Personal Identity 3: The Call to Authenticity

Part three of my musings on identity.

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” – John 10:10

I am not a cradle Christian. I’ve been a follower of the way for a little over 15 years since I arrived at university. In those first days at university I made a lot of friends who listened to heavy metal, wore black and drank beer. One of the other things I discovered about a considerable number of them was that they went to church. Come Sunday evening at 6pm (we were all students) they would all pile into church before going to the pub.

This led to some pretty interesting conversations about personal identity. As a nonchurchy Metalhead, I asked the same sorts of questions I outlined in my last blog post: “But you can’t be a Christian because you are a goth”. Christians were supposed to be nice, mild mannered, middle class people with shiny shoes; more Harold Bishop than Ozzy Osbourne. The evidence I discovered at university was to the contrary: goths, metalheads, hippies and freaks, my friends, were Christians and welcomed within their communities. And my Christian journey began. I could have life and have it abundantly.

As I began my journey as a disciple there was a discrepancy between the description of Christianity as I was told it and the practice. “Jesus came for the whole of humanity” is a claim to which most Christians will assent. The reality is that most local churches have a pervading culture within them. The nonconformist church that I attended at university had a distinctive culture, sadly one that I was unable to be part of. For men to fit in to this culture of fifteen years ago, brown shoes, blue jeans and a checked shirt tucked in at the waist and tied off with a brown belt were the order of the day. “I have come that you may have a middle class smart casual life in all its abundance”. The same was true of the Christian Union that met 200 yards from our student flat. To ‘progress in leadership’ you must fit yourself into the cultural mould. Despite being a short walk from a Christian community we soon disappeared from the meetings.

This isn’t really about the specific places I’ve been but the places that we currently shape through our interactions week in, week out. The same types of culture still exist in most churches as people seek out other like minded people. There is a pervading culture that is seen to be the “way to get on” in a church; if it were not so, there would be no jokes about vicars driving Vauxhall Astras with wives in Laura Ashley dresses to be made. For some this culture is the black shiny shoes and suit akin to Fr Ted and for others it is the rugged smart casual of Pastor Mark.

Yesterday I said that it is a difficult task to stand before the world and say that Jesus is God. This is especially true when you begin that journey and set your first foot upon the path. It is a journey that usually comes with a steep learning curve; sixty-six books of ancient wisdom guide us towards the transcendent as we peer through a glass dimly. It is hard enough to make sense of the way God wants us to live our lives without the added complication of the way a pervading church culture wants us to “fit in”.

Authenticity

But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
– 1 Corinthians 12

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What does it mean for Jesus to bring life that you may have it abundantly? I don’t believe he meant for you to become a nice middle class clone. He came that you may have your life abundantly, not someone else’s! This means that you are to be the best version of you that you can be. The version of you that God made you to be! You are called to be the authentic version of you.

The all knowing God knows who you are. There is no pretending to be the guy with the acoustic guitar who stands at the front. Don’t go and buy a Laura Ashley dress because it will make you a better Christian! Go and be the very best version of you that there can be! Be the person God originally called to His path, and keep following the way! Sadly that does mean changing. It does mean growing. It means leaving behind the things you do that are not of God and taking up things that are. But that is going to be much more rewarding than giving up things that are not of a particular church’s culture and taking up things that “fit in”.

What is God asking of us as a church? To be an authentic people following in the path of Jesus: Grans and grandads; parents and children; men and women; goths, chavs, punks, jocks, hipsters; the whole plethora of society living together and following in his footsteps. God calls us to be the wonderfully diverse body of Christ.

Ruth and I have some close friends who are in their seventies. We’ve been friends now for more than a decade. We play cards together, eat dinner together, drink wine together, pray together and talk about our spiritual journeys together. Culturally we have very little in common and yet through our friendship and our faith we have so much in common. We are companions on the road. We share our spiritual journey with one another. To Ruth and I they are spiritual grandparents; “Elders” if you like. They have been walking this path for many years longer than we have. They bring great insight having lived through many more experiences than us; sometimes about the hardships and sometimes about the joys. There is something both comforting and challenging for instance about a couple who will tell you they have been married 47 years and it hasn’t always been easy. This is what it means to be the Body of Christ, holding each other on the road as we form diverse communities together.

