Being Church: Thinking Outside of the Box
By Linda Chapman
Through conversations with Rev Linda Chapman, rector of St John’s Anglican Church in Moruya on the NSW south coast, I have become really interested in the vision and life of that community. It seems to me that their commitment to traditional Christian roots while seeking contemporary expression relating to issues of renewal, inclusion and ecology resonates with the Eremos vision. I therefore invited her to write about their journey together because I thought our readers would be interested in their story. Further information about St John’s Moruya and Open Sanctuary Tilba is available at moruyaanglican.org and http://www.opensanctuarytilba.org
Laurence Freeman, Director of the World Community for Christian Meditation, in a short article called ‘The Contemplative Parish’, suggests that ‘parishes fulfil many functions and are a defining sign of Christianity’s witness to the world of its inner life and faith’.
Yet if we are to remain engaged with the world, we need to continue to evolve how we witness to, and live our faith. As Laurence goes on to suggest, the viable and attractive parish of the future will find the middle way between outer activity and the inner life of prayer and contemplation.
My work in the Parish of Moruya on the far south coast of NSW over the last 8 years has been about growing our relationship with the broader community in various ways. This hasn’t been so much an intentional strategy as a natural, somewhat organic outworking of the call and desire to serve the community and to engage with the broader community.
I have never been one for set programs and strategies. And when I came to the parish of Moruya it was out of a background of having declared I would never be the rector of a parish, becauseI dreaded falling into an over-active mode of clericalism fuelled by the belief that all parish life depends on – or must be funnelled through –the clergy person. I had founded Open Sanctuary at Tilba in 2006 and now found myself in a traditional middle-way Anglican Parish not really thinking that I would stay. So, I came to parish life probably relatively unencumbered by big expectations of what might happen and I entered the work in a spirit of ‘let’s see what can happen’.
My orientations (passions?) are contemplation and action for justice. And I found myself in a congregation of people who were open to these whilst remaining very grounded in the traditional expression of church. And so we began a journey together. I drew a dreaming tree, and from that tree seeds have taken root so that we now have a centre of activity, a place of social inclusion and service, and a growing understanding of the contemplative way of Christianity within the established congregation.
I don’t think there is anything particularly special or unique about our parish; however, we have managed to become a place that is known for inclusion. I haven’t followed a strategic direction. I didn’t start out with a plan, but simply held open the space for life to emerge – a bit like those Celtic monks who set out in small boats (coracles) to go where the wind of the Spirit would take them – to find the place of resurrection.
We now have a place where people, for instance those who live in the local caravan park, or in their van, can come and get a feed, sing in our Slightly Bent Choir, take a small role in our theatre company and find themselves accepted. Our community lunch, which is now bursting at the seams, is a place where people from all walks of life, from local councillors to the homeless, sit together to have a feed and a yarn. It is a place where our local refugee action group have found a home; where musicians have a space to play for themselves and others; where our prolific vegie garden is available for all; and where on Sunday mornings we gather for our Eucharistic service as the Church has done for well over 120 years.
My place in this has been to pick up the threads of what emerges organically when we are open to relationships; when we are able to take risks; when we live our faith outside of the box. Some years ago when the issue of refugees on Manus and Nauru was especially potent I had the thought of painting the doors of the hall red as churches had done over the years to signify a place of sanctuary. Something as simple and seemingly insignificant as this means that today the hall is known as the Red Door Hall and has become a centre of compassionate action and inclusion. There was nothing magical about painting those doors red, but it seems to be a symbol of the life that can emerge when we listen and respond to the somewhat surprising lead of the Sprit. I don’t see us offering a service so much as being within the community that already exists and moving into relationship with others within and beyond the Parish.
As the Irish philosopher, Richard Kearney, suggests, when we become hosts for the Stranger, when we decide for the stranger, our hospitality, our welcoming of the Stranger ‘opens up the promise of life, an epiphany of the Divine’. We become ‘guests to renewed life, precisely in and through the encounter with the Stranger’ (cited in John Burkey's review of Kearney’s Anatheism: Returning to God after God, 2010). In this way we are all both host and guest.
But to be honest I frankly struggle to articulate any of this, because to me it is just what has happened without seeking to manufacture it. People turn up from all walks of life, including those out of jail, from mental health institutions and so on, and we try to give welcome and hospitality. Recently a local renewable energy community group that I helped to start raised funds to provide 3.5 kw of solar panels on our roof. It wasn’t something we sought but it arrived because of our engagement with what we believe matters.
