About 15 years ago, I took part in a fascinating research project at the request of Church House Publishing. With a number of people from the USA, sponsored by Church Publishing Inc, we gathered to dream about the church of the future, and to project potential for growth.

We were supposed to be concentrating on all things liturgical (to do with the worship of the church), but as a group of people who were drawn together to dream, we soon broke out of the constraints of liturgy and began to speculate on how and why the church would grow over the next twenty years.

We came up with an axis. On the vertical, we put a scale of intimacy with God. On the horizontal, we put a scale of engagement with humanity.

It is possible to be close to God but distant from humanity. A church like that would be awesome and beautiful in its worship, but its social engagement would be scant. A church could be the reverse, very socially aware but not very engaged with their relationship with God.

In the worse case, a church could be distant from God and from their neighbours. Such a church would almost certainly be in decline, spiritually and actually, closed and inhospitable. But a church that is growing is a church that is highly engaged with its community, generously open, and deeply committed to worship and discipleship.

It’s a no-brainer. A church which is open to others and open to God is more likely to thrive than a church which is closed.


20160325_104430 copyOver Easter, our resident artist lent Jesus to our church. The presence of Jesus is with us all the time, but this was what one of my congregation described as “a Debenhams dummy” dressed in jeans and boots. Through Holy Week and on into Easter, his clothing changed as he stayed with us through this most Holy Week.

The reactions to our Jesus were nearly always intense. It was clearly difficult to be ambivalent around him. Some hated his lack of facial features, or his very presence. Others found him thought-provoking, a visual symbol of the presence of Christ, accompanying us as we accompanied him through Holy Week.

Most of the time, he was in the way, standing by the altar rail, ready to trip the unaware. He was a dark shadow in the church, especially first thing in the morning.

I loved having Jesus ‘in the way’ though Holy Week. He was just where and as he should be in our lives at this most precious time when we remember Jesus’ journey to the cross. He was inconveniently present in the temple, at the table, on the journey, until he was with us in the sunshine of Easter. Love him or hate him, Jesus was present to us in more ways than one this Easter.20160325_111854 copy

Dragging my Feet

Why so quiet, Dana Delap? No blog since December? Shame on you! Well, it isn’t only post-Christmas recovery that has caused me to embrace inertia. It is also fear.

I’m going to Africa for the first time, and I’m scared. I’m scared of the poverty that I will see there; I’m scared of the history of colonialism and of slavery which will be all around me; most of all, I’m scared about how being there will affect me and challenge the comfortable world I live in. I wonder what will have to change because of what I see and hear and feel.

And I’m scared of bugs that crawl under skin and lay eggs, snakes, mosquitoes … And how to behave, and not upsetting anyone, and so on, and on… Pray for me, and I promise to blog all about it when I come back. “Do not be afraid, little flock…”

God of the Shadows

IMG_1933In 2011, a young friend of mine sat with me in Durham Cathedral. Anna Grace was about 6 or 7, and we had been walking around the city, amazed by the lights and the glitter which brought Lumière to parts of Durham normally hidden. Now we sat quietly enjoying the space of that ancient Norman building, watching giant pendulums swing light back and forward, out into the farthest corners and back again, across the marbled floor.

I asked Anna Grace what she had liked most about Lumière. “The shadows”, she replied. She found the shadowed spaces at the edges of the light creative and restful. And I had to agree – the shadows were what made the night-time illuminations beautiful.

I was reminded of Anna Grace’s wisdom at Westonbirt this weekend. The light thrown about the arboretum, lit up for Christmas, was sometimes strange, sometimes pretty. But it was in the shadows that I found creativity and there was peace. The crowds didn’t linger there, preferring to ooh and aah around the glitter and glitz. But in the shadows the beauty of the trees was thrown into relief.

This is Christmas – the spaces and the shadows, the oblique angles and people on the edges where we meet God.

IMG_1935This bowl is one of my symbols of leadership. Jackie Mahoney, who teaches me to work with clay, crafted it. Jackie makes the perfect teacher for me – she lets me try things out and make mistakes, and then when I need help she gives it. Jesus did that too – he allowed freedom so that his disciples could learn to be independent. He said to Mary, “Don’t hold onto me”.

During this bowl’s first firing it cracked. It shows a scar. Something in its being was vulnerable to the heat of the fire and it couldn’t maintain its structure. Jackie mended it with glass, in the tradition of Japanese kintsugi, embracing the flaw, the imperfection, and choosing to accept change. I am cracked, but my prayer is that Jesus mends me with glass and gold, a cracked pot through which his light can shine, and be reflected though me into the world.

What sort of a leader is Jesus? One who meets us on the journey and accepts us as we are, because he too bears scars. Jesus encourages us to live life abundantly and love one another fully. This is our faith – this is the Spirit bubbling up within every Christian. This is our journey to become more like Jesus.

When I came on interview to be vicar of Blockley and Bourton on the Hill 18 months ago, I was completely stymied by one question that a member of the panel posed. “What is your leadership style?” I simply did not know.

