This blog is also forming the basis of a piece I’ve been asked to write for this weekend’s event at the Vatican, Living Fully 2016. This looks like being a fantastic event. I’m sad not to be attending, but very happy to be able to offer this contribution to the discussion and debate.
Things You Learn Lying On the Bathroom Floor
Recently, I was enormously privileged to be asked to both preach and act as a co-best man for two dear friends of mine, Matt and Ruth. This happy event took place towards the end of a period of seemingly frenzied activity in the life of the Churches in which I am Assistant Curate, The Emmanuel Group in Northampton. I was nervous before I spoke. There’s so much that one wants to say in a wedding address, particularly for close friends. Fortunately, I managed to strike the balance between providing a warm up for the best man’s speech later that evening and speaking words of love, truth and blessing to Matt and Ruth from God as they began their married life together.
Prior to that day, the week had contained several other events which had been noteworthy. A couple of apparently serious incidents involving people in the life of our Church community provided both opportunities for exercising ministry and opportunities to take on more worry and tension than I perhaps should have done. In the same week, I found myself praying for the new Mayor of Northampton, Cllr Christopher Malpas, as he began his term of office by inviting me to be his chaplain. I can tell you that these events are not normal in the course of my life and work. What is normal? And why might I begin a piece about disability, fear and leadership by talking about things which to other ministers might seem fairly normal, even mundane?
Let’s return to Saturday night. It’s around 10pm, the wedding is starting to wind down and I’m laughing at another joke from a friend I see far from often enough. And then it happens. I feel a tightness around my core, the muscle group that stretches around the middle of my body. I know what’s coming. Fortunately, I manage to attract my wife’s attention before I am unable to speak, and she propels me along to the bathroom, which is mercifully vacant. As the door closes, wave upon wave of spasm hits me and I am doubled over in agony. I can’t breathe. I can’t speak, except in groans and to say the most important word I can think of at that moment: ‘sorry’. I’m sorry to my wife that she has to see this, to deal with it. I’m sorry that I nearly had an ‘episode’ in a very public place. I’m sorry that my body is out of control. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
In short order, I’m lying flat on the bathroom floor and, in the cold light of day a few days later, I’m not ashamed to say that I am whimpering. I am scared. What if it doesn’t stop? It did last time, a year and a half ago, when an over-busy Christmas period ended with me on my parent’s lounge floor putting a dampener on the beginning of our Christmas celebrations. It did immediately after I arrived home from playing a show with my band (in a former life!) in Trafalgar Square to (I’m told) 10,000 people, but what if it doesn’t this time?
Fortunately, it did pass. I was able to re-enter the fray of the wedding before too long and have spent most of this last week recovering my equilibrium. But there were a few moments lying there on that bathroom floor, and I say this advisedly and without seeking to overly dramatise the event, where my life, and my immediate future, flashed before my eyes.
During those moments, convinced that my body was letting me down, I decided that there was no way I would be able to undertake in future the functions of the priestly role. What use would I be to people if, when under a modicum of stress, my body decides to stop allowing me to work? From there I find myself in a cycle of reflection. What is the priesthood about? Does it require bodies and minds to be of a suitable consistent standard to be acceptable to God and deemed as priestly? Leviticus 21, particularly vv16-c20 has the potential in thought processes such as these to be a source of terror and a weapon of tyranny.
The Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron: ‘For the generations to come none of your descendants who has a defect may come near to offer the food of his God. No man who has any defect may come near: no man who is blind or lame, disfigured or deformed; no man with a crippled foot or hand, or who is a hunchback or a dwarf, or who has any eye defect, or who has festering or running sores or damaged testicles.
This passage, taken in context, is about ritual purity or impurity. However, for me, at times when my sense of worth has been challenged, it has the power to rear its head as a judge and jury: I am not enough. I couldn’t be. My body does not measure up and because my body doesn’t, neither does the rest of me. You might read this and feel like my exegesis is off (it probably is) and that I’m being overly-dramatic (I very well may be) but feelings and deeply-internalised thoughts can be heavily consequential and hard to shift or shake off.
A combination of the glorious fulfilment of the law by Jesus and the belated flourishing of institutional common sense has made it possible for a slightly more representative selection of the Body of Christ to be considered suitable for ordination and leadership in his Church. I found it instructive, however, that it was in the moment and aftermath of reduced functionality that my sense of priestly identity, something which I think I know can only be imbued by God, was challenged, by me, in my own head. Have I, have we, in rightly emphasising the importance of honouring God in calling, training, equipping and sending leaders, misplaced our sense of balance? I would argue I certainly have, perhaps you have too.
