by the Revd Jody Stowell, Vicar of St Michael and All Angels, Harrow Weald
Ever since I was little, I have had the paradoxical desire both to be ‘part of the crowd’ and to be ‘the centre of attention’. I seemed to be a discombobulating mix of Extrovert and Introvert. I loved being on stage, taking part in school productions and joining drama classes; acting seemed to draw these conflicting desires together, as the mask of the persona was able to draw the sting out of being the centre of attention and allow me to be visible without the inconvenience of being ‘seen’. However, ask me to give a talk or debate in class and I was a immediately a hyperventilating blob on the floor.
The last thing I ever thought I would be, is a Vicar, part of whose very job is to be visible, be seen and be authentically herself, and the journey that got me here is another story for another day.
But recently I was given pause to ponder the sometimes excruciating calling of being visible.
Over the last few years I’ve been pretty vocal in the campaign to see women become bishops in the Church of England, but I’ve also had the luxury, as a woman priest, of being in a local context where my day to day ministry is pretty ‘normal’, and I don’t have to think too hard about being a woman and a priest. But the other day I found myself in a quite different context, where, I was quite literally the only ordained woman present (and I was surprised how weird this felt), where we ‘gentlemen’ were welcomed, and where it clearly made a certain male priest visibly uncomfortable to process down the aisle together, like I might have girl germs, or his standing next to me would somehow mean he would have to accept that I exist. Although there were some who saw my discomfort and were kind to me, which helped, it’s been a while since I’ve had to put up with those kind of shenanigans.
It reminded me of the importance of showing up, of just being present, of being visible, of acting like you have a special remit to exist, even when you’d rather blend into the background. I didn’t choose to be particularly radical that day, I didn’t choose to be clearly visible and stick out like a sore thumb.
What I did choose, was to show up.
In the Christian faith the call to ‘show up’ is rooted in the theology of the Incarnation. We have a God who shows up: from the visitations to Hagar, Abraham and Moses, in desert, tent and burning bush, to the womb of Mary and the messiness of childbirth.
It is striking that Christians have a God who not only shows up, but does so first and foremost in the same way as everyone else ‘shows up’. God’s investment in being human and in being born, validates human presence as a vehicle of expression. We all show up on this planet through the birthing process and this is therefore our remit to show up and more than that, to be counted. Jesus’ birth is our Christian justification for proclaiming that everyone deserves a voice and an invitation to the table. There are some in this world who have this as an automatic privilege, the incarnation gives permission to those without this.
I often experience great privilege in my own human experience, I’m white, educated and have a secure home. But in the situation I experienced above, it took relatively little to start to make me think that I’d made a foolish mistake in turning up, that perhaps I should have known that the invitation was simply a nicety and intended to be declined. How much more difficult for those whose experience is a much more explicit exclusion.
Jesus of course, crashes the party, uninvited and unwanted. His very presence in our world shows us that there is great power in simply being present in a place. His unapologetic arrival should give us courage in those spaces where we are unwanted.
Our presence means that people cannot ignore our existence. Being present means that people have to deal with the reality and not the imagined or perceived person.
Outside of the church, as Christians, this can mean being invested in showing up at places where ‘God’ is a dirty word. To be present in certain political arenas which would rather have religion as a privatised activity. To speak into issues of food poverty, disability allowance and financial inclusion as if we had a right to. Our very presence in these places indicates that we believe God is interested in these things.
Within the church, this challenges us both to be those who seek to invite the ‘other’, to look around the room and notice if everyone is ‘people like us’ and change the dynamic, but also to take courage and show up in the places where we suspect we are not fully welcome. In the church, lack of welcome is still the case for women, even with the reality of women bishops, for BAME people, how much more the case for LGBT+ who quite understandably have no idea where they fit.
As we negotiate our way forward with conversations regarding sexuality in the church, we can’t underestimate the importance of gay people simply being present, as someone recently said to me, to ‘stay in the room’. For those of us who are not gay, we must not underestimate the courage it takes to show up.
One of the prayers before communion says ‘Be present, be present, Lord Jesus Christ, our Risen High Priest, make yourself known in the breaking of bread’. Presence and being known sometimes means the wounding, or breaking, of our self. We have a call, every Christian, to be present in this world and in the Church. It is sometimes at high cost. It is always divine.
Picture of a Photo Negative of the Shroud of Turin