What the archdeacon told me that I was offered the job, I asked about that question. Should I be worried that I don’t know? He assured me that, because this was my first incumbency, it was something the diocese expected me to learn ‘on the job’ and as I went along.

So that question has been significant to me over the last year, niggling at the back of my mind off and on, occasionally coming to the fore when things are going well or badly. And now they are beginning to distil.

I know myself to be passionate and enthusiastic; I like to play; I like to find a middle way, but if I can’t carry everyone with me, I make a decision based on the opinions of those I trust. I am not afraid of conflict. I love to start projects and then hand them over to someone else. When I am leading, life is never boring, because I make things happen. And I am deeply fallible and vulnerable. I make mistakes, and I’m sorry. I am proud to be a human being made in the image of God.

One of my role models of leadership is Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy. Even though she is stuck in Oz, disorientated and alone, it isn’t long before she finds companions for the journey, friends who are in need, in this case of courage, intelligence and emotion. Dorothy can’t protect them from the dangers of the journey, but she maintains her passion, her hope, her faith that the end is attainable. (Brian McLaren, Dorothy on Leadership).

So I am not the Wizard of Oz. I am interested in sharing your company on the journey. I want to laugh and play. I want to acknowledge my weakness, my vulnerability and my joy in finding myself forgiven and transformed by Jesus. I want to be like the man who promised, “I no longer call you servants, but friends.”

Parenting Tips

When my son was a toddler, he swallowed a stone in the garden which got stuck in his throat. We rushed him to A &E where medics were unable to dislodge it, so he was blue-lighted to a larger hospital with a paediatric team. They eventually took the stone out, and breathing was restored. I resolved never to let my son out into the big, wide world again – but my husband quickly pointed out that this was impossible.

So I hit upon my first rule of parenting, taken from Arthur Ransome. The mother in the story expresses to her husband her concern for the exploits of her children, and is told, “Better drowned than duffers. If not duffers, won’t drown.” This has informed my decisions to let my children go out into the world, equipped only with common sense and a sense of humour.

Because humour is the second rule of parenting. To use humour is to employ a non-anxious presence, and it allows space for feelings to rise up and be acknowledged.  The Mom Song has got me through messy rooms, mouldy mugs (and worse) under beds, lack of communication, anger, resentment, lies and recriminations (theirs and mine), and the highs and lows of life – accidents, life and death, new starts, dreams kindled and new friends made, places left behind. If you haven’t seen it already, enjoy!

11940699_10207215337042946_2130213826348287529_nBeauty, like faith, is a mystery. Its interpretation is individually subjective, but also corporate. To quote W H Vanstone (Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense), a work of art creates the possibility of of what we may call a responsive creativity… its greatness, and therefore its greatest blessing, is received only through the articulation of its greatness.

So it is not possible for a piece of art to become great without public acclaim. Art must therefore be publicly displayed in order to call out our creative response to it.

The reason for this excursion into philosophy is a ‘corn doll’ that we had in church over harvest. We have an artist in our congregation, and it is a delight to show her works in church. But putting it up might have provoked reactions of joy, mystification or dislike. So, does art have to be beautiful to be meaningful? No. Does it have to be meaningful? I think I would argue that if it produces a creative response, it is necessarily meaningful.

Vanstone goes on to argue that responsive creativity is the coming-to-be of one’s own recognition of blessing conferred by the original creativity, God, who awaits our creative recognition of love. So any art which provokes a response, whether great or not, leads us further into the heart of our Creator, whose art we rejoice in.  Long live the corn dolly and all who respond to her.

The little tortoise-shell cat sat on the edge of the hole into which the ashes had just been placed. She looked down, and then turned away. The priest continued to read the prayers, as the cat returned her attention to the hole, and carefully reaching down with her paw, dislodging a little patter of soil.

It was clear to the priest that the cat was sizing up the depth of the hole, deciding whether to explore this strange new phenomena in what she had come to think of as her garden. A clerical hand grabbed her by the scruff of her neck and removed her from the vicinity of the grave, while continuing to lead the psalm.

The cat sat down a few feet from the mourners, her back to the priest, and began to wash. The short service concluded, and the family moved away. They smiled at the cat and talked about how much the deceased had loved her own cats. The priest silently sighed with relief, and after a swift glare at the vicarage cat, walked home, followed by the tortoise-shell.

DSC00549.JPGAfter the service I was left with the sound of sobbing echoing like an ear-worm through my week. It had been a huge funeral, and people in the village commented on the number of mourners who came. They assumed that managing the size of the congregation would be challenging to the vicar.

But it was my own grief after the death of my sister in law six months ago made the experience of leading the service draining. It is well known that one bereavement sparks the memory of other losses. It was the sobbing at this funeral that reminded me so strongly of Sarah’s funeral, and the grief that I and others expressed there.

As a priest I see a lot of grief, and I feel immensely privileged that people are willing to share their bereavements with me. Don’t get me wrong – I love my job. But know that I am vulnerable too, and sometimes emotions get better of me. Would you expect anything else?

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