Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Challenging Comfort Zones

On a sun soaked September afternoon, the great, the good and the gatecrashers gathered at St Peter' Ipsley, to meet with the new Bishop of Dudley, who was spending an action packed day in the deanery.  His impressively breathless itinerary featured visits to a school, the local hospital and a garden project, before meeting with the local clergy.  Bishop Graham then led Celtic Evening Prayer, and then took afternoon tea and questions, with members of local churches.

The session provided an opportunity for the Bishop to put a few more names to faces of the hundreds of people he must meet each week in the course of his duties and for members of the churches to get to know the Bishop a little better.  In addition to disclosing that he had 20,000 bees and a dog, a couple of offspring and a wife, the Bishop shared a bit about himself, his faith journey, and the importance of encouraging others. Bishop Graham also reflected on how as a church we need to be relevant and attractive to young people. He urged us not just keep doing what we have been doing because we want to preserve what we have for ourselves, but instead be willing to adapt and embrace change if that is what God is calling us to do. Churches are very busy places, run by committees, ruled by custom and practise and regulated by rotas. I wonder if the Bishop ever compares on all the activity within churches with the hive of activity in his garden and compares the results.  As churches we need to taste more of the sweetness of worshipping God and work together, with the self-discipline and common purpose of those who dwell in hives.

Prior to becoming Bishop of Dudley, Bishop Graham had been Rector of Hexham, and he divulged that one of the last things he did prior to his departure, was to grant permission for Parkour to take place within the Abbey as part of contemporary worship.  He agreed, knowing that a precedent had been set at Portsmouth Cathedral.  For the uninitiated, the Oxford Dictionary defines parkour as  "The activity or sport of moving rapidly through an area, typically in an urban environment, negotiating obstacles by running, jumping, and climbing."

Two years ago I spent a long weekend in Hampshire, and during this time visited a trinity of cathedrals -  Winchester, Salisbury and Portsmouth. Three buildings, all built to the glory of God, but completely different in ambience.  Winchester was set up for a lazer light show, hence the translucent curtain beyond the wooden screen, which gives  a wonderful sense of both light and mystery.  My fellow traveller was disapointed that the screen was there, interrupting the view, but I didn't feel that it detracted from the building at all. It reminded me off the curtain separating the holy of holies in the temples of the Old Testament. If I visit Winchester again I doubt if the screen will be there and I will have a different experience within the same cathedral.

This view of the flooded undercroft, complete with one of Antony Gormey's iconic statues, is still the background to my computer desktop. I must admit that Winchester Cathedral was my favourite of the three.

Sunday was Salisbury - solemn worship, sitting in the stalls. Despite the harmonious excellence of the choir, I felt that it lacked the spiritual intimacy of Winchester.  This surprised me, as I had explored the former as a tourist, but attended worship in the latter.  I just felt that Salisbury Cathedral was more interested in being 'Salisbury Cathedral' than a place of meeting with God. In fairness to Salisbury, it is hard to balance the differing demands of a House of worship and tourist attraction.  How many of those present were there to worship God, and how many to tick a box on their tour itinerary.  Maybe I just react negatively to formality within worship, but it is to be expected within a place such as this. .  However I love choral music and the singing was delightful. Once the service had run its course we did a quick amble round the building, pausing to admire the font feature with glorious reflections.  We walked past the deafening noise coming from the Refectory, and vowed to find a quieter place where we could sit and chat.

Spending a day in Portsmouth was a great delight, with docks, shops cafes and seriously scary Spinnaker, it is a great place to explore. The cathedral is very much smaller and simpler than the other two, but as I was chatting to one of the guides I remembered seeing the clip of parkour at Portsmouth.  "This is where you had the gymnasts climbing the walls!" I said, as I remembered.  The elderly female guide looked totally horrified. "Oh no!" she replied, "we would never have anything like that here!"  I went home and found the link.   On the clip the clergy were very committed to bringing parkour to the Cathedral, and as I watched again, I was struck by how the athlete resembled the work of the Holy Spirit.  Leaping high, disciplined and reaching unexpected places.  Inspiring. 

Bishop Graham encouraged us to welcome all into our churches. if we truly embraced this challenge, how would our churches change, and are we prepared to let go off some of what we hold dear, to allow that to happen?  Would we allow people to run and jump in our churches, leaping over altars and fonts,  performing gymnastics with grace?  When the Holy Spirit is at work in our churches, do we notice, or are we all too busy maintaining the status quo?