by the Ven Nikki Groarke, Archdeacon of Dudley and Member of General Synod
“I can hear change humming
In its loudest, proudest song.
I don’t fear change coming,
And so I sing along.”
Words from US Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s forthcoming book, ‘Change Sings’
Change is humming. Can you hear it?
The Archbishops of Canterbury and York wrote in a recent article “the Church in changing times”:
“The Anglican stability that people rightly cherish — as do we — is the result of our willingness to change. As the theologian Hans Kung once observed: ‘To stay the same when everything else around you changes is not to stay the same.’”
Are we willing to change, to sing along?
Some of us thrive in changing times. I admit to relishing the challenge of leading change. It energises me, yet I understand that others find it threatening. What I am struggling with right now however, is not being able to sing along with change, as everything feels stuck, and June freedom still feels a very long way away.
Change is humming, but it’s so quiet now it’s almost imperceptible.
We know that the world has changed. We know (whether we like it or not) that some aspects of church life will need to change. We can work towards that change to a degree, but this has all gone on so long, that many of us can’t really remember what ‘normal church’ felt like, so planning for change feels very abstract.
In a reflection entitled, “A change has begun” delivered in March last year, Rowan Williams said:
“And as we contemplate the coming months, not knowing when we can breathe again, it’s worth thinking about how already the foundations have been laid for whatever new opportunities God has for us on the far side of this crisis.”
The change that began humming last March will provide new opportunities, but the far side is still yet to come.
Change is humming, but the record has stuck.
I was challenged last week by a wise woman, when I spoke of feeling that so much of the work I believe we need to do to change and strengthen our churches for the future is ‘on hold’. She urged me not to press pause, but rather to respect the unique phase we are in and look for opportunities to do new and different things, to nourish, support and enable people in this season so that we come out of it flourishing rather than depleted and exhausted.
She pointed me to William Bridges’ writing on transitions, where he argues that the process of change is different from the change itself. Change is situational, transition is more personal, the inner reorientation that enables the change to become real. It involves rites of passage, appropriate endings and beginnings, dying and rebirth. He writes helpfully about the ‘neutral zone’ between the ending of one stage and the beginning of the next, being the key element of transitioning well. In this neutral zone we can easily feel apathetic, we drift in an untethered way, disorientated and uncertain, disconnected and disengaged. It’s certainly how I have felt in this last lockdown especially. But Bridges asserts that “the neutral zone provides access to an angle of vision on life that one can get nowhere else. And it is a succession of such views over a lifetime that produces wisdom.”
Change is humming, but in the neutral zone it’s humming a different tune.
We are going to be in some degree of neutral zone until at least late June. How can we embrace this gap for something fruitful? Rather than trying to go into reverse, back to the way things were, or into fast-forward, planning for the future without knowing the parameters, can we simply embrace the emptiness to prepare well for coming out of lockdown into a new beginning?
Individually, the neutral zone can be used positively for retreat, time out for prayer and reflection. Although social distancing and staying at home have meant most of us have had enforced time away from others, there is a difference between isolation and retreat. Choosing to enter the wilderness as Jesus did in preparation for beginning his ministry might reframe the experience, enabling it to be a more spiritually regenerating period. Perhaps engaging with Brueggemann’s grouping of the Psalms into those of orientation, disorientation and new orientation will speak hope into our soul.
Collectively, the neutral zone can provide space to invest in relationships. How can I use this moment to deepen understanding with a colleague, to communicate well, to facilitate creative thinking? How can we offer just enough structure to reassure people they are held and secure, without constraining new ideas which will, in due course, emerge? How best do we set short term goals that can be celebrated when met, without overwhelming people? How can we set an outline direction of travel, in the midst of uncertainty, such that the background hum of change is helpful mood music rather than dissonant clanging?
Making peace with the present will enable a more healthy emergence into the future. In due course we may have to revisit endings. Some things didn’t end well, because we had no idea they were gone for good. This time last year much that was laid down was done so temporarily, but some of it has since died and inadvertently been let go of for ever, and must be appropriately grieved for before something new can begin and grow in its place.
We will, as always, weave in and out of endings, beginnings, and the neutral zone, as transition is part of life, and navigating transitions well is what grows wisdom.
This season of change has the potential in our churches to build to a crescendo at the right time. The enthusiasm with which we add our unique voice to the song to make it loud and proud will depend to no large extent on how we engage with this neutral zone of our transition. But we do so, in all our rich harmonies, knowing that our remodelled selves, and our remodelled churches, are safe in Christ.
“‘Christ yesterday and today’, says the prayer over the Easter Candle, ‘all times belong to him and all the ages’. He is contemporary to me now; and when I remember with honesty and hope, I discover that he is contemporary with what I remember, faithfully at work in my past as in my present. And as I struggle and pray to bring together the fragments of an identity that is always being shaken around and remodelled, I get some glimpses of the promised end in which Christ simply embraces the whole of me, all I have been, and makes it one with itself and with him.”
Rowan Williams, “Candles in the Dark – Faith, hope and love in a time of pandemic”