Celebrating today, overwhelmed by tomorrow?

Simon Harvey writes,

I received many responses to last week's sermon about our to-do lists. It seems that everyone is behind with the things they have promised themselves they get done.

We began by fearlessly and honestly exploring the gap that lies between our ambition and our ability to complete things. We looked at why we so often are willing to take on good ideas, to add tasks to our to-do lists and why this leads us into trouble, guilt and fear. The gospel reading (Jesus confronting the Temple authorities with parable of a father and two sons in Matthew 21.23-32) brought us insight and a recognition that doing the right thing eventually is better than making promises about doing all sorts of things now.

It's a theme that cropped up again for me in the excellent and very positive two-day Stepney Area Clergy Conference this week.

The deaneries of Islington, Hackney and Tower Hamlets were each asked to bring a strategic "Big Idea" in response to two major pieces of work from last year: a thorough survey of life circumstances, trends and population in the Stepney Episcopal Area and the Diocese of London's Capital Vision 2020.

As the deaneries gave their presentations, despite huge differences in style and content, I noticed some consistent themes:
  • "We like it here!" - The presentations celebrated places. There were no romanticized histories and no estate-agent marketing-speak. Universally, there was a very clear gladness to be identified with a place, to belong here, rather than there.
  • "It's different here!" - Each presentation claimed that there were particularities that made their place not just different but special. Speakers wanted to tell us that life in their place was diverse and more subtle than the stereotyped reputations suggested. It felt like there was a sub-text that resisted imposed solutions because of special local factors.
  • "It's complicated here!" - The deaneries proposed responses that were multiple, provisional, half-negotiated and fuzzy. Strikingly defiant of the "One Big Idea" request, each presentation came up with small ideas that suggested approaches rather than solutions, ways of working together rather than rolled-out programmes.
  • "We tried something and then this happened!" - The stories were positive, personal, relational and unpredictable. Each presentation struggled to make them concrete and replicable but they were clear about the fact that good things had emerged from combinations of unlikely factors that together were providential, coincidental and social.
The conference was undeniably upbeat. We were challenged with excellent input from Bishop Adrian himself, Angus Ritchie of the Centre for Theology and Community and George Lings of the Church Army's Reseach Unit. But while there was a real celebration of the present, it became clear that we were looking towards an uncertain future with far less confidence. I began to realise that the same issues that we were exploring in church last Sunday in relation to our personal to-do list predicaments were featuring in our thinking about the possible futures of the church's mission in the Stepney Area.

All this made me wonder. Do our communities, our churches, deaneries and episcopal areas suffer the same kind of crippling feeling of being overwhelmed when it comes to planning and getting things done as we do as individuals?

