Sunday, 23 November 2014

Vicar's Study: Presence by Patsy Rodenburg

My latest church placement has me in the centre of Oxford, a place where people treat having a PhD how the rest of the country treats having a smattering of GCSEs. It's pretty standard to find yourself sitting next to a Professor of Philosophy or, in my case, someone who just a couple of months ago was lecturing me as part of my Theology degree. To add to these esteemed clientele there is also the small matter of the church being impossibly grand with every role done to absolute perfection. It is completely intimidating.

A few weeks ago I went to visit our Voice Coach at college to get a few tips for holding my own in this new world in which I have found myself. I felt so nervous leading services in that setting that I found it hard to connect to the words on the page in front of me. Quite frankly I just wanted to get to the end of the page unscathed! She asked me how I was approaching it so far and I said 'Well, I just fake confidence and no one seems to really notice.' She smiled at me knowingly and sent me off with some homework to look up the work of Patsy Rodenburg on Presence and to come back to her.
Patsy trains actors for a living and, as you can see in this clip, first came up with her theory of Presence on the basis of mulling over what people mean when they say that some actors have 'it' and other simply do not. Call it what you like, presence or the X factor(!), on some level we all know it when we see it. Whether that is at a play or watching a film where the actor just connects in an extraordinary way or whether it is the flip-side and experiencing a disconnection in our interaction with someone. You know how it goes, the lights are on but no one is home! We know when we are experiencing real human connection and it is that connection, that the person is bringing who they are to the table, that makes the interaction real and influential.
Patsy's theory is based around three circles. The First Circle is someone who is withdrawn, hiding from the world as a form of protection. Their body language is hunched, their voice is soft and quiet, they are drawn into themselves. On the other hand a Third Circle person is completely out there. People in Third Circle take up lots of space, speak really loudly and have a presence that can come across as overbearing. Third circle can be controlling. It keeps people in their place but it doesn't deep down connect to the other. And lastly there is a Second Circle. The Second Circle person connects. They have 'it' because you are seeing the real deal. They have the confidence to let you see the truth about who they are. Patsy argues that for a number of careers, including being a Religious Leader, you must operate predominantly in Second Circle.

This all makes an awful lot of sense to me because I have seen it over and over again. Whether it is one on one or from the pulpit people need to see the real you to get anything from the message that you are bringing. Too often sermons land way over people's heads because they don't come from a real and vulnerable place in the person who is speaking. Connecting with people means being willing to take the walls down. It means growing in real confidence and it means not being afraid to show people who you really are.

So there we have it, I've talked myself into quite a corner, haven't I? This book has made me realise that I need to continue on the road to genuine confidence in this setting because it is the only way I will really be able to do my job well. It has made me reassess what it is about this environment that makes me doubt myself. It is one of my core values that everyone is equal and should be treated as such. As great as it is to be intelligent, it is just as great to be creative. As wonderful as it is to have eloquence, it is just as wonderful to be able to speak from the heart in whatever words you have. Flare can be learned but integrity runs much deeper.

Being present means offering to others the most precious thing you have, yourself. Only then will people really trust you, really know you and really connect to what it is that you bring. That is no small task but, I'm convinced, it is a worthwhile one.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Vicar's Sofa – What is Beauty?

When I was studying for my Masters in Marine Biology up in Aberdeen we were asked as a class to fill out a personality test as part of our careers guidance. We were tested on our values leading to three ultimate values being identified and, presumably, our ideal career would emerge. Most people came out with things that you would expect from a bunch of science graduates around measuring the world, attention to detail and so on. My number one passion came up as 'ascetic beauty'. I got a few weird looks.

But beauty has always been really important to me. Not really in the sense of perusing physical beauty (though to me make up has always been art and where better to make art that on your own face?!) but in that the experience of perceiving beauty has always been one that has drawn me to consider a deeper reality than what is right in front of me. Beauty for me has always been a sign post, an emotional guide mark, towards this deeper reality. What makes us find something compelling and wonderful? What makes us feel grateful in front of a gorgeous sunset or a best friend's smile? What is it in us that renders us speechless before nature or makes us consider something beautiful at all?

I am attending a church at the moment that has me utterly spellbound by the beauty of the services. There are many aspects of it that I can point to for the root of this. The music is spectacular with a full and hugely talented choir. There is definitely something in that, the beauty of human voices combining in a way that transcends anything a single voice could do. Or perhaps it is that the services are beautifully crafted, the words deep and rich, drawn from the prayers and praises of people down the ages. Or perhaps it is the sermons, their passion and integrity.

But none of those elements really sum up the beauty of it. Like any experience of beauty it is hard to put your finger on what is drawing you in. I just know that I love it and that it transports me somewhere new and wonderful. That it grips me somewhere that my head can't really understand. Perhaps that is what beauty is, then. An experience that hints at and reminds us of our depth and complexity as human beings. Bringing us back to the deep tug in our human nature towards everything that is good and pure and right. That, I guess, is why beauty means so much to me and why noticing it and celebrating it is an important part of who I am.

