I spent this week in Bantry, Ireland, speaking at a clergy conference for the Diocese of Cork, Cloyne & Ross. As with all speaking engagements, I worried beforehand about how it would go, how many would fall asleep or find what I was saying irrelevant to them. The Irish context is very different from the one in which I serve in South London and East Surrey.
I needn’t have worried. Four days of ‘work’ turned into four days of laughing, relaxing, thinking and … er … drinking. They made me welcome, included me in all they did and made it one of the most relaxing and enjoyable conferences I have done.
And these guys not only know how to ‘be the church’ along the southern coast of Ireland, but they also know how to entertain. I only have Father Ted to go on, but the reputation of the Irish for storytelling is spot on. I left the bar late each evening, still laughing at people’s natural funniness. I won’t quickly forget the rector who sang Monty Python’s Philosophers Song with one hand over his ear.
But, it occurred to me that most people’s idea of attending a clergy conference is probably of something intense and tedious. That isn’t the case. These are people who engage with the whole of life: the celebratory bits and the deep shit of some people’s (and communities’) life. They know how to laugh as well as weep – and they love life for all it’s worth.
I was thinking about this earlier today when I went into Western House to do Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2. I was having a chat with a guy outside the studio. He had been telling a story about the so-called ‘mile high club’ when a colleague interrupted and suggested the ‘religious correspondent’ (i.e. me) should close his ears. I replied that, contrary to popular thought, I do live in the real world and am not easily shocked. (If I am going to be shocked, it has to be something more inhuman than celebrities having sex in an aircraft toilet – not the epitome of romance exactly.)
This is why I love clergy. The popular reputation bears little resemblance to the gritty reality with which most of us live from day to day. We do not live in a rarefied bubble, cut off from anything that might disturb our limited and romantic world view. In fact, one of the recurring themes of my four sessions at the Cork conference was to take seriously the implications of the central dynamic of Christian faith: God takes the initiative and comes to us – God searches for Adam in the Garden (Genesis 3); God comes among us in Jesus of Nazareth; the ‘heavenly city’ comes down to earth and not vice versa (Revelation 21). In other words, the mandate of the Christian Church (the ‘body of Christ’ – which, presumably, is supposed to resemble the Christ we read about in the Gospels?) is to get stuck into the world with all the muckiness this involves and to stop worrying about our purity. Rather than fearing contamination by the dodgy stuff, Jesus thought about contaminating the world with goodness.
So, I am grateful to the wonderful Irish clergy I met; grateful to Chris Evans and the guys I met this morning; grateful to be catching up on my emails and paperwork on my day off. (One of those statements is a lie…)