Sunday, 31 January 2016

So who's in charge around here?

Photo (c) Jo Fielding. My badges of office just before I wore them for the first time.
We have a fairly well developed authority structure in the Anglican Church in which people are given odd sounding titles and even odder articles of clothing so that people will know exactly who is boss. We all quickly learn whether a cathedral dean outranks a regional dean and the difference between a transitional deacon and an archdeacon. I could let you know the answers to these earth shatteringly important questions but then I'd have to shoot you, so I won't. And anyway, as anyone  who has spent time in our church knows, despite the airs and graces to which the holders of our various offices are sometimes tempted, the real power in the church actually lies elsewhere.

Power is the ability to get people to do what you want them to do.People in power can do this with more ease than the rest of us because there is a whole system which enables them to make decisions with which others comply. This system is the power structure of an organisation, and all organisations usually have both a formal and an informal power structure.  

Formal power structures are those laid out in constitutions and job descriptions. Formal power is that which comes with appointments and positions and the consequences of obeying that power or not as the case may be are usually well laid out and well understood. Informal power is more subtle, more hidden and more difficult to understand, but in the church anyway, it is of far more importance than formal power. 

People are informally powerful through the exercise of three things: Mana, which is that importance within the organsation which derives from such things as social position, or previous accomplishment or family connection; Knowledge by which I mean the accumulation of facts and understanding and wisdom about the  organisation and the people which make it up; and Influence which derives from one thing above all, namely a sense of obligation for favours granted in the past.  These last two are by far the most significant and the people who possess knowledge and influence in an organisation may not be the ones you expect them to be.

I was three years into my first parish ministry and just about to leave before I realised that I was not, in fact, the leader of the parish. I might have held the formal role of Vicar and I might have had a piece of paper containing the bishop's signature to prove it, but there was someone else whose decisions were far more decisive than mine. Ever since, I have made it my business to understand the actual, as opposed to the presumed, power structures of parishes and other organisations to which I belong. But basically it comes down to answering a few key questions: who knows things around here? Who are people obliged to? Who do people listen to? Who do they look at before the vote is taken? Of course you can't answer those until you have been there a while and talked to a lot of people. But until you can answer them you shouldn't presume to be in charge in anything but name only.    

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Siempre Siga Las Flechas Amarillas

In the albergue at San Salvadore the hospitalera (the woman in charge of hospitality in that hostel) gave us both a gift: a small badge in the shape of a yellow arrow. She had made them herself and gave away maybe a dozen of them a day to pilgrims. We pinned them to our hats and have worn them since, for they are fraught with symbolic value.

The various routes of the Camino Santiago are marked with a few easily recognised symbols. Sometimes there are scallop shells set into the ground or painted on buildings or perhaps incorporated into railings. Sometimes these are realistic

but are more often stylised into a symbol recognised from one side of Europe to the other. There is a small trap for young players in that on most of the camino the tip of the shell points the way, but in Asturias the base points the way. It does cause a few problems when borders are crossed, but none that aren't easily rectified.

But the most ubiquitous sign is la flecha amarilla, the yellow arrow. These are sometimes professionally painted onto walls and signs. More often than not they are roughly done, placed on the backs of stop signs or on rocks or on the curbs of streets.

It is possible to walk 800 km from one side of Spain to the other without maps or guidebooks or smartphones simply by looking out for yellow arrows. And just as the camino itself is a metaphor of and sacrament of life, so the yellow arrows develop a deep symbolic significance: of the guidance that is always there if only we will take the time to stop and be aware of it. To follow of course you have to know what you are looking for, and the places where one is likely to be found. And to see them you have to stop. Be still. Observe. Trust that it will be found. They never fail. 

Sunday, 24 January 2016


Many years ago I wrote about the distinction between sources of satisfaction and sources of dissatisfaction in churches. That is, the things that make people happy and pleased to be here and the things that tick them off. Fairly early in my ministry the penny dropped for me that they are not usually the same things. By which I mean, if you remove the sources of dissatisfaction you won't make people any more satisfied.

