Monday, 15 July 2013

Staying in Legenderry

Sarah and I have decided to stay in Derry.  My course, the MTh for ordinands, runs just half the weeks of the year, and we feel extremely settled in this town we have come to call home.  I only moved here in my mid-twenties, yet this is the place I was confirmed and we were married, and where Sarah has found a fulfilling role working for the Bishop, and we have found our spiritual home at Christ Church, and made friends.

Derry feels like a world apart.  It has its own identity.  When Belfast-bound, coming over the Glenshane Pass, suddenly Mid-Ulster stretches out in front of you.  Flat, green.  Tame?  You are now entering Norn Iron.  Coming back the same way, this point feels like entering a transition zone, a sort of special administration nestled between 'Norn Iron Proper' and County Donegal.

In Belfast, Maghera, Newry, Omagh, the lingo is referred to as 'Norn Iron' - what's the craic wi' them waines? [what about those children].  Yer man's wil' [he's terrible].  In 'Stroke City' (L/Derry), this idiom is called 'Pure Derry'.

Yes, there are some Derryisms not readily understood far past Altnagelvin Hospital or the service station in Bridgend.  Where else could you be 'up a tree in Rosemount, mucker'?  But I'm often struck by the readiness to designate anything Hiberno-English, Scots-Irish, or regional, as 'Derry, hi'.

This sense of specialness works both ways.  Bad grammar is found everywhere.  But when 'Derry Wans' say 'I done it' or 'I didn't say nothing' (heard just as often in London, Manchester, Glasgow or downtown New York), poor grammar is labelled 'Derry' too.

There's an inferiority complex just scratch-deep underneath the surface of this proud and wonderful city. 
I ought to be careful here, because I've learned that while Derry Wans can be their own fiercest critics, beware any blow-in who dares to weigh in!

I'll be brave and mention the few things that I don't like so much about Derry.  I've already mentioned the fact that true Derryites can be very (too) down on themselves and their city.  I really hope that City of Culture status can change that, but to do so, we have to remember why Derry was chosen in the first place - because of who she is, not because of the programme of big events and names brought in from elsewhere.

Another aspect of life in this city that I'd love to see change is the use of the name.  Setting aside for one moment the whole Derry/Londonderry/Doire debate, it's sad to hear 'Derry' used as a synonym for 'Cityside' (i.e. west bank), as if the Waterside (east of the River Foyle) were another city altogether.  Thankfully, the Peace Bridge is in place to help mend the psychological gash that runs through the town.

Would Derry fit any better into a United Ireland?  I don't know that it would!  Apart from political arguments based on history, economics or cultural ties, if Derry feels so far away from Belfast, I'm not sure how easily it would relate to Dublin. 

Whatever happens with the constitutional status of 'The North', I think Derry will always happily (and post-modernly) accept its own uniqueness, hard to tie down, making the porous nature of the border work for it, with all but the most stubborn of ideologues revelling in the existential complexity of who and where Derry Wans are.

I think Derry will continue to operate as an unofficially 'special jurisdiction' for years to come.  And I'm very glad that we'll continue to enjoy living here for a bit longer.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013


Three months ago, I drove from Derry to Newry for the Selection Conference that would determine whether I would be recommended for training towards ordination.
All that is pretty wordy, but people discerning a vocation to ordination get used to couching things in careful terms.  For example, 'recommended for training towards ordination' means just that, because you aren't selected for ordination until a couple of years further down the line.
I arrived just on time, and a bit stressed, at Dromantine Retreat Centre, just outside Newry, Co. Down.  It had snowed and Mid-Ulster traffic was down to a crawl.  This was my first big solo drive after passing my test.