Ruth has just informed me that she has something to add so you can expect a blog from her later. She’s a psychologist so it will probably be from a slightly different perspective than me. Tomorrow I’m going to look at different Christian identities. I have a Venn diagram or two to share.

Personal Identity 2: Aren’t You That Goth Vicar?

This is the second in my series on identity. Coming out of a series of conversations I’ve had over the last week with friends about “being ‘goth'”. Today I’m bringing “goth” and “priest” together. If I am mentioned in the press I am usually referred to as ‘The Rocking Revered Robb’. My favourite headline was next to a photo of me carrying a life sized cross: The Road To Golgotha. Both puntastic and theologically deep.

Aren’t You Making a Statement?

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Every so often for someone who is “alternative” the conversation will inevitably turn to this question. Aren’t you making a statement with the way you wear your hair? Don’t you wear your earrings to prove a point? But the way you dress must surely mean you are going against society? But aren’t you being countercultural? How do you square what you wear with being a priest?

Here is the shocking truth. I haven’t changed my hairstyle in 20 years. I wake up in the morning and pull on the same style of jeans I’ve worn every day for 12 years. My boots were worn every day until they fell apart at which point I bought an identical pair. I have been contemplating changing one of my earrings for the past fortnight but the ones I’ve been wearing since 2002 seem to be doing ok. My first thought when I wake up and look in the mirror is not that I make a statement, more that Robb looks back through the looking glass at me. If there is any statement being made by my general appearance it is through the ’78 tour t-shirt I’m wearing. Incidentally, the year I was born. A pretty ancient statement.

On Friday at Whitby Goth Weekend the A Level sociology students asked us if anything we were wearing was “significant”. My response was “Yes, I’m wearing a cross around my neck and a wedding ring”. As a metalhead I’m part of a rather large sub culture. It’s not a tiny minority in the western world until you go deeper and begin to look within a smaller cultural group: the church.

Yes, I am being counter cultural. Regularly I make a statement that goes against the grain. Every day I make people do a double take as I wear clothes that “go against society”. I put on a dog collar each morning. I often wear a cassock as I perform my duties because it depersonalises me; this is important when performing a funeral for example. I stand before the world and make a truly counter cultural statement: Jesus is God.

We all belong to some form of subculture but with an increasingly elderly church culture there is often an increase perception of “difference” when someone younger is in church who isn’t a child. The 20’s-40’s are often the lost tribe of Anglicanism so when we do come to church it can be a culture shock. The real challenge is to enable people and support people as they go against the pervading culture and follow Christ. I wonder if it is harder to ‘admit’ being a Christian to a bunch of metalheads than it is to admit being a metalhead to a bunch of christians?

Tomorrow I’ll have a look at Christian culture.

Sitting at the Table: A Sermon on Acts 11:1-18

When I was younger there was a church I used to walk past every day in the center of town.  It was called St Thomas’ Church.  And as a small boy what an impressive place it was.  There were huge vertical lines that were accentuated by the spacing of ornately carved pillars.  Each window consisted of intricately cut coloured glass creating beautifully illustrated scenes from the bible.  In one window there was ‘The Good Samaritan’ placing the beaten and robbed man upon the back of his donkey.  He was then shown taking the man to be looked after.  Then little gold coins were depicted as little yellow discs of glass being handed over to the innkeeper for his trouble.  In another window there was the last supper.  A simple shared meal between friends that symbolized the relationship God has with the world.  There was this huge table at which people were invited to come and share the Passover.  Jesus sat with his disciples as he welcomed them to come and eat with the God-man.  St Thomas’ was an impressive place.  It was a spectacular place.  When the summer sun shone through the windows and the incense was wafting between the pillars it created a dazzling sight as streaks of reds and blues and greens danced through the air.

Anybody who was anybody would be found there on a Sunday morning.  The Mayor would be there two rows from the front.  Behind him would sit the headmaster in the next pew.  Everyone was highly polished and neatly trimmed.  Partings were always worn and suits were neatly pressed.  Sunday best was the order of the day.  All of the people from the town we lived in who had any kind of status could be found there.  Everyone was ‘just so’.  As you looked around the congregation each Sunday morning you could see lots of white faces and nuclear families.  Mum and dad would bring the two point four children through the big oak doors each week.  In this congregation everyone was the “right type of person”.  There was no one in this place who could really be called “poor”.  Over the years plenty of people had come in and quickly gone back out because they soon realized that they weren’t the “right type of person”.  Here at St Thomas’, people in need were out of the question.  People with the wrong kind of accent need not apply.  If you are going to grace a pew, make sure your surname isn’t Unpronounceableovic.  Heaven forbid you would have a different coloured skin!

