Saturday 1 November 2008

Ministry as Jazz...

Great joy, today, to admit 5 Licensed Lay Ministers (Lay Readers) at the Cathedral. Trying to think through what Ministry processes are about, and how they relate to the Kingdom, I quoted yesterday's poem by Nicola Slee, and compared the way we fulfil our shared calling to jazz:
I spent some time a few years ago ago in the Diocese of Durham, where problems over the parish share and clergy supply make the Oxford diocese look like a Sunday School outing. They have parishes where they could no longer afford to pay a vicar even if they could find one, so the congregation has just had to raise its game, painfully, and find other ways of being church. After three days working on the nature of priesthood with a group of clergy from Durham, tough, resilient and enterprising people, they decided that the best way to describe what they are being called to as ministers in our age is Jazz.

Jazz is characteristically produced by small groups jamming together personally, not by large formal ensembles like the old fashioned pit bands and choirs, most of them dead now in the North East. Making Jazz is based on listening to other people, valuing individual contributions, holding fast to a tightly disciplined structure, but in order to facilitate great freedom in what you improvise around it. It involves deep feelings shared in public. It can’t be done without passion and commitment to a fragile group of fellow musicians. It is an inherently precarious way of making music.

The helpfulness of this jazz image to a group of colleagues for whom I have such a great respect inspired me to find out more about jazz. The more I’ve learnt, the more I see what they meant. Why was Miles Davis able to reinvent jazz in the 1950’s? The trumpeter Winton Marsalis, says this; “The big band era was over. Once a man was able to let vulnerability into his sound it became irresistible. Soft but intense. Sustained intensity = ecstasy” If the big band era is over for the Church of England, what’s for us to learn here?

What enabled Miles Davis to let vulnerability into his sound, was a reaction to his bad experiences as a black man in a colour bar society. When he visited Europe in 1949, he stepped out of colour bar USA, and experienced different attitueds, and respect for his humanity. In Paris, said Davis, he learnt that all white people weren’t the same. He fell in love with the singer Juliet Greco. Miles Davis: ‘I never felt like that in my life. It was the freedom of being treated like a human being.’

Do you think, we could try a bit of that? In our ministry teams and parishes and various ecclesiastical gardens, this all saints tide, could we, together, show people what it’s like to be treated like a human being, with deep love and respect? Can we model what real community could be, so that the Kingdom values of the Sermon on the Mount begin to seem accessible, doable even? Can we, in our ministry, increasingly know, and introduce others to, the true freedom of being treated like a human being, a precious child of God?

Blessed is your community when it knows its need of God; when it hungers and thirsts for justice; when refuses to give up on what people could be, merely at the behest of what they are. How blessed are you when you sit with those who mourn; when you make peace; when you suffer for the truth.

Even the most established Christian community is fragile, and every Christian minstry carries its own vulnerability. But our greatest peril comes when we lose sight of our whole context, a kingdom of saints, and purpose, Love founded on respect. Accepting the deep longing in our confused and unhappy society, how can we be part of the movement to raise it up, personally, to God? If the big band era is over, what kind of a kingdom community can we create as jazz?

Seeing, says St Peter, that everything around you is breaking up, dissolving, what sort of people should you be? What sort of people could you be? We are called to be saints as much as our forebears and heroes in faith. In our answer to that basic challenge lies not only our own happiness, but the key to the peace and salvation of all the world, in us, but through him and by him to whom be ascribed as is most justly due all honour might, majesty and power, today and for ever…


Tim Chesterton said...

Wonderful post, Alan - thank you.

I've been privileged to teach part of the preaching class in our lay reader training here in Edmonton and have been thoroughly blessed by the seriousness and enthusiasm of these dedicated people.

Steve Hayes said...

As a student at St Chad's College, Durham we used to go to colliery villages like Wingate for preaching practice. And we spent several Sundays in Washington, Usworth and Fatfield, which were about to be subsumed into Washington New Town, and I was struck by the similarities of impersonal bureaucracies, ecclesiastical and secular, the world over. I've often wondered what happened to the people we knew from Washington.

If it's of any interest, I could send you copies of my journal of those visits, and you could tell me what, if anything, has changed. There were lay readers we met that i though should have been ordained as self-supporting priests.

Anonymous said...

"What enabled Miles Davis to let vulnerability into his sound, was a reaction to his bad experiences as a black man in a colour bar society. When he visited Europe in 1949, he ...experienced different attitudes, and respect for his humanity."

Unless people have experienced prejudice at first-hand, it's difficult to explain the relief when we find a place, a community, a set of people, where we're treated as fellow humans. For me, as someone with a disability, I know that absolutely anything can happen when someone finds out - anything from acceptance and good cheer and a genuine interest in learning more, through to people hiding from me and hoping with all their heart that I go away so they don't have to expose themselves to something new, those few who react to their own fear with defensive anger, and those very few whose cynicism apparently pushes them to be pleased if they make us suffer.

The same is true of reactions to any difference - whether sexuality, race, appearance, disability or other.

Understanding how Jesus's message was "Welcome! You are loved!" is perhaps the hardest journey for any of us: Do people find it easier to say, "How could He love People Like Those, not People Like Us? We don't want their sort here!"

Who was it who said that we know that we've created God in our own image if He apparently hates or ignores all the same people we do? Wise words.

We're called to love one another,even those who don't love us back. It's a blessed calling indeed.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

I was teally impressed by this year's readers in Oxford; it's a major piece of work doing the course, and seeing everyone together in the Cathedral I really was made aware of what a tremendous ministry resource readers are to us in the Thames Valley. I do regret the ttimes they just get used to fill in the things clergy don't want to tackle, or taken for granted.

Steve, I don't want to stick years on your clock, but was your time at St Chad's John Fenton's era? I knew him at Christ Church after he left Durham, and he was a most remarkable and holy man, always ready to turn out anywhere to help people reflect on the bible and ministry. If you've got easy electronic versions of your notes, I'd be fascinated to discuss them sometime with +John Pritchard, who was bishop of Jarrow before Oxford, and has tremendous feeling for the North East. I feel a tinge of shame at the number of ministries we grew a few years ago, but never allowed to reach their full potential, because of institutional inertia or the wrong sort of clericalism...

Ann, thanks for sharpening up the point so thoughtfully and beautifully. Jesus seemed to find it so much easier than us to enact his message in all simplicity, rather than turning it into a discussion starter! Many, many thanks again.

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