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.

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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.

Personal Identity 1: Fitting You into your Box

Over the last few weeks I have had some interesting conversations about identity. As I have a little time to think I’ve decided to write a few blog articles about the concept of ‘identity’ as I unpack a few of the main issues we have raised. With a fair wind behind me I may even be able to convince Ruth to add a blog about this given that her psychology doctoral thesis was largely about ‘identity’.

Here come the Goths

20130501-101338.jpgLast week Ruth and I met up with a lot of “Goths”. We went to Whitby Goth Weekend where we regularly go to meet up with friends from our university days. Whilst we are there we help raise money for the Bat Conservation Trust on the bring and buy stall. When we arrived on Friday morning we went to the beach (a particularly Goth activity) where we met our friends. As we walked back up the beach a photographer asked if he could take our picture. We obliged and carried walking up the beach. As we did our friends said “You’re in Whitby for an hour and nothing. Two minutes with Robb and Ruth and already someone has taken our picture”.

As we continued on our journey, we were intercepted on the stairs up the cliff by a group of eight A Level sociology students. They asked a variety of questions about why we were there and what we were doing? It was quite entertaining when we were asked what we ‘did for a living’ – mirth and hilarity abounded as we discovered that two IT professionals were in our group. This is not a stereotypical “Goth” occupation!

The final question in the survey was “how do you feel about the word ‘goth'”? This led to all four of us looking at each other and saying things like “but I’m not really a goth”. None of us really identify as “goth” per se. This lead us to have a lot of conversations over the course of the next 24 hours about what all of this means.

From Whitby, Ruth and I dashed back home for me to be “the vicar”. Sunday services and an APCM were the order of the day. Then we rushed from there into the deepest darkest South of England to meet some new people. We’ve been invited to be involved in the organisation of the Goth Eucharist at Greenbelt this year. Again, the question of “what is ‘Goth’?” was raised by everyone. Am I ‘goth’? What is ‘goth’? Am I ‘goth enough’ or just an interloper? This seems to be the inner existential crisis experienced by most people who are ‘goths’.

For me, the honest answer is ‘no’, I’m not a goth. I don’t think there are many people who say that they are. It is usually something that other people say to identify people. Personally, I usually describe myself as a ‘hairy biker’. I’m often found wearing black and riding a big black Harley with the internal soundtrack supplied by George Thorogood whilst I’m doing it. I listen to heavy metal, have long hair, tattoos and piercings. I’ve been known to dye my hair on occasion. I play guitar in a heavy metal band and have some pretty funky clothing. ‘Goth’ isn’t a term I use to self identify, it is a term that other people use to categorise me.

Human beings like to categorise the world around them. They like to compartmentalise the world so that they can store the information in their brains. This is so that they can take a complicated question and come up with a neat and easily identifiable answer. When the world is presented with a large number of individuals who don’t fit into a category it feels the need to create one. In this instance we have the word ‘goth’, a generic coverall that encompasses just about any type of ‘difference’ and makes it ‘the same’. At Whitby Goth Weekend and the Goth Eucharist you will find Metalheads, Steampunks, Cyberpunks, Rockers, Glam Metallers, Trad Goths, Emos, the ocasional cosplayer and probably some people who just like good old fancy dress. And the world can’t cope with all of these individuals. It needs to find a way of categorising them so that it can go back on with it’s business. We must compartmentalise!

Now of course I have put myself in the position of having written Leonard Nimmoy’s “I Am Not Spock” by asserting my individuality; I Am Robb. To redress the balance, I will continue to write about identity tomorrow and draw the Goth*/Priest strands of my existence together for your entertainment.

*See that? I just identified myself as ‘goth’. See how readily I conform!

The Envisioning Lab

One of the most interesting things I have watch recently is Secrets of the Superbrands – Technology.  I blogged about it briefly when it came out as the view of Apple as a religious phenomenon was fascinating.  However, the programme raised a different question with me related to the other guys.  The uncool guys.  The geeky guys.  Microsoft.

