"The Lord's Prayer as a suitable location for a 'static paddle'"— A response to Andrew Brown's Address on 28th April 2019, by Talitha Annan, the Allmazed.
|Whitewater kayaking on the Upper Tryweryn (picture credit at this link)|
When is a table not a table? When, perhaps, it's an altar?—Some Christian a/theist thoughts inspired by Heidegger and Bonhoeffer (February 2019)
In the name of Annah the Allmaziful— Some irregular reflections on the Lord’s Prayer (April 2019)
A lesson from Wall Street - or Liberal Religion and the Static Paddle (September 2008)
It is one of the privileges of being the minister here that I'm able to play a modest part in so many interesting interlocking conversations with congregational members about what a modern, liberal religion might and/or can look like. As you might imagine most of the conversations unfold improvisationally in one to one encounters or in small groups after the service at coffee or at lunch either in the church or at some local hostelry. It is rare that these conversational unfoldings get written down in a publishable form and so it's splendid to have a written example of what this can be like to share with you here.
Anyway, I hope you find Tal's own thoughts on the matter as rewarding as I did. Thank you Tal!
"The Lord's Prayer as a suitable location for a 'static paddle'"
A response to Andrew Brown's Address on 28th April 2019
by Talitha Annan, the Allmazed.
I was late to church on Sunday. I was so late that I arrived after the service was over, and everyone was having coffee. Back when I was a Christian, this lax behaviour (which was due to my tiredness after playing in two baroque operas the night before) would have been a distinct trespass against a jealous and insecure god (I no longer dignify such a one with a capital letter) who demanded that each and every human prioritise his needs above their own and turn up promptly to worship him at 10.30 every Sunday morning. Now that I am a Unitarian agnostic, I could get up in a way that was kind to myself, eat a gentle breakfast, and make my way unflustered to the meeting place of my Unitarian family, in anticipation of a genuine welcome, a complete absence of judgement, good metaphysical conversation and a leisurely lunch.
The first person I met when I arrived was my friend The Poet. Without needing to display any social embarrassment at appearing too 'keen', I asked him to fill me in on the Address that morning. He told me that Andrew had spoken on The Lord's Prayer, opened up the question as to whether we as a congregation still wanted to say it together in every service, and proposed some alternative versions to get us thinking. The Poet recounted some of the responses to this by members of the congregation in our conversation time during the service.
This immediately reminded me of two ideas in previous Addresses, firstly Andrew's reflections on why we have a pre Vatican II-style altar in our church, and secondly, his redolent metaphor of the 'static paddle' technique in kayaking. Over lunch, we were able to air a few thoughts about these, which have in turn led to me writing this response.
I have a mind which thinks naturally in images and symbols, and yearns to connect disparate and even contrary ideas together, in the name of both peace and wisdom, and therefore enjoys a good metaphor as much as a hot dinner. This is probably why I am fascinated by religion, and by the spiritual or metaphysical meanings people give, personally or collectively as a culture, to 'simple' physical or lexical things. The altar and The Lord's Prayer are fascinating to unpack, since they look fairly standard, taken for granted, familiar to the point where you might not notice them, but are in fact fabulously, allmazingly allusive, resonant and meaningful in all sorts of directions when you open the floor to individual people's reflections on what they mean to them.
The main point I remembered from Andrew's piece about the altar, was that it was placed there at a time when the country was in turbulence due to the First World War, and the Unitarian community in Cambridge built their new church as, partially, a place of comfort, of reassurance, of familiarity, where they could meet to regroup, sooth their anxieties, and relax, in a spiritual 'safe house', set apart, if only for a few hours, from the terrors and uncertainties of the times. Many of the congregation may have grown up in churches with such altars, and for them, this table with its flowers and candles was such an essential part of the 'place you congregate on Sundays' that perhaps they did not even fully see it - the absence of such a thing would have been much more of a conscious shock than the familiar presence of it was.
Even so, in the spirit of 'we need not think alike to love alike', there is no assumption that every member of the congregation had the same thoughts about this physical piece of furniture. To some, it was definitely not an altar, but "The table for the flowers!"
Likewise The Lord's Prayer. I imagine this prayer a little like 'lexical furniture'. There it is, comfortingly present at the same place in the temporal progression of each Sunday morning service, just as it was in our childhoods, complete with the inaccurately translated but so, so memorable repeated word 'trespasses', a special 'holy' word for church - where else (other than in A. A. Milne), did we ever encounter that splendidly sibilant word, when we were six? The absence of this central prayer would leave a larger hole in the familiar weave of 'what we all do on Sundays' than its presence does.
