Friday, November 17, 2006

Rowan Comes To Portsmouth

Rowan Williams came to Portsmouth today (for any non-UK people reading this...he's the Archbishop of Canterbury). The man has a brain the size of a planet - and he knocked the socks off a group of clergy and lay people who gathered in the Cathedral. Me definitely included.

What follows is an attempt to summarise the first of his three talks. If you don't have an appetite for deeper thinking...click down the page to Wednesday's post...which was a silly clergy in-joke!

Today Williams was focusing on the question "Seeking the Soul of the Community". He started by asking us what we mean by the word 'soul'. In a community context he suggested that 'soul' is "that which gives form, shape and coherence - the centre of life - that which pulls everything together". The body, he suggested, is shaped by the soul. And if that is true for the body, what might a community which has soul look like?

First, he suggested, a community which has soul will have a consistent sense of what people are - and won't look to re-interpret people all the time. In a Christian context, that is partly about holding on to our 'story'. For Christians, that means holding on to the centrality of the idea that at a deep and fundemental level - all human beings come from the hand of God. We fail, but are drawn back by God's consistency. This action of God is under-written by a covenant which was pledged in Christ's life and death.

Treating people consistently with this underlying story (which the church holds for itself and the rest of the community) means, for example, not treating people as an adult in one context, then as an infant in another. The ABC (as we cheekily refer to him) didn't get a chance to expand on this - but found myself wondering how guilty the church in general is of doing that.

Are we guilty of treating grown-up, intelligent, self-possessed individuals as religious infants when they sit in our pews? Should we not, instead, teach (where education is needed) that there is almost always more than one view about many theological issues...explain the difference, certainly outline the reasons for our own preference, and then help people to arrive at their own intelligent judgments? I think that is what we do in my parish...at least that is what we try to do. It's certainly the approach I try to adopt as a Chaplain. But, I think sadly, there are many place where a much more dogmatic approach is handed down - places where preachers believe they have received a complete version of the Truth from God, and feel bound to lead their less enlightened flock down their particular path.

Secondly the ABC suggested that a community which has 'soul' will take the concept of time seriously - and give people the right to be heard while they develop. He had two striking examples of what this might mean:

a) Coherence and consistency in planning and funding processes: Crisp, short term funding is about the politicians saying "we will tell you what you need" - not about letting ideas and communities grow at their own pace, and in their own way.

b) Letting children be children: we tend to get bored by the fact that human children take a long time to grow and develop...and expect them to act like little adults. We turn them, prematurely, into little politicians, managers, and workers...and (these are my words) in doing so, stamp out the impression of God's hand which is on each of them and us.

Thirdly, Rowan Williams suggested that soul gives story to community life. Those, like churches, museums and oral history projects who hold story should not do so for the sake of simple heritage - but because they are guardians of the meaning of the life of the community. This is one of the mega-contributions that the church has made over the aeons. Depth, complexity, history, and community exisit in the church...and sometimes nowhere else. Williams quoted John Henry Newman who memorably said "without the church, the world would come to an end". Discuss.

I was fascinated to find myself discussing this idea with a couple of city leaders - during a break. They pointed out that for much of the last 500 years the primary story of Portsmouth has been it's Navy. So many people's lives in Portsmouth were inextricably linked with the Dockyard and ancilliary services. But now that the Navy's presence is significantly less, we wondered what Portsmouth's story will look like to the next generation. Will it be, like so many towns, a story of shopping centres and consumerism - or could it be something much greater, much deeper?

In summary, the ABC said that soul is not the vague evanescence we all cheerfully assume. To talk of soul is to talk of how God acts and how God sustains.

As a post-script, aimed I suspect squarely at us clergy, Williams made reference to the current debates which are tearing the Anglican community apart. Prophetically, I think, he said: "When the church gets caught up in its own housekeeping, it fails to engage with the critical task of being the soul of the community".

Well - that was just one of three speeches which we were treated to today. I won't try to summarise the rest for you. You've been reading for long enough if you have got this far! However, I wonder what you think about Williams' thoughts? Click on the 'comments' link below to start, or join, the discussion.

If you want to read a summary of the other talk that Williams gave, thinking about how China has discovered that an anti-religious society can become a society without soul, click here.

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