P1030950 Twitter blue large

Sector Ministry: Liberty to Listen

Published in the Baptist Ministers' Journal

In Britain, everyone knows what Christianity is, and everyone knows it’s a dated, defunct set of doctrines treasured nowadays only by the gullible, the unreflective and the ill-informed.  We are a Christian country, after all – or at least we were.  But, thank God, we have grown out of all that fairy tale nonsense.  To be an intelligent, free-thinking, open-minded, switched-on human being requires that we abandon all those articles of faith upon which Christians base their lives.  Better to avoid close proximity to these mentally, socially and morally retarded morons, especially when their lunacy is amplified at the collective gatherings known as ‘church’.  Churches, after all, are no place for anyone who knows what the world really is.


Such is the unarticulated but widespread general attitude of countless people in modern Britain amongst whom those in sector ministries find themselves on a daily basis.  Of course, these prejudices against Christians and church are a caricature – although it is probably also fair to say that Christians often do very little to dispel this myth.


My own experience as a chaplain in a university setting (totalling five years to date, in two separate Cambridge colleges) does seem to reflect that of others in sector ministries: that many people in Britain still have a surprising degree of openness, even amongst atheists, to some form of great, absolute, unnamed, ‘Other’.  As one atheist philosopher (Slavoj Zizek) puts it:


What is the Absolute? Something that appears to us in fleeting experiences--say, through the gentle smile of a beautiful woman, or even through the warm caring smile of a person who may otherwise seem ugly and rude. In such miraculous but extremely fragile moments, another dimension transpires through our reality. As such, the Absolute is easily corroded; it slips all too easily through our fingers and must be handled as carefully as a butterfly.


Much of what takes place in chaplaincy settings, is the gentle, delicate work of hearing, treasuring, valuing these fragile experiences of others when they are voiced.  Finding, in and through these moments, what we might call the ‘still small voice’ and allowing that voice to speak.  The temptation, naturally, is to stampede across these moments with a set of correct answers, to bellow across that holy voice with loud-mouth bible-verses plucked out of context, to march boldly over the god-given fragility of beauty with the smug certainties of biblical soundness.  At least, this is what many (from outside the church) expect us to do, and are surprised when we do not.  Who was that 17th Century writer who said, “I had rather see coming toward me a whole regiment with drawn swords, than one lone Calvinist convinced that he is doing the will of God?”


Not that there is anything wrong with Calvin. However, one of the privileges of working in chaplaincy, is seeing the work of the Holy Spirit in places where we might least expect it – in a way that provides confidence to allow God’s own voice to be heard.  But isn’t this a cop out – listening to those for whom we are called to care, without having much to say, without providing the comfort of reassuring answers, without rushing in to convert people into the blessed knowledge of Christian truth?  Again, I can only speak from my own experience – which does seem to be shared by others in sector ministries:


The practice of listening is painful, exhausting and above all, silently vocal work.  Simply being present to those who pour out their grief in moments of vulnerability, being with those who have dared to be open with you as a relative stranger, sharing, and feeling and absorbing the traumas that beset us at unexpected moments, in and of itself, is a silent ministry that speaks more loudly than the best chosen words.  People know when you have listened to them – as those in any kind of ministry know.  Rushing in with advice, with wisdom and counsel and guidance is often a means of avoiding the reality of the horrors that many people face, and in which the voice of God really does thunder.


The Marxist literary critic, Terry Eagleton, suggests as much in his reflections upon the revolutionary nature of Christ:


"Only through such an openness to our own finitude, our frailty, our mortality, only by preserving … steadfast fidelity to failure… can any human power prove durable.  Only through this impossible, stonily disenchanted realism, staring the medusa’s head, (of the monstrous, traumatic, obscene real, of the crucifixion) full in the face, can any sort of resurrection be possible. Only by accepting this as the very last word, seeing everything else as so much sentimentalist garbage, ideological illusion, false utopia, bogus consolation, ludicrously upbeat idealism, only then may it prove not to be quite the last word after all.  The New Testament is a brutal destroyer of human illusions.  If you follow Jesus and you don’t end up dead, it appears you have some explaining to do."