Microsoft is investing large quantities of its time and its money not on the here and now but on the future.  Microsoft have realised that they are going to disappear if they do not address the disconnect between their brand image and their products.  They are contemplating the “cool stuff” of the future.

Let’s put aside the many prejudices that those who inhabit the internet seem to exhibit whenever Microsoft are mentioned.  Let’s not have the boring “Apple vs Windows” as it isn’t relevant [sorry Linux guys, I don’t have the cognitive capacity to work out how to integrate you into this rumble in cyberspace].  I’m not asking about the issues around marketing that are brought up.  I’m not concerned about the “hipness” of a brand.  I want to know this:

What are the church doing to facilitate their “Envisioning Lab”?  Who is investing in the creative possibilities?  Who is being given the space to push the envelope?  Who is being allowed to think those thoughts?  How is the church investing in “the church of the future”?

The Church and The Arts

It is very topical to talk about the arts here in the UK as a lot of funding has been cut.  Earlier today I read Phil Ritchie’s blog, who like me is a priest in the Church of England.  During prayers this morning we both remembered John Donne who was a poet, a priest and the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral.  This inspired Phil to asked the question “where are today’s poet priests”?  When I read this it opened up a much broader issue for the church to consider:

‘How are our churches cultivating todays artists, musicians, poet’s, singers, songwriters, sculptors, glass blowers….. our artists’?

Historically the church was the main place that cultivated the arts.  It funded the arts.  It commissioned the arts.  It inspired the arts.  *God* inspired the arts.  People looked at the majesty of creation and artistic expression poured from within.  When people read the scriptures, poetic expressions overflowed.  As people contemplated the awe and wonder of God, the notes flowed onto the manuscripts.  You need only walk into one of the many museums in the UK and you will see the great works that the church has cultivated and inspired throughout the ages.  The church was the hub around which the arts rotated.  Music was created on the church’s instruments.  Glass was crafted for it’s windows.  Stone was carved for display in, on or around it’s buildings.  Art was painted to hang inside or even painted straight onto the walls of it’s chapel’s, monasteries and Cathedral’s. 

When I was training for ordination I was lucky enough to do a placement at a church where they carved the prototype pillars for Durham Cathedral.  With the modern church there is a financial reality that causes me to marvel that there was an era in which Durham Cathedral could be envisaged, never mind created.

The modern world comes with all sorts of things that people didn’t predict.  They said that in “the future” we would have vast quantities of free time with which to enjoy ourselves.  Now that we are here and now firmly planted within “the future” the reality is that we have less free time than ever before.

Where are today’s poet priests? 

Whether ordained or lay the modern church is struggling with a financial reality and an administrative reality that leaves little time for the arts.  As parishes are placed together with reducing numbers of both ordained and lay alike, “the job” becomes increasingly time consuming.  This is coupled with the propensity in all modern world workplaces for paperwork.  Everything must be filled in, signed in triplicate and sent to the correct office to be stored in the appropriate filing cabinet…. for each church that you are working with.  For those who work for the church this comes with an additional emotional constraint that plays upon the sense of guilt about these things.

An unending task with an emotional attachment?  Ponder that for a moment if you will.

When we contemplate the arts and their place within the church we have to ask how much they are currently valued by the church.  For many, the arts are a guilty secret that is indulged in when a sneaky couple of hours off are partaken of one evening whilst no one is looking.  If we engage with them more often we are often perceived to be elevating our self-indulgence above our calling to serve ‘the church’.  This is why I know several people who were musicians in the ‘previous life’ that they ‘gave up’ before ordination. 

If this is the reality in which the modern church lives, how do we perpetuate the “rich tradition of priests who fulfilled this part of their vocation through poetry” and other art forms into the future?

Post-Christendom

@unvirtuousabbey posted this on twitter.  I could write you a few thousand words about post-christendom or I could let it speak for itself.

Facebook Mapped

It shows a map of the world with great holes in it: Russia, China, Africa and South America. Facebook is very much a western beast.

Via this Guardian article.