In a church, the things that make people dissatisfied are things like heaters that don't work or a buzz in the sound system; or the Vicar's annoyingly drony voice or the fact that whoever chooses the hymns around here has the taste of a blowfly maggot. Sources of dissatisfaction are easily identified - people let you know about them early and often. Sources of satisfaction are harder to identify. They are more subtle, deeper and often unconscious. People don't talk about them much and tend to take them for granted. They are things that are the reasons people joined a church in the first place: things like a strong sense of community; an awareness of the presence of God; the knowledge that people (including me) are valued and accepted in this place. 

Many clergy operate on the squeaky wheel principle, attending constantly to the things people are dissatisfied with. They spend their lives chasing around after the sorts of trivia that people ring them about, getting tired and wondering why the roll keeps on dropping. Of course if there is a buzz in the sound system it needs to be fixed, and perhaps I could do with elocution lessons, but by and large, if the church is a satisfying place to be, people will tolerate all sorts of little annoyances, and even begin to enjoy some of them as evidences of character. So rather than a shopping list of minor things to get sorted, church leadership needs to quickly and consistently address itself to the bigger issues: the issues that are hard to identify and require years of patience and hope and discernment and commitment to establish and maintain; but which, when attended to, offer a real chance of building a lasting and deeply satisfying community.

It is the sources of satisfaction that need attention and thought. Sort them out and all the other stuff tends to take care of itself.

Of course, while this is true of church life, it is also true of every other relationship in our lives. While the arguments with our best beloved, or our friend, or our children or our God will manifest themselves in squabbles about our sources of dissatisfaction ( Do I have to do this again.... It annoys me that.... you never..... I always...... ) the fact that these things surface time and again is an indicator that perhaps deeper issues need attention.

Why are we in this relationship in the first place? And are those foundational things being nurtured and attended to?  

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Purity and Danger

The anthropologist and cultural theorist Mary Douglas' 1966 book Purity and Danger is a classic, and has been hugely influential on the thinking of many people, me included. In it she examines concepts of dirt and cleanness, and how these are expressed in dealt with in differing cultures. Her subject matter is pretty fascinating all by itself, but what is even more interesting, and what has been  has been seminally influential for many people is the theory of language she brings to her observations.

She says, quite accurately, that all languages divide things up into groups or categories or classes. In fact, even to name something is to divide it off from the rest of creation, so I see Frank walking past and think "cat". But naming him so, I am simultaneously naming everything else "not cat", so immediately we have two groups. Our groups become large, variable and complex. Sometimes they overlap. So I have groups labelled human, woman, family, friends, pilgrims, christian; and into all of these I can include Clemency, my wife, and I could name many categories to which she does not belong. Everything is laid out into groups in a way which facilitates our thinking about them and our relating to them.

But occasionally, as Mary Douglas points out, we come across phenomena which don't fit easily into any of our existing categories. Of course the obvious problem here is that our categorising system is deficient, but we never think that because we don't think that our system is artificial and approximate and arbitrary. We think instead that our system is some sort of  solid and inviolable participation in the very substance of the universe, and that if there is something that doesn't fit it is the STDF that is the problem. Uncleanness in every culture is about those paradoxical things which we can't squeeze into one of our comfortable categories.

So for example, in Jewish dietary laws pigs are unclean because they cannot be categorised: they have cloven hoofs like ungulates but they don't chew the cud as ungulates are supposed to. These breaches of category provoke feelings of disquiet and repugnance in us. They make the very order of the universe (an order which we ourselves have imposed) seem questionable and they threaten our very sense of self.

Douglas says that the rituals of various cultures are the means by which they deal with these breaches in categorisation and bring order back to the world which they have disrupted.

I have been thinking about Mary Douglas because I continue to be appalled and baffled by the energy that is generated around issues of sexual identity in our church. When the planet is being despoiled; when the 67 wealthiest people in the world have as many assets as  the poorest 3.5 BILLION people we in the Anglican church are dividing because some fellow Anglicans are in love, wish to make a life long commitment to each other and have that commitment liturgically blessed? Yes, really.