For some reason, it seems that only in my ministry outside the church, have I grasped the real meaning of this.  My suspicion is that as I hear those grappling, struggling, battling with the bitter and unsympathetic realities of the unfairness that is our world, and I hear these experiences articulated in unreligious words, I hear the truth of resurrection in new ways.


Entering into the darkness of another’s experience, not only shines a light into the cavernous darkness of my own, but fills the depths of this shared human experience with something.  Whatever that ‘something’ is, it comes only after the point of hopelessness to which Eagleton alludes, and seems as fragile as the ‘absolute’ that Zizek celebrates.  And yet, whatever this ‘something’ is – it emerges from what seemed like an abysmal, monstrous, ‘nothing’.  I don’t know what the ‘something’ is, but it affirms and illuminates Scripture, draws me into prayer, and makes the world look and feel and taste like a different place.




All of this provides a grammar for speaking about Resurrection without having to start with an Ikea-like packaged delivery of something called ‘the Gospel.’  Without having an end-game, a desire to convert our conversations partners, a hidden evangelistic agenda, beyond the simple readiness to listen well, seems to carry us for nearer the epicentre of resurrection than traditional patterns of mission.  


Here, I sometimes wonder whether being free from the confines of church mission statements, aims and objectives and projected, measurable outcomes is an advantage.  This is no criticism of church, as such.  But churches, like other contemporary institutions, often subscribe to ways of being that quietly betray the institution’s own reason for existence.


In Cambridge, for instance, scientists invest enormous amounts of energy submitting applications for funding.  The forms usually include increasingly extended sections on the proposed social benefits of the research project, and leave less and less room for details about the project itself.  And yet, those familiar with the history of scientific progress realise that the greatest breakthroughs in science often come about accidentally, amongst those who are doing science for its own sake.  For instance, those seeking to understand the development of structural colours in pre-historic plants and flowers have no idea that they are paving the way towards a means of dealing effectively with cancer (by helping to isolate tumours as targets for treatment) or providing lightweight building materials (when nano-technology engages in bio-mimetics).  Listening well to the natural world can have gloriously unexpected consequences.


Similarly, churches are frequently under pressure to offer an account of their own progress in terms of measurable success and benefit to the local community, rather than simply worshipping a world-Changing Christ and having faith that such worship might bear its own unexpected but god-given fruit.


Chaplaincy, being freed from the pressures of church management, can be a role in which there is the time, the space and indeed, the expectation that listening to the ‘other’ happens for its own sake, a task free of any desired outcome beyond the act of listening itself.  In fact, these are the only conditions under which genuine listening is possible.


I suspect it is for this reason, that the encouragement, gratitude and affirmation I receive in secular chaplaincy settings far out-shadows that offered to me when I was a pastor in the church settings.  This is by no means a criticism of congregation members – as if the role of congregation is to boost a minister’s fragile self-esteem.  It is simply an empirical fact.  Maybe it is because secular expectations of Christian ministry are so low, that when they experience genuine Christian care, it is a surprise.  Maybe it is because outside the church, a minister is free to offer a different level of care.  Maybe it is because secular ministries (in my experience) release the minister to invest more time and energy in pastoral care than those ministers responsible for the multiple dimensions of church life.  Whatever the reason, ministers who listen well in a secular setting, may well encounter what feels like a disproportionate degree of positive feedback.


I am constantly astonished by the degree of openness and gratitude awaiting any those who listen well.  There is nothing novel, or cutting edge, or unexpected in this experience.  It is simply an encouragement to see that - given the gloomy realities of our world, the prejudice mounting against religion in any form, and secular cynicism about the church - so many people ‘out there’ are still hungry to hear those who prove themselves as genuine listeners.