How about you? What do you think? What is beauty?

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Vicar's Craft Corner: Tackling the Craft Mountain

My love of all crafts seems to have no bounds. The obsession definitely worsened when my craft equipment was given its own corner of our spare bedroom and I was given a rolling cabinet for all my fabric and sewing bits. Now the piles of 'oh I'll just buy that because it is bound to come in handy' fabric and 'that's a striking colour' balls of wool seem to be breeding. As our move to a new, slightly smaller abode looms my craft mountain is looking all the more menacing. It needs to be tamed.

And so I have decided to start some new projects that I have had on the back burner for, oh, about a thousand years. The first of which is to crack making more beaded jewellery in time for Christmas and lots of birthdays coming up.

The next task on the list is to make a top I have had the fabric and trimmings for since the first season of Great British Sewing Bee. I don't even want to think about how long ago that was. Best just to look to the future eh? Which will hopeful feature a rather sweet little navy anchor top!
My next challenge is to do something with this fabric that I absolutely love but have absolutely no idea what to do with. I have about two metres of it that I picked up for a song at a charity shop near us. It is a great retro pattern that needs a large item to really do it justice but otherwise I'm stumped. Answers on a postcard?!

So, what are you secretly hoarding and what stash are you tackling? I'll be sure to share pics if I manage to make a dent in mine!

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Vicar's Study - Is Religion Dangerous? by Keith Ward

I first spotted this book at the book stall at my local church. It seemed like a funny thing for a church to be selling and reading it around theological college has certainly raised a few eyebrows this week. But the title immediately grabbed me because it is such a common view that religion is dangerous and the root of many of the problems in world. Even as a religious person I partly believed it. How can you not in the face of current world events? I only need to delve a mere fraction into the history of my own faith to be full of horror and dismay at what people have used the Christian faith to justify. Every religious person ought to take this seriously.

The book tackles its question in four sections, Religion and violence, Are religious beliefs irrational? Are religious believe immoral? and Does religion do more harm than good? Ward, a philosopher and former Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, challenges as inaccurate the notion that most violent conflicts in history have religion as their cause. Indeed many of the conflicts of the 20th century had no direct relationship to religion but rather emerged from tribal or political issues. Ward suggests that the problem, at root, is humanity rather than religion and religion itself attests to this brokenness in the human state. Just as no one would suggest doing away with democracy because it lead to Hitler, likewise doing away with religion because of the corruption of its values by some individuals is unreasonable. Likewise religion has been a powerful force for reconciliation as seen so powerfully in the work of Desmond Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Council in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.

Still, the content of religious values is rightly questioned by many when such views are used to excuse the killing of innocent people or hatred and intolerance in our society. How can anything which generates these kind of views be beneficial to society? Here Ward highlights the danger in judging a whole system of thought and practice on the basis of extremes or perversions of that system. Islamic State need to be held in contrast with the work of Islamic relief organizations around the world and the peaceful and humane practice of the vast majority of Muslims. Conflict between religious groups needs to be held in contrast with the many communities working in peace, harmony and respect with each other.

I have been struck in the last few years, as I have got more involved in inter-faith work in the UK, how little the remarkable friendship and co-operation between faith groups here goes completely uncommented on in society and media. One of my most touching experiences in my faith of recent months was discussing my experience of God with a Muslim woman while attending Muslim Friday prayers. Neither of us expected the other to reject our own beliefs or abandon our differences. I believe that Jesus is the saviour of the world, Muslims don't. It is pretty hard to get around that. As Ward notes, describing the major world faiths as 'a search for supreme goodness', both our faiths teach respect for the other, a love of humanity and a valuing of human life. This, to me, has a huge amount to say to a society where difference is often managed poorly and where the individual is often valued for their status or usefulness rather than on the basis of their human dignity.

Ward also tackles a huge range of issues around the nature of religious belief and how this affects human behaviour. Is faith damagingly irrational? Does a belief in life after death lead to a devaluing of human life in the here and now? Are religions with holy books always susceptible to the dangers of taking old outdated laws literally? Is faith a delusional behaviour? Is faith damaging or enriching to our physical and mental wellbeing? You'll have to grab a copy to explore these questions more. I found it hugely enriching and, for what its worth, would definitively recommend it. Perhaps it is best, though, to end on some of Keith Ward's own words.

'So is religion dangerous? Sometimes it is. But it is also one of the most powerful forces in the world for good...At best religion, the search for supreme goodness, a life lived for the sake of good alone, will help promote the welfare of all sentient beings. Some danger is unavoidable in any human enterprise. But religion is a main driving force for wisdom and compassion in a world that would be bleak and cruel without it.'