 This place is a maze.  Key.  Nice lady giving housekeeping instructions - there's no way I'll remember all this.  Room.  Hmm nice view.  En suite, great.  Coffee dock.  Sounds good.  Oh wait.  Probably should pray first. 
That was the jumble of thoughts the first half hour.  Not as I had planned it.
Then I accepted the inevitable: this would be a caffeine-jacked two days.  I went to the aforementioned coffee dock.  There I met others in the same boat - this was the great thing, we knew each other already from the Foundation Course.
There were three interviews over the two days.  My first, by two lay people, was that afternoon.  I waited outside the room, and could just hear the conversation as they prepared by leafing through my mammoth application form.  I heard 'interesting' - was that good interesting or bad interesting?  I heard comments on writers I'd mentioned - Rob Bell seemed to evoke a reaction.  Why on earth did I go and mention him?!
I moved away from the door.  Not a good idea to overhear interviewers talk about you before they meet you.
What did they ask me?  I can't remember much.  I do remember thinking some questions were really three different questions, and I didn't know where to start.  I think I was trying to say the right answers, more than I was trying to be honest.  That caught me out.
I remembered a really good answer that another person had given to the question 'why ordination'.  But I couldn't remember it well enough to re-formulate it.  So I had to give my own - and I have no idea to this day what I said.  (See below for the outcome!)
Thank goodness for chapel that evening.  The nerves were jangled after that first interview.  I had the distinct feeling I'd said at least a couple of the things they tell you not to say!  I knew from the looks on some faces that my answers hadn't exactly elucidated things.
Oh well.  At least they fed us well.  The gluten-free menu was great - good job for my waistline (and mental health) it was just two days.
The last thing on the programme for that night was a group meeting with the chaplain, who talked openly and frankly about life as a parish priest.  The more he talked, the more I wanted it ...
It's so dark out there in the country, and when I pulled the curtains there wasn't the slightest chink of light in the room.  Unlike most others, I slept soundly until six the next morning.
On Day Two, I felt very serene.  This is what happens when you have people praying for you to stay calm.  There was absolutely no human reason to feel this way, because I was about to go into the academic interview with the Director of the Theological Institute!
The focus was on learning in the broader sense of the word.  Life experiences, whether these had been integrated.  There were a couple of curve balls.  What would you say in a short talk on the topic of ...  I got Holy Communion (we all soon realized everyone got a different topic).  After the interview, I realized I hadn't said any of the more obvious things.  I may have gone on a slightly mad tangent.
Some of these questions were probing, bordering on difficult.  This was also the shortest interview.  One of those ones that's over before you know it, and you wonder what on earth you can have said that was sufficient in such a short time.
Coffee dock.  After every interview, some candidates came straight to the group.  It might not have been altogether helpful to arrive fresh from an interview and debrief, while others were waiting out the minutes until they were next up.  But it's what I needed.
I tried not to go overboard at the three-course lunch, in case it left me sleepy for my third and final interview: clergy (one Bishop, one other ordained person).  I also felt keenly aware that I was sitting at a table with selectors.  'More water, Reverend?'
Last interview.  I felt wrung out by this stage, and could only be myself.  All the interviewers were very good, but the Bishop exuded a sense that it was OK to be open and frank.  I think this is where I most opened up.
Some questions were similar to yesterday's - was this a second chance?  Others got me excited - church growth, new approaches, parish mission.
And it was over.  It was out of my hands completely - not that it ever really was in my hands to begin with.  I could do no more. 
We said some difficult goodbyes, because unless everyone was selected, this would be our last time all together. 
And the next three weeks were the longest wait of my life.
*          *          *
I was selected.  I go 'back to school' in September.
And I remembered recently the great answer someone else gave to the big 'why ordination' question.  I'm glad I didn't think of it during my interview, because their answer wasn't mine, and as it turns out they aren't going to train for ordination (yet, anyway).
My advice for anyone going to a Selection Conference:
It feels like a bubble, and it is.  Remind yourself of the outside world and call a loved one at the end of each day.
Don't drink way more coffee than normal.  It will be tempting to do so.  But you need to sleep and not feel twitchy.
Read the ordination service before you go.  Think about what appeals most to you about it.
Take a trashy book (as well as something non-trashy).  There is a lot of waiting round, and it's a heavy couple of days.  Chewing gum for the brain helps.
Take a walk, or similar, for a few moments before and after each interview.  I really enjoyed listening to 'Yes and Amen' by Matt Redman.  I got to know the words by heart - and they're really good!
Make sure you know (and can verbalize) what you'll do if the answer is 'no' or 'not yet'.  It's important that life as we know it doesn't depend on one outcome.
If you can, use public transport.  My long drive there got me stressed, and on the long drive home I was exhausted.
And most of all, be honest and don't give other people's answers!  I'm so glad I couldn't remember that other person's 'good' answer.  No two journeys are the same. 