During my short career as an Anglican ordinand at Ridley Hall, one of the most interesting practical ministry lectures was given by a Non Stipendiary Minister and professional lawyer, who worked in the fascinating cultural minefield that is Canon Law, a complex, historically entangled crossover zone between Church and State that threatens to tie the Anglican Church up in all sorts of red tape which I imagine the Unitarian denomination is blessedly free of. As future Anglican clergy, he warned us to bear in mind that church furniture cannot be moved without a 'faculty' from the diocese. This, he said, with perception I admired, was not merely to make change difficult on principle, but was actually a reflection of an emotional, even spiritual, reality: for many people, their parish church is the first, and perhaps only, location in which they perceive and meet with their God, and to change anything they can see from 'their' familiar pew threatens not their physical equilibrium so much as their spiritual one.
It may be in fact that individuals in a congregation may have negative relationships to such 'furniture' as the altar table or The Lord's Prayer, but they are negative relationships which they may hold extremely dear; cherished objections, familiar abstentions, their own, 'holy' repulsions; and god help anyone who tries to take these away from them.
And this is where the metaphor of the static paddle is useful. In teaching kayaking, the students are first taken to a calm pond, and told to put their paddle in the water, anywhere, and move it slightly so that the kayak, with them in it, moves around the still paddle. Once this principle has been grasped, it can be used just as effectively in white water. There is in fact no need for a solid brace in order to move yourself around - the resistance of the water will suffice, and even if the water is moving chaotically, it can still be turned to your advantage by practiced skill. Thus it does not matter where in the pond you stick your paddle - it becomes a fixed point by the use you make of it, employing equal and opposite reactions to manoeuvre yourself at will.
This seems to me very like the way members of my church use the altar table or The Lord's Prayer. We are used to that particular paddle as a tool, a stick stuck in a particular, but perhaps not in itself necessary, point in the fluid, sometimes turbulent liquid of culture, against which we can lean or push, to orientate ourselves.
Some people may change 'Our Father' to 'All Father', some to 'Our Mother'. Some may say the prayer in Romanian. I myself do not say it at all at the moment, since I am recovering from a mood disorder, and have discovered that I can stay well if I notice which of my actions cause me emotional pain, and give myself permission to avoid them. But I still like having that prayer there. I am practised at swinging myself silently round that particular paddle, in the company of my Unitarian family, in a co-ordinated, loving, but unalike mental dance, made all the more beautiful for me by the knowledge that there is no doctrinal test in our church, no single correct way to do this manoeuvre, but the overall effect has the elegance of imaginative contemporary dance, each person making up their own movement and working around each other with sensitivity and gentle awareness.
Since we are all so diverse in the way we 'use' this familiar, poetic paddle, and there is no particular reason why it should go 'here' or 'here' in the cultural water, (a modern translation, 1662, etc.), I see no reason why we would wish to change our practice. It would be impossible to find a form of words we all agreed with in terms of 'explicit theological content', and moving it every week by finding new versions of the 'familiar connecting poetic sounds', as Andrew put it in one of his suggestions, seems like extra work for no particular purpose. Many of the texts used in our service, such as the readings from the Bible and elsewhere, and the meditation introducing the time of private prayer, already change each time. These parts are not static, and are thus already very responsive to the times we live in, the issues of the day.
I have learnt a lot in this church, since I started attending in September 2017, about the art of kayaking one's way through the challenging white waters of life as a cultural, spiritual, thinking, feeling human being. I am helped by having a balance between static and moving points, between givens and stimulation, between things you can push yourself off from and things you can flow with. The safe structure of The Lord's Prayer and the Prayer for Peace, the three hymn slots and the same artificial flowers on the same altar every week, allow us the reassurance to dive in and get involved with the new ideas contained in the Address or the prayers, knowing we will not be either bored and ossified by too much stasis, or drowned by feeling 'all at sea' in welter of ever-changing upheaval.
Yes, I am 'Allmazed' by what I have found in this congregation. The last 20 months have been both deeply spiritually comforting and brilliantly intellectually fascinating. I have left the coast of traditional Christianity and am traveling confidently, with a loving team of fellow kayakers, into the unknown. Perhaps we go mazey ways through the waves, but the presence of something that some of us call the 'All' is never far away. We live in it, we breathe it, we do not know what it is from beginning to end, but there is no doubt that we are all in it together.
29th April 2019