There was one family who attended for many years.  Mum and dad and 2.4 children happily coming to church each Sunday.  Dad had a good job and a company car.  Mum stayed at home and looked after the children.  The cracks started to appear when dad was made redundant.  Gone was the company car. Then one thing led to another and their marriage broke down.  It is hard work going to church when you find out that after ten years you are no longer the “right kind of people”.  Suddenly mum was taking the 2.4 children to St Thomas’ by herself.  No one said anything directly to her but she could tell.  There were conversations that would suddenly stop whenever she approached.  There were cups of tea passed to her with a knowing smile.  After a couple of weeks the energy it required to get the kids out of bed, dressed and ready for church was just not there.  The small nuclear family stopped being the “right sort of people” each Sunday morning.  As you might imagine, St Thomas’ did not receive many new members.  Its members simply grew older.

Years later as an adult I learned that St Thomas’ Church had closed.  There just weren’t enough of the “right type” of people.  They just didn’t exist, I guess.  One time I went back to that town and there I was passing beside the familiar gothic architecture and the ornately carved pillars.  St Thomas’ church building was still standing only now it was a restaurant.  Oddly given the history of the previous occupants of the building it was a curry house called the Indian Cottage.  I walked in through those massive gothic doors and where there had once been pews, now there were tables, waiters, and people eating dinner.  Candles were lit at each table and people were eagerly tearing naan breads and pouring fresh glasses of wine.  The familiar hubbub of community meals was all around as the sound of glass upon glass clanking together and laughter filled the building.  As I looked down the nave of the ancient gothic church to where the altar had once sat underneath the image of the last supper, now there were tables. 

A young waiter came over to us and asked if we’d like a table for two.  My wife and I exchanged a glance as I responded to his question with a simple “yes please”.  We were escorted to a table at the back of the restaurant where the sanctuary had once been.  The young man took our coats and pulled out a chair for my wife to sit at.  He asked if we would like to order drinks and I asked for a bottle of the house white.  As he went to get our drinks I began to unfold my serviette and turned to my wife.  As I pulled myself closer to her over the table with said with a hushed tone “Now, I guess everybody is finally welcome to eat at this table”.

A Woman at Number 10 Was All I Knew

I’ve been reliving my primary school years this evening. Heading back to the tender age of ten when Skid Row released their first album.  I went to see them last night and they were awesome!  Skid Row aren’t the only reason I’m trawling back through the annals of my primary school memories. This week, all I knew in those early years died.

We are currently listening to reports on the news of women being underrepresented in the FTSI 100 boardrooms.  My first memories are of the most powerful person in my life. Margaret Thatcher. I was born in 1978 and for the whole of my childhood we had but one prime minister.  She was all-powerful.  She could decide whether I drank milk or water.  OK, maybe that’s not all powerful, but it is nearly as powerful as my mum. My mum knitted me a jumper using scraps of wool with a He-man sword on the back and baked us a gingerbread house cake!  Margaret Thatcher was nearly that powerful!

For the last three days I have been in a strange and uncharted world. I seeMargaret Thatcher in 1982. the a family grieving for Mrs T and I feel for them.  I see the press deifying her in none stop rolling coverage. I also see a church that is divided in its opinions of her and unsure of what it is supposed to do in this situation. I don’t know what to do in this situation. I am torn.  I write this post with one question throbbing in the heartland of my cerebral cortex. “What am I supposed to say?”  Heck, I’m ‘the vicar’ so surely I should have ‘something’ to say.

Actually, I’m at a loss for words. I’m stuck between the rock and the hard place.  I’m a [luxury*] miner’s lad!  I come from a pit village in the heart of God’s Country, Yorkshire. I lived through the miners strike. At five years old I watched people sharing everything on the kitchen table and working out who needed the money most.  I played kerbie outside whilst they decided who could eat this week. Liver and onions.  Or cheese pie, a dish my gran invented by layering everything that everyone had in a casserole dish.  Tinned tomatoes, mashed potato and grated cheese then placed under the grill.  My mum made that for me about four weeks ago as a nostalgia kick.  And I still love eating liver! Nom!

