Church of England, maybe it wont. Maybe they won’t just transcend labelled styles but labelled denominations.
I know that I belong in the Church of England and I hope others will feel that too – I love it for the way it reflects life in all its complexity. But what matters most to me is not whether people accept a particular denomination, or a tradition within it, but that they accept Christ.
Sometimes I envy those who can narrowly define and label their faith – there is comfort in knowing precisely which community is yours. But I have settled for being unsettled. I cannot confine my faith to a box. I need an eclectic space with space for wide, not narrow, roots. That is why I love the Church of England: I belong to it as a whole, not a branch of it.