The raw material of faith is not fact but experience. It is not what your mind, by a series of rational steps, tells you is so. Faith is what your experience, in a way you cannot explain to someone else’s satisfaction, gives you the courage to risk.
Verna j Dozier, The Dream of God (Boston, Cowley Publications, 1991)
My faith has been questioned by a number of people as a result of the last two blogs I posted. The number of questioners is small but the range is wide, from gay and radical to conservative, catholic, evangelical and members of General Synod.
What they are asking, I think, in different ways, is: What is required for someone to be recognised as a bona fide Anglican or as a Christian? I think some are saying that my faith has been found wanting essential, traditional, orthodox ingredients.
It was with some pleasure that in searching for another book this morning I came across Verna Dozier’s slim volume, which I’d bought years ago but, it seems, never read. I thought I’d take a quick glimpse at the text and discovered yet another golden book of wisdom. It’s these moments of serendipity that help assure me that there’s more in heaven and earth …
Being a Christian matters to me deeply, as does pursuing the way of Jesus the Christ, but these two things can result in two different identities and are not necessarily one and the same.
Until I was about 40, ordained and in parish ministry, I knew with more certainty what I didn’t believe than what I did.
There was a moment, one morning, balanced contemplatively on a prayer stool in St Faith’s Church in Wandsworth, that I decided the only thing to do was give it a go, to suspend disbelief and live as if the infinite, unconditional love of God was a real presence in creation and life and deeply personal for me, with the potential to transform every moment and dimension of my life – and see what happens. It was a moment of trust, giving myself in faith, not knowing what I believed.
None of us, as Verner Dozier says, can prove to another person that their faith is authentic and true and conforms to official Church dogma and teaching. They may swear on the Bible that it is authentic and ‘true’ but it will always be their own personal construct of faith, however closely of loosely allied it is with what the Church and tradition and the person’s reading of Scripture says is true. This is the existential truth resisted by literalists.
There is no ‘proof’ of God, nor of truth and love. These things can only be made flesh in the living and experiencing of them. The body of God and the presence of God is enfleshed within creation and in the lives of each human being and each life form.
So questions about my faith hang in the air:
- Is it rooted in the life and teaching of Jesus the Christ?
- Is it congruent with Christian practice as it has evolved?
- Are the choices I make about the practice, those which nurture and nourish people in general and my personal needs in particular, energising my life and faith, congruent with the tradition?
There’s a question I’ve carried with me since my mid-teens: How does it work? How does being a Christian, being a member of a congregation, being ordained, participating in worship and the sacraments, do all these ingredients effect change in me so that the life I live is increasingly conformed to a holy and creative pattern. How can I open myself more sensitively and radically to the presence of God and the imagination of Jesus the Christ and the energy and infinite, immersive presence of the Holy Spirit? My path finds this in silence and contemplation, in deep, daily presence, in my body, feelings, heart, mind and soul.
I practice the presence of God, living as if this is true in its devastating, simple reality, costly, unconditional, self-giving, infinitely subtle, tenderly present. My experience of the divine is real, active, experienced.
I live with a commitment to truth and justice in every place, every person, every society and dimension of life, economic, social, political and religious. I can only have the smallest effect acting alone, but a community of faith with a common commitment can achieve what one person alone cannot.
I believe that the quality of our relationships is fundamental to the call to healing and common life, living alongside and working with people, as transparently as possible, engaged with, praying with, exploring truth with, journeying on the Way with as it evolves over a lifetime. The only way that living faith can be lived is by personal evolution and transformation. Traditional language would describe this as conforming to the mind of Christ.
Woven into my life is self-examination; praise, worship and glory; the guidance of those wiser and more insightful than me; actively engaging with difference; not fearing challenges (well, sometimes); the adventure of faith and exploration; real presence with people and in Communion and with God; passion (there’s a good, Christian word).
What more do people want of someone’s faith? Adherence to minutiae, the elements that in their scheme of things are deal-breakers with God? Let me quote Verna Dozier once more, from the first page of her book:
“What is your book going to be about?” a learned friend asked.
It’s going to be about how I think the institutional church has missed the mark of what it ought to be about,” I replied.
“The institutional church?” he puzzled. “What other church is there?”
“The people of God,” I replied. “The baptised community.”
“But how would they function without an institution?” he smiled.
Aye, there’s the rub, as Hamlet would say.
What might be missing from my faith? The legal bits, the things clergy have to swear they accept and conform to and believe in, perhaps. I’m expected to conform to the teaching of the bishops, but when the teaching is manifestly misguided or prejudiced and deleterious to my well-being and integrity, then I refuse the teaching and the rules allow me to do so.
The construct of my life and faith is somewhat different from the version held by the centre of the Church of England – by Lambeth, Bishopsthorpe, House of Bishops, General Synod, Church House. On the other hand, my constructs and variations on them are widely shared in a diversity of ways with others who are or were Christians, whose faith is often being enriched by their chosen path but is in their experience being negated by the ‘authorised version’.
I am indeed setting out to question and challenge that so-called ‘authorised version’. I didn’t ask to get myself involved in this drama. It was a calling from that in which I wasn’t sure I believed, thirty years ago, a vocation to change attitudes.