Our thinking about tomorrow, both individual and corporate, suggests that we live with a greater dread of being overwhelmed than we might. Several factors reinforce it:
  • Awareness of complexity. We are quick to attempt models for reality on the basis of the evidence we see. But we only see so much. We see most clearly our own circumstances and we justify our predicaments by explaining the features that make our circumstances especially hard. So it feels easiest to model other people's realities than our own. We define ourselves, our communities and our organisations in terms of their uniqueness and strongly resist the idea of being similar or average. We see less evidence of the circumstances of other people and assume them to be less complex than our own. We are more likely to understand our circumstances as special and interpret others as ordinary. All this makes us rightly wary of off-the-shelf solutions while craving simplifications that might help us cope.
  • We have developed habits of hypervigilance. We are are alert to the ways in which things are changing and assume that our era is one in which change is happening fastest (it isn't). Positively, this leads us to a curiosity, to being alert for the novel, the key insight among the data, sifting and spotting, craving new information and intelligence. Negatively, it makes us afraid to be uninformed, fearful of being caught off-guard. Now faced with hundreds of stimulating channels that want our constant attention, we attempt the impossibility of being aware of them all.
  • "Here is the news. It's bad and it’s probably going to get worse, stay tuned for more information…" Bad things have always dominated the news. As well as being able to gather reports instantly, broadcasters, journalists and commentators are now able to trade speculations and hypotheses to create a narrative of multiple impending crises. The possibility of escalation contributes to a pervasive atmosphere of threat. It’s not so much that we are now more insecure than we were (most of us are not) but we feel that it’s likely that we will become insecure. This dread is actually more debilitating than the moment the wave breaks upon us. Our imaginations see lorries coming at us from down the road and peril just around the corner. Trusted authorities used to assure us that we will be kept safe. Now they ask us to stay tuned for more information. No employer will promise a secure job for life and no government will guarantee our safety. We're encouraged to exercise informed choice, which brings us to...
  • The fantasy of control. We overestimate our ability to shape even the small things, or even to mitigate them. So we plan strategically with mistaken faith in our capacity to foresee accurately. We reject a fatalistic and passive acceptance of what comes our way but we just as naively adopt its opposite: an activism that’s driven by our ambition to save ourselves. When we learn that tough times are likely to come our way we unthinkingly add, "...unless we do something!". We're much less positive about our ability to adapt to the facts, which is far more substantial than we assume.
  • The era of austerity. Paying down the debt is offered to us as a way of defending ourselves against the consequences of our catastrophic over-stretching. Resources are constrained in every budget, from government departments, corporate divisions, public services and household expenses.
  • A monitored culture. Inputs and outputs are quantified. Our attainment is measured against demanding targets. We live in perpetual audit and fear daily judgement.
  • Resistance to natural limits and rhythms. We defy our body’s needs and our community’s needs. We prefer timetables for delivery to seasons for fruitfulness. We have flexible 24-hour schedules rather than days ended with sunset and quiet. The only things that stop us are exhaustion and intoxication and we appear to be addicted to both.

Against all this, and from experience at St Mary's in relation to our parish, I think we need to explore more fully:
  • Keeping the end of all things in mind. The church has much to offer the world in relation to teleology, that is, understanding the present and the future as unfolding towards a particular promised end. The words hope and lament are key here - both are rooted in an ultimate vision of goodness triumphing over evil, of love prevailing, of resolution and renewal rather than dissipation and death. If celebration and thankfulness are proper Christian orientations to the present, then hope and lament are proper orientations towards the future and God's anticipated transformations of the present.
  • Developing cultures of faithful response. This is the opposite of ambitious planning and it takes a humbler orientation to the future. It's more about participation than innovation, about joining-in rather than launching initiatives.
  • Preferring narrative to theory. Stories, rather than theories, often make more sense of uncertainty. Stories also tend to empower everyone (see below) rather than privilege those with access to education, intellect and data. Anglicanism has always been rather doubtful about theory and none of our churches has been founded on principle alone. Mostly, we got here because people tried some things and some of them worked.
  • Accepting powerlessness. The conference made a couple of mentions of kenosis, the willing self-emptying that gives away power. There is a lot of merit in this but it still assumes the agent in question has power to give away and the freedom to choose to do so. Kenosis is a concept that makes most sense for those who already hold power. It cannot be required from powerless people. We might ask whether God who, frustrated at the Church's reluctance to act kenotically in the last centuries when it held real power, has finally allowed its disempowerment and marginalisation for a while. If the Church truly wants to stand in solidarity with the poorest part of our society, won't it need to experience the daily disempowering which is precisely the lived experience of poor people? A season of disempowerment might help us to approach the future more faithfully and we should be able to hear each other speak of powerlessness with generosity and affirmation.
  • Doing tedious work in community. The best responses are not glamorous, complicated and easy to do. Most of the value in life comes through vocations of love and work. Both of these have their high points, of course. But they are mostly radically ordinary, straightforward and difficult. The things that make the biggest difference usually aren't done in occasional episodes by heroic individuals but through daily labour shared with people we truly know.
These aren't finished thoughts but they have been consistently emerging for me in recent months, as I've listened to others and learned from them. I expect to clarify, change and adapt them as we learn more together. But it's been great to spend time this week in learning communities that are going through much the same as me.