Monday, 1 July 2013


A hermeneutic for church growth?
The Exodus narrative is rehearsed frequently in Hebrew liturgy, including Biblical text.  It is a key part of the controlling story, the bigger picture, of the Bible.  At key turns in Jewish history, the Exodus is recited, almost relived, as a defining event.  There's something deeply resonant, historically yet universally, about the Exodus.
For Christians, too, the liberation experienced by oppressed slaves, the road out of Egypt, has echoes of Divine salvation with wider implications than those mistreated Hebrews.
I have always found the bit starting in Exodus 2:23b very moving: "The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. 24 God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 25 God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them."
Yet, the climax isn't rescue from slavery and peril.  The road travelled by escaping Hebrew slaves didn't go to the other side of Yam Suph, the Reed Sea, but just through it.  It went to Sinai.  The literary climax of Exodus isn't the action scene, parting the water for the Hebrews to pass safely.  Rather, it's the Covenant on Mount Sinai.  Another moving passage - the Hebrews are camped at Mount Sinai:

“Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."  (Ex. 19:3-6)
And it got me thinking about church growth, of all things ...
McGospel or Contextualized Gospel?
A big issue in church growth these days is whether we should try to meet people's needs at the risk of a diluted, or humanized, message, or stick to the 'pure gospel' and expect more from people.  On one side, we have the seeker-friendly, needs-meeting approaches like those of Saddleback and Willow Creek.  'But is the good news about spiritual massages and feel-good?' ask the critics.  On the other hand, we have advocates of a narrow church, where people know from the start what it means to set your hand to the plough, to be a sheep and not a goat.  Many are in aging congregations, feeling increasingly distant from the culture of the community outside.
The story of the Exodus has stuck in my mind recently in relation to this tension.  At our own juncture in place and sacred history, a post-Christian Ireland, recession-bitten, debt-laden Ireland.  Because as universally as Exodus resonates, it was an experience in this time-space continuum we call history.

God was concerned at the suffering of his people, their oppression, their cruel treatment, their tears.  And he acted to rescue them.
In his two-pronged redemption, God started by freeing slaves from forced labour, unnecessarily cruel treatment, targeted infanticide and dehumanized status.  How can the church not be in the business of caring for the suffering?  And there's plenty of it around us today. 
But that wasn't the telos of his salvation of the Hebrews, because he led them, not just to the other bank, but to Sinai where he entered into a covenant with the people.  Essentially, a relationship.
The word 'relationship' maybe doesn't carry quite the same weight as once it did - maybe when we talk about a 'relationship with God' it sounds a bit facebooky, transient, sentimental.  Maybe marriage is closer in meaning.  Something binding, permanent, solemn and very, very full of love and grace.
We can't ignore or be hardened to the plight of people around us.  That would be neither godly nor Christ-like.  But of course, we aren't social workers or therapists (except of course those  many Christians who are in fact social workers and therapists!).  We are witnesses to the fact that God desires to be in a covenant relationship with his people. 
Social action, mercy ministries, are essential hallmarks of the church, and ultimately expressions of God's character, God who Rescues.  They are not optional.  And they are not the end, either, but should lead people to Sinai, to covenant with God who Rescues.

Sinai Communities

Both opportunity and responsibility, people are in need of wholeness and the church must respond.  And we have to do more than fix problems and ills of society, we have to draw people into relationship with God.

Maybe we could design a new 'R&R' service, 'Rescue and Relationship' incorporating both strands?  (Think electronic music for the canticle 'Song of the Sea'!  That would be pretty cool!)

And/or start parallel 'Sinai' congregations in our parishes, perhaps in new housing estates, student halls or inner cities, wherever there are people in need of 'R&R'?

So, maybe my na├»ve ecclesiology is that churches are Sinai communities.  Groups of people who have this experience of rescue and relationship, tying both in some way to Jesus Christ.

And I think Exodus, this paradigmatic event in the Salvation Story of the Bible, can help those of us involved in growing church, in including more people in this Sinai experience.