We all know that the weaker (in whichever sense we are denoting weakness, certainly impairment does not equate to weakness in all cases) parts of the body are to be given the greatest honour. We know, too, that the greatest, and arguably most powerful acts of Jesus came in his weakest moments. In submitting to suffering, in emptying himself of all but instead of imposing his will and his way on all people, so that those very same people could have eternal life, life to the full, access to the grace and peace of God. Our God was not in human terms physically, mentally or emotionally, at his strongest when he was at his most efficacious.
And yet, as I writhed on the floor in agony, it was my ability to prove myself effective in the future, immediate and long term, as a minister that I most worried about. To put it bluntly, if this situation didn’t improve, or change, I wouldn’t be able to do my job. Rightly or wrongly, probably wrongly, this was my instinctive reaction, one that I had to fight against in the moments of uncertainty that followed for me in the proceeding days. I don’t believe that anything or anyone but God can give a person what is necessary for them to be a priest. Neither could anyone but God truly revoke that calling and identifying.
The diocese in which I live and minister, Peterborough Diocese in the Church of England, has been fantastic for me as I explored a calling to ministry, had that calling affirmed, trained and now am completing the second year of my curacy. At most stages along the way, my impairment has been a ‘live’ issue. Both the diocese and I have had to work together on finding approaches to life and ministry that are appropriate and effective for me. I want to say here that I greatly appreciate the care, support and incisive challenges that have been given to me by my Bishops, my Archdeacon and other senior staff in the Diocese and wish to honour that. I had, and have, at least as much to learn about the ways in which I can live as a priest as ‘the Diocese’ in this regard. Similarly, my Training Incumbent, Margaret Johnson, truly has enabled me to flourish during the two years I have worked with her. I am incredibly grateful for that. These might seem like unnecessary things to say in a piece like this, but I think they’re important. Many people and institutions have collaborated to ensure that I have become able to live and work out the calling that God gave me. I know other people with impairments and disabilities have had good experiences in this regard, whilst for others similar processes have been hugely painful. There is, though, hope.
Our Churches benefit hugely from being ministered to by people who run the full gamut of the wondrous glory of God’s creation. Some of these ministers will be all-action, placed in physically and emotionally demanding situations and circumstances. Some will be able to offer less physically. Still others will offer a level of academic rigour in their dealings with Scripture and theology that will be far and above that offered by other ministers. There is not a minister of the gospel who does not, in offering to serve God and his people, find themselves in the position of needing to sacrifice, to suffer for the outworking of their calling, whichever element of themselves, their lives, or the lives of those they love might be squeezed for the sake of the Church. Ministry, like the Christian life, looks subtly different each time it is gifted by God to a person. Therefore, there is not one ‘successful’ approach to Christian ministry, there are, in effect, as many as there are ministers. Some need to be catalysts, some pragmatists, some spend more time listening, some tearing down the walls of unjust structures, physically. What do all have in common? They shine the light of Christ into the world, as sacramental presences, drawing communities of worship and praise around the divine, communities that are then sent out to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God. An effective ministry is not a busy ministry per se. As Eugene Peterson (who always says things that I wish I’d thought of first) says, the busy pastor is the lazy pastor. A good point for reflection, that.
An effective ministry is one that points people to Jesus and his glory. People with impairments and disabilities, temporary and permanent, have at least as much to offer in this as those unfortunate enough to think that they are in no way impaired. Indeed, I, as an impaired person, have a crucial role to play in this. Without us, the ministry of the Church is limited, deficient. With us it is more fully equipped to minister to the world in all its breadth. Those of us involved in this event know this. Pointing out to the Christian world and the world at large that fullness of life, abundance, grace and mercy, as well as brokenness and blessing can come in many shapes and forms is an urgent prophetic mandate in our day. If that means that the functional demands made of priests and ministers have to change or be more readily flexible in some instances, as time goes on, a wider and wider spectrum of the Church is, happily, coming to this realisation too. then so be it.
God identifies us as his children, reconciled to himself in and through Jesus. that word will not be unspoken. I wonder how many people God calls to ordination for whom his word of affirmation and invitation is never heard because our expectations and requirements do not permit it. For the Church holy, catholic and apostolic truly to be living fully, we have to continually be open to expecting the unexpected from God, for him to breathe life where there were only dry bones, for the wind of the Spirit to blow in unforeseen, unlikely places. On that bathroom floor, it felt once more, and all the more, unlikely that I had what it takes to be a leader in Christ’s Church. Yet here I am, when I am in pain and when I am not; when everything is working and when it is not, privileged and blessed to be such a leader, learning and growing all the time. I pray that we would be open across the breadth of the Church, to affirming the calling to Church leadership of more people who may look at first glance like unlikely ministers, but on whom the Spirit rests. Then we may, writhing on the bathroom floor in weakness, or rejoicing in the strength that only the joy of the Lord can bring (or whatever the opposite of writhing on a bathroom floor is), truly be living fully.