At St John’s we have welcomed the Stranger through the Red Door and by way of establishing a Peace Park. We have held vigils and rung the church bell for refugees and climate action. Activists within our broader community trust that they can come for a ritual as simple as lighting candles and giving voice to lament and solidarity with the suffering of the world without having to sign up to a belief system.
At the same time as all of this activity has been going on we have slowly introduced the contemplative aspects of Christianity into the parish. As Laurence Freeman says:
The contemplative parish is a place where a deeper and broader knowledge of Christ can be allowed to flourish. The fruits of this will benefit all within it and in contact with it. If contemplation, as Aquinas said, is only the ‘simple enjoyment of the truth’, what is to prevent this ideal from being realized in every parish?(op.cit.)
I am convinced of the need for a spiritual practice that grounds and stabilises our action in and for the world. Christian Meditation and Centring Prayer are practices of the church that find their roots in ancient times and yet are entirely relevant, even essential, for our context. I was asked recently ‘What do you think the world needs now?’ and I replied, ‘to reconnect with nature – other than human and our own – through the practice of silence’. People today don’t want to be told what to believe. Silence is trustworthy and to sit in silence, in prayer, with others may be one of the pre-eminent ways of being the community of church. In the parish we have encountered some difficult situations with those who are deeply wounded and traumatised. A contemplative practice or orientation helps us remain in the tension of the competing fears and anxieties and aspirations within ourselves and others and to somehow pull threads together. We are more able to hear our own and others’ anxiety without allowing that anxiety to derail life, the life that is emerging in our midst – including life that can seem very messy, and at times chaotic. And that really is what I see being contemplative in action is about. Remaining present to the messiness in some equilibrium, holding it and allowing Love/God to loosen the knots so that healing and redemption might come about.
In the parish we nurture the Christian contemplative way for both adults and children through our Christian Meditation group, Growing Still and Still Waters groups for children and adults. Presently we are making our way through ‘The Roots of Christian Mysticism’ course.
So, St John’s Moruya is a place where our feet are planted firmly in tradition; yet from that tradition we are open to what, perhaps, could be one way of resurrection for the church. I don’t know because we’re not there yet! And it may be a very bold claim! But I do think that unless we have ‘courage running thick through our veins’, unless we are prepared to risk and to trust, then the church will fall further into demise. The old is falling away –and not only in the church. But if we can seek the wisdom to know what to bring with us into a potentially resurrected way and allow our little boat to be propelled by the Spirit then we needn’t fret.
I have retained my commitment to Open Sanctuary another community with a contemplative focus. This little place of simplicity and poverty, housed in a small timber church at the foot of the sacred Gulaga mountain at TilbaTilba, offers an alternative to more conventional ways of being church. Itis a place where silence is our first language. Those who gather come from various spiritual paths or none. What we have in common is a love for the place and for the earth-community as a whole – and a desire to explore the spiritual dimension of life in a non-dogmatic, non-hierarchical space. At Open Sanctuary we engage in conversation from a place of deep respect for difference. This allows us to hold the space and to let the space hold us.
Linda is Rector of St John's Moruya, founder of Open Sanctuary at Tilba, a retreat leader and advocate for care of creation. She also received an OAM this year for her contribution to the Anglican Church of Australia. (Her nominators thought it should have been service to the community!)
At Open Sanctuary we find common ground in Silence. Silence is not an end in itself. It is rather the interior ‘ground’ in and from which we find common ground with others. The work of silence is the practice of noticing the noise and clutter of our own minds and intentionally turning ‘the face of our mind’ to behold the silence of deeper mind. Practices such as meditation are a way towards this interior movement; a way of stilling our noisy mind so that we can hear and see with clarity. The work of silence and the increasing capacity to behold is a way of integrative peace and wholeness. Silence as common ground for all faith traditions and the reality of our common human condition is a way of reconciling, redeeming relationship with the other. The mind that is liberated from its own noise, clutter and addictive patterns is free to engage with difference without being threatened by difference. This liberation is salvific; it is salve or in other words ‘saving’ in that we gradually notice we are less reactive, less dogmatic either in religious, psychological or political terms. This doesn’t mean we are disengaged but rather the way in which we engage changes. We become more contemplative in action. In this way we contribute to peace as we are no longer compelled to go into battle to defend or attack our egoic stance. Rather, we grow in a contemplative stance towards life. Through the work of silence, we find we can remain present with respectful regard for the other. We may not always agree however we will find a compassionate and open way to converse and to disagree and yet to relate with loving-kindness. The world is desperately in need of wisdom, the wisdom of silence. Life on earth faces an existential challenge in the form of climate change and general ecological devastation. We are constantly distracted by both interior and exterior noise. There is a direct relationship between our noisy, grasping, one-dimensional mind and the ways in which humanity is shaping the earth. We need to be informed by the silence of deep mind; to become re-centred in wisdom, loving- kindness and the vision that recognizes we are one body. What we do to the least we do to the whole. Silence is not an end in itself but is the open-endedness of the Reality of God, Ground of Being.