Every one of my male relatives was put out of work except one. My dad had moved to potash mining which continues to this day at Boulby in the North Yorkshire Moors.  It was purely down to a decision my parents made to move to North Yorkshire.  but everyone else remained in the pit village.  Everyone lost their job.  Some never worked again.  A village, a town, a community was ripped apart.  The community had its heart ripped out. No paramedics were called.  No hospital treatment was offered. No transplant was given.  Just the body left lying on the floor bleeding out.

Two years ago as part of a our ongoing ministerial education, I and three other priests had to present the socio-political factors in our respective parishes.  We had to compare and contrast the different areas around our region.  One of these priests comes from the same pit village as my family.  He was then ministering just down the road in the village next door.  What were our discoveries?  Just by being born in an area your average life expectancy reduces by six years.  1 in 4 are suffering from long term illness.  More than 50% of the population have no qualifications.  At all.  1 in 3 have a job.

But I’m the vicar. So I have kept a rather undignified silence.  There are people watching.  The press are watching.  Waiting for that chance to single someone out and make an example of them.  And so I’m “not allowed” to remember those experiences I’ve lived through.  Certainly couldn’t put them on Facebook.  Couldn’t blog about them.  What if the Daily Mail saw it?  I’d get in trouble.  It is as if someone has taken my voice.  This week something died… inside me.  And I’m not allowed to mention it.  So I won’t.  I will maintain my undignified silence.  I’ll leave it to a bishop.

“Where the pit head once stood, with thousands of people working to produce more coal faster and more efficiently that at most other pits, there is smooth level grass.  Empty to the eye, but pregnant with bereavement.  All around, despite the heroic efforts of local leaders, there are signs of postindustrial blight, with all the fallout of other people’s power games.  And that sight stands in my mind as a symbol…  What hope is there for communities that have lost their way, their way of life, their coherence, their hope?”  –  NT Wright, Surprised by Hope p5

*My dad always reminds me that he’s “an electrician who worked down the pit.  A luxury miner”.

Rioting on Sunday Morning

It seems only two minutes since I found myself standing before the congregation as a “community leader” to talk about the headline news from Norway.  And yet, here I find myself once more.  It is a strange place to be as people look to me to try and make sense of the world around them.  The church can sometimes just stick its head in the sand on a Sunday morning and carry on regardless.  “Riots you say?  What riots”?  I find myself unable to do that.  Perhaps it is a failing of mine and I should add it to the ever-growing list.  No matter where I turn I can’t escape the incarnational God who gets his hands dirty.  I can’t skirt around the God who told us to pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done on Earth as in Heaven”. 

You may have noticed that I have been strangely silent on the blog this week.  Mostly this has been because I have felt a bit numb.  Living in the UK and watching it descend into chaos is all too reminiscent of The Dark Night.  Fortunately we live in a part of the city that hasn’t seen any unrest.  West Yorkshire police dealt with any flickers of trouble around Leeds and Huddersfield brilliantly and we did not see the same level of unrest as others.  However, the whole country seems to be gripped by fear.  I spoke to my brother earlier in the week about the football match we are going to this afternoon.  He was wanting to call it off.  The mood in our community is troubled. 

Some how tomorrow I will stand up and try to help our community make sense of all of this.  I will try to encourage them to be part of the future.  To start to bring that kingdom to our communities. 

I have put together some simple prayers that we will use.  Then we will pray the prayer from the CofE website in solidarity with our nation wide community.

Father in heaven,

In our homes.

Your kingdom come, your will be done.

In our families

Your kingdom come, your will be done.

In our communities

Your kingdom come, your will be done.

In our cities

Your kingdom come, your will be done.

On our streets

Your kingdom come, your will be done.

In our parks

Your kingdom come, your will be done.

In our schools

Your kingdom come, your will be done.

In our police forces

Your kingdom come, your will be done.

In our town hall

Your kingdom come, your will be done.

In our government

Your kingdom come, your will be done.

Gracious God,
We pray for peace in our communities this day.
We commit to you all who work for peace and an end to tensions,
And those who work to uphold law and justice.
We pray for an end to fear,
For comfort and support to those who suffer.
For calm in our streets and cities,
That people may go about their lives in safety and peace.
In your mercy, hear our prayers,
now and always.

Amen