Christmas Day

Lunchtime walk, evening meal. Seen at 1pm on the Exminster Marshes, and the Exe Canal and Estuary around the Turf Hotel and Topsham: one heron; two cormorants, and at least one other on a loop, maybe more; two mute swans, another two mute swans; teal and shelduck; Mr & Mrs Merganser fishing by the lock; small flock of and scattered avocet; many many probably sanderlings, like midges across the mud’s surface; redshanks and curlews; grey plover, we thought; various herring, black-headed, greater black-backed gulls; something startled, with a striking white bar on its black tail; various coots, mallards, robins, magpies, pigeons, small brown birds; two interweaving flocks of lapwing; one angler; two canoeists; mum, dad, daughter and miserable-looking son-in-law; several dog walkers and cyclists. Heard likewise: the call of an oystercatcher.


Great expectations

In his sermon this morning, Andrew spoke about expectations with reference to the appointment of the new Dean. We tend to hope that the new person will come in and sort out all our issues and weaknesses and lead us forward to success and the promised land. Andrew warned us that this won’t happen. I can confirm that it doesn’t happen in the civil service either, and it doesn’t happen when a new government is elected (I’m thinking of 1997 here; my expectations of 2010 have sadly been met and more). My memory of his sermon gets pretty hazy here, but Andrew may well have said something along the lines that God works in the unexpected, never more than in the Incarnation.

In the discussion afterwards, one of the congregation who is a teacher said that expectation can be good; having high expectations of students can lead them to do better. People in general tend to live up to or down to expectations. The problem is when the expectations are unrealistic.

I remembered something I have learnt during the last few months of centring prayer. Previously, I thought of contemplative prayer as waiting in expectation for God, and remember reading of intercessory prayer that we should always ask in expectation that God will answer. Well yes. But the American Cisterican monk Thomas Keating teaches in Open Mind, Open Heart: “Have no expectation in [centring] prayer. It’s an exercise of effortlessness, of letting go. To try is a thought [that is, a distraction]… To struggle is to want to achieve something. That is to aim at the future, whereas this method of prayer is designed to bring you into the present moment. Expectations also refer to the future; hence they, too, are thoughts.”

So rather than living in expectation and the future, I more than anything need to live in openness and the present moment. It was written for use at Easter, but this prayer by Janet Morley seems apposite this Advent too: “O unfamiliar God, we seek you in the places you have already left and fail to see you even when you stand before us. Grant us so to recognise your strangeness that we need not cling to our familiar grief, but may be freed to proclaim resurrection in the name of Christ. Amen.”


It’s time to start blogging again…

… now that I’ve been back in Exeter for nearly two weeks, and unpacked pretty much all my boxes

Yesterday, I went to a service at the Cathedral celebrating the silver jubilee of Canon Carl Turner’s priesting. The preacher was Raymond Avent, who I got to know at Mucknell Abbey. It’s a small world. He preached wonderfully on three words: one unambiguous word – the “fiat” uttered by Mary, “let it be to me according to your word”; and two ambiguous words that have changed their meaning and are often used unhelpfully – “priest” and “laity”. To summarise part of his message, hopefully without misrepresenting… All members of the body of Christ are priests, not just the ordained; we are members of the priesthood of all believers. Likewise, all members of the body of Christ are also members of the laity; the word derives from the Greek laos, the people of God.

What does this mean for the churchgoer in the pew? Well, there’s a lot of variation between churches, but here are five Don’ts.

  1. Don’t expect the clergy to do everything
  2. Don’t think that you can’t do anything
  3. Don’t think that only initiatives organised by the clergy are worth supporting
  4. Don’t think that all church activities must be authorised by the clergy 
  5. Don’t say that you don’t have a voice

The media only quotes archbishops and canon-resignees on the big issues of the day, but we all have a voice. And nowadays, in this time of social media, we don’t have to wait for the ‘established’ media to pick up our message. We can all have a jolly good rant on our blogs!

… which brings me on to what I want to say about Occupy Exeter.

The camp on the Cathedral Green was set up while I was still living elsewhere, but I was following it on Facebook. I confess I was initially underwhelmed. I was mainly disappointed that they ended up on the Green and not in Princesshay, a ‘perfect’ example of capitalism’s privatisation of public space and limitation of the right to public assembly. Land Securities would have had them evicted immediately. I thought they were being chicken, but maybe it a question of being realistic. It’s definitely not being chicken to live in tents at this time of year, even during the day; it’s rained all week, today is bitterly cold, and the Green is a very effective wind tunnel. (Aside: If the Cathedral ever has them evicted from the Green, it would reflect really really badly on the Cathedral; much worse than it would on Land Securities if they ever camped in and were evicted from Princesshay. Probably because of expectations, which in a sense is good, but it strikes me as yet another example of the 99% being dumped on.)

I’m in favour of peaceful and respectful (no swinging on the Cenotaph) direct action. The Occupy movement has for the most part been these, as well as creative and inclusive. I agree with whoever wrote that the camps are the movement’s message and demands. Not everyone likes the way Occupy is going about things. I don’t agree with everything they say and do. But it is time to protest and to build a movement, and Occupy is currently it.

The first reading at this morning’s services included: “[David] the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.’ ” (2 Sam 7:2; NRSV). It was a fairly obvious reflection to link this with the Occupy tents just the other side of the facing wall. God’s response was “Are you the one to build me a house to live in?” (v.5). The danger of building temples is that they are then treated as God’s particular or even only dwelling place, whereas God is both in Exeter Cathedral, and in the Occupy tents, not to mention everywhere, including in people with whom I agree and disagree.

The gospel reading was the annunciation to Mary. Andrew preached on invasion or invitation, expectations or the unexpected, and made mention of Occupy. On the third Sunday in the month, there is a discussion of the sermon after coffee. This time, the discussion was pretty lively, with opinions on Occupy voiced across the whole spectrum. One very negative response, already forceably expressed to the camp, was along the lines that it is a ridiculous thing to do; why should anyone take any notice and how could it possibly help; and so on. One thing I wish I’d thought of: it probably seemed ridiculous to chain yourself to railings or throw yourself under a horse, and I would disagree with some of the more violent actions of the suffragettes, but I am immensely grateful to them for my vote.

So far since I’ve been back, I’ve been rushing into and out of town, but tomorrow I plan to pop in to Occupy Exeter and say hello.