Note: the terms ‘behold’ and ‘deep mind’ are taken from the work of Maggie Ross whose seminal book ‘Silence: A User’s Guide’, has become a significant source text in my life.
Maggie Ross, Silence: A User’s Guide, Cascade Books, 2014
2016 Christian Meditatio Paper: Keepers of the Space
The following paper was written by Rev Linda Chapman, an Oblate of the Christian Meditation Community and Rector of the Anglican Parish of Moruya. See the following link for details of the Meditatio Event in Sydney in 2016.
THE HUMAN VOCATION AS KEEPERS OF THE SPACE means that we are meant to live as part of the whole earth community in a way that secures spaces for both human and other-than-human life to flourish. The Creation story of Genesis is a story of God opening up these spaces for life. All creatures are given habitat. The human being is born into this Garden of life but we are now encroaching on the space of others and are causing serious harm. The practice of meditation however is a way of hope. It is a spiritual practice that opens up the space of cosmic consciousness such that we might recognize our identity as creatures interdependent with all creation and in need of balance.
Meditation enables a way of life that restores harmony and balance; the balance necessary for life, for all to live. Much of our contemporary culture and consciousness is about growing the ‘space’ of the economy. The Genesis narrative however tells us that the oikos, the household of God, from which the word economy is derived, is about the balancing of ecology and economy. When our focus is heavily weighted on economy we become split and unbalanced. We veer in the direction of harm, rather than securing space for life to flourish.
In Genesis, humanity is given the task of 'cultivating', tilling, keeping, the garden of Eden. The Creation story is a primal poetic narrative of meaning rather than fact. It is the meaning that matters for us at this stage of our evolutionary journey.
The understanding that the human vocation is to ‘keep the space’ derives from the earliest activity of the Creator in the Genesis story, who opened up the various spaces for particular creatures to enjoy their particular habitats. God opened up the spaces of night and day, of the waters that would teem with living things; the sky with every winged bird according to its kind, and the dry ground; the space where vegetation could come forth. And God saw that all was good and desired an abundance of the various life forms within their spaces. And then the human being, the Adam, was formed from the same elements as the earth, the Adamah. And God saw that it was all very good and on the seventh day rested. Our vocation according to the creation story is to be keepers of the spaces and the whole space of the earth community. And the direction of creation is to come to the wholeness of God’s indwelling, to be a resting place, to rest with God. This is peace. This is shalom.
This peace however is significantly challenged in our current environment by the ecological crises we are now facing. As others have said the ecological crisis is a spiritual crisis; a crisis of human identity. We have forgotten who we are. And when we forget who we are we forget how to live. Yet in this age it may be that we are waking up to that consciousness that re-members creation. We are realizing our co-creative vocation perhaps just in time. Our original gifting with the responsibility to be keepers of the space sees the need for us to collaborate with the whole earth community through the vivifying activity of the (w)Holy Spirit.
“The human task” says Rowan Williams, is “to draw out potential treasures in the powers of nature and so to realise the convergent process of humanity and nature discovering in collaboration what they can become. The 'redemption' of people and material life in general is not a matter of resigning from the business of labour and of transformation – as if we could – but the search for a form of action that will preserve and nourish an interconnected development of humanity and its environment. In some contexts, this will be the deliberate protection of the environment from harm: in a world where exploitative and aggressive behaviour is commonplace, one of the 'providential' tasks of human beings must be to limit damage and to secure space for the natural order to exist unharmed. “
Meditation is a form of action in and of itself and provides the basis for action which is contemplative. Meditation, as contemplative practice, reminds us of who we are and how to live in a way that may preserve the interconnected community of creation. It heals our aggression and exploitative tendencies. The contemplative practice of meditation is an action of deep listening and it bears the fruit of real humility.
The convergent process of human and other-than-human nature, discovering in collaboration what we can become, requires of us deep listening and true humility. The truth of humility is that we are humus; we are earthlings, grounded and embodied beings whose habitat is within the sheltering space of the earth. We do not live on the earth but rather we are part of earth. Humility is the knowledge and experience of who we are and where we fit in the order, or relatedness, of things. The depth of our listening will be according to the extent of our relationship with the other with whom we exist in community. The Australian Aboriginal woman Miriam Rose Ungemerr from the Daly River in the Northern Territory describes such relational listening as Dadirri which she says is like our understanding of contemplation. Dadirri is ‘inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness. When I experience dadirri, I am made whole again.’
The original people of Australia know, or knew, their identity as intimately connected with the other–than-human environment. Djambawa Marawili, a Yolgnu man of Arnhem land, says that he sees himself as the ‘tongue of the land.’ The land has everything it needs but it cannot speak’ he says. ‘We exist to paint and sing and dance and express its true identity.’
“When I am in my homeland”, says Marawili “I know that my spiritual reality is here. I can see what is happening in our tribal country, in our land. We have significant ngarra (governance). Living in our country we can see what is happening in the future in a spiritual way.” Here are people who realize in the most profound and authentic sense their vocation as keepers of the space. This culture of his, the oldest living culture on earth, recognises the relationship between the space of country and the spiritual reality of the human being – indeed their very reason for existing, their human vocation. These people know who they are in relation to the ‘country’ (place) they belong to.
The practice of meditation is a path of self knowledge. Through it we understand ourselves as spiritual beings in need of more than material wealth to live fully. As spiritual beings we need space to simply be. In Christian meditation we begin by saying the mantra and eventually we listen to it. Our practice becomes one of listening in the space that the mantra keeps us in. We keep the space of consciousness through our practice and it keeps us, grounded in reality and rooted in the Love that keeps all space. Over time we re-member who we are as our fragmented self becomes integrated in the Self who holds us in being.
The ‘household of God’, the created reality, is one space consisting of a diversity of life. The contemporary over-emphasis on the economy, measured in material wealth, denies the space of the various ecologies that make up the whole earth system. Meditation can be a bridge between economy and ecology. Through the regular practice of meditation our consciousness becomes healed of the split. We come to realize that economy and ecology must exist together in harmony derived as they are from the one Source. Meditation reminds us that our prosperity is to be found in the spiritual capital of knowing who we really are and how we might live in balance for the whole earth community. As we become more conscious so we live out our human vocation as keepers of the space; the space of creation that also keeps us. Ultimately, we become that space in which God finds rest as we, more and more, rest in God who sees all creation as ‘very good’.
New wine and Weddings: Culture, the Church and the evolutionary process towards Union
What’s the definition of insanity? I don’t know. But it might sound like this: Taking so much water out of a river system in one of the driest countries on the planet, to grow cotton, to send that cotton overseas to be made into cheap clothes by underpaid workers in a developing country, to send those clothes back to Australia for us to stuff our wardrobes, then our op shops, whilst the Murray Cod and other fish die in the Murray- Darling because the drought, made worse by the effects of climate change and over allocation of water for irrigation cause an algal bloom that leaves the river uninhabitable for the fish; an ecological catastrophe, a catastrophe that is being writ large all, in various ways, all over the planet.
Will we change? It seems we won’t. Not until there is absolutely no other option and it’s too late. For some of us the fish kill in the Murray-Darling is no real surprise. The writings been on the wall for a long time. Scientists and conservationists have been warning us about the effects of global warming and poor environmental stewardship (or lack of). But where there is so much vested interest those voices are not heard.
The ancient prophet Isaiah says,‘For Zions sake I will not keep silent’. (62.1-5). Today we might consider Zion as the common good. Prophetic voices speak for the common good and must not be silenced. Although they mostly are. When they are silenced the transformation that they call us towards doesn’t happen.
The story of the Wedding at Cana is an iconic story of transformation; the changing of water into wine. And whilst we may take this to mean individual transformation, today I want to explore it in terms of the transformation of the church. And the role that the church ought to be playing, but isn’t, in the transformation of our culture such that we move out of the present insanity that seems to be inhabiting us.
It seems that we are at an impasse. An impasse is the space between what was and what can be – a space made impassable due to fear, distrust, unwillingness to move, shift, give ground and so on. The church to a large extent and perhaps the culture, is encumbered by old assumptions and ways of thinking and acting. We are bound up and weighed down by ages old cultural accretions that bind and blind us to the God who is calling us into the future – into a new creation. And this impasse, with its characteristic split between religious and secular culture is marked by the lack of a big story or meta-narrative that might otherwise hold us together. The old Story, the Religious story, the gospel itself, has become unintelligible to a world that is now, gladly, informed by the process of evolution – the Scientific story. Today we have no over-arching story that unites us and guides us. We flounder in a world where the individual, whose autonomy is sovereign, and whose rights to use and abuse the creation are unquestioned, is at the centre.
There is no question that the church is an institution that is confronting a profound challenge and yes, impasse. The wine seems to have run out. And there’s a sense in which we are standing around in the uncomfortable awareness of this yet with no idea what to do about it. In our story it is the woman, Jesus mother, who prompts the transformation of the water into wine. And in Johns gospel this is the first sign that Jesus gives that he is about something new, and something big. Interesting that this first act in John is about giving life to a party, is about enabling the enjoyment of the wedding feast. And I guess we all know that generally wine gets better with age so perhaps we need to be asking ourselves, ‘Is our faith tradition growing or ossifying - stuck in a medieval mire?’ Is our story, or rather our way of understanding our story, stuck in the age when we thought of the universe as static, fixed. A time when we thought the sun revolved around the earth – the time before we knew that the process of the cosmos was that of evolution – dynamic, unfolding, fluid and interdepending – a web of living relatedness. As the Franciscan writer Ilia Delio says, ‘Evolution marks the break from our way of understanding the world as a closed and static world of law and order and opens us to a world of change and play.’ The earth, the cosmos is not a mechanism but rather a process that is continuously unfolding.
The point is that unless we truly understand this, evolution and the understanding of cosmology based on scientific discovery, then our gospel story and life will simply become a fossil. It will not do the work it is meant to do. It will not enable the life it is meant to enable. As Raimon Panikkar said, when theology is divorced from Cosmology, we no longer have a living God but rather an idea of God. And so today the contemporary prophets suggest, evolution is essential to our understanding of God and God’s relationship to the world.
And today we might understand transformation as the process of evolution. Evolution not only in the scientific sense but also in the cultural and spiritual sense. And this will give rise to questions about the way we live our faith tradition. Do we understand what we are truly about or are we simply reciting old formulas that have lost their meaning for much of the world? Is our life as Christians based on an old law and order model or are we vivified by the Holy Spirit? Ilia Delio puts it this way:
“We are reaching a fork in the road; two paths are diverging on planet earth, and the one we choose to take will make all the difference for the life of the planet. Shall we continue our medieval religious practices in a medieval paradigm and mechanistic culture? Or shall we wake up to this dynamic, evolutionary universe and the rise of consciousness towards integral wholeness.” (Ilia Delio. The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution and the Power of Love, pg. xxii Introduction)
There is an interesting point to be made about the Wedding story and some of Jesus words from Luke’s gospel. For the wedding, remember at the beginning of his public life, Jesus uses the existing vessels, possibly abandoned ritual vessels, as the containers for the new wine. But later, in Luke’s gospel, having encountered that hardness of heart of the religious leaders, he warns that new wine cannot be poured into old wineskins (Luke 5.37). We need to reflect on this as we consider the ways in which we understand and practice our faith.
The story of the wedding at Cana is a story of transformation which we might consider as evolution towards union. The changing of water into wine and marriage being the potent symbols in the story. Evolution is a process of the increasing complexity, through union, of creation. Our religious life, our Christian life is meant to lead us, invite us towards union with God, meaning union with all that is; the realization that we are already one with God. This is the mystic realization. The realization of our union. And this evolution towards union is the evolution of Love, of conscious Love. It is this growth towards, this evolution of our being-in-love, towards wholeness and union for which we are created. The big Story of the Universe is the story for our time. The union of the religious and scientific story may well provide us with the path towards sanity, integration, wholeness and steer us away from the path of insanity, disintegration and death. But we must be prepared to be containers for that new and ancient wine that gives life to the party – this wondrous, diverse, dynamic Life.