I look at the indignation and the vitriol and ask "where does this energy come from?" And I think Mary Douglas is right on the money. Homosexuality is an apparent  paradox that compromises the linguistic categories of many people who feel a consequential rise in discomfort and repugnance. Of course just as Mary Douglas' analysis is accurate so is her (implied) solution. If this situation doesn't fit your categories, it is your categories which are lacking. Get new ones. Better ones. More accurate ones. Ones that more fully reflect this astonishing, varied, complex universe that our God has made and our Lord has redeemed.

Sunday, 17 January 2016


(c) unknown. 1916 Cadillac Type 53.  its not my photo which I regret; not my car either which I regret even more.

Dunedin is full of interesting cars at the moment. There is an international festival of historic motoring here this week and I've nearly come to grief a couple of times rubbernecking some lovely old bits of automotive kit. Driving back from Christchurch a few days ago, the traffic was slowed considerably by old cars puttering along the road on their way to Dunedin and several times I had to join a long a procession behind somebody's well polished obsession. On the Kilmog the queue was probably 40 cars long and moving at less than 70 kph, but who could possibly be impatient or angry, when at the front was a 1938 Morris 8 Sports exactly like the one I owned when I was 17?
(c) unknown. Morris 8 Sports. See the comment under the other car. Only more so.
And this is a 1935 model - OBVIOUSLY - as you undoubtedly deduced from the grille and the wheels. 

But the car I enjoyed seeing most was a 1916 Cadillac type 53 which was filling up with petrol when I stopped to refuel my own car. It was in great nick, of course, and a lovely dark green like the one above, and there were 4 people in it wrapped up in blankets to ward off some pretty unseasonable Dunedin weather. This vehicle, now 100 years old was built only 30 years after the first ever motor car was knocked together by Karl Benz in 1885.
1885 Benz

The Cadillac Type 53 is an important car. It was the first one to have the controls - the pedals and various levers and so forth - laid out in the pattern that we are all now so familiar with. So, only 30 years after the original Benz, which was effectively an internal combustion engine fitted to a gig, the modern car had taken shape. By the time the old Cadillac rolled out of its factory all of the significant technical developments of modern motoring  had been made, and ever since it has all been just tinkering and refining and adjusting.

The progression of design and development in the first 20 - 30 years of motoring far outweighs all that has followed in the century since. Which should give us pause for thought in our infatuation with progress and modernity.
2015 Mazda CX 5 (c) Mazda Corp. 

Of course my new Mazda is faster, more powerful, safer and more comfortable than the old Cadillac; but apart from the GPS navigation system and the stereo it's basically just a highly refined version of exactly the same technology as that under the highly polished skin of the old Caddie. And I can guarantee one thing: that nobody will be driving it into the Andy Bay Road BP station in 100 years time. As with all modern cars, from the most exalted Bugatti Chiron down to the lowliest Chery,  when the electronics fail in... what? 20 years time? ... it will be impossible to repair, and will be nothing but a useless pile of old metal and pollutants. And the Cadillac type 53? With the right skills, there is no reason why it won't be still puttering around in another 100 years, or even 200, or 500. And the Mazda is nowhere near as much fun to drive. 

Monday, 11 January 2016

Which Way?

El Camino de Santiago isn't one route but a network of routes stretching across every part of Europe. When the paths converge in Spain they make their way to Santiago de Compostela in a variety of ways:
I have walked all of the Camino Frances, all of the Camino Primitivo and part of The Camino del Norte. As well, I have driven parts of the Camino Ingles and the Camino Portugues. All of the routes are well maintained, clearly marked and have an infrastructure for pilgrimage that will sustain pilgrims on a daily basis: there are pilgrim hostels or other accommodation options at regular intervals, fountains providing drinkable water, shops and cafes and bars. All have a plentiful supply of interesting things to see and do and on each of the routes there are fellow travellers who will provide congenial company. No matter which route is chosen, the experience of pilgrimage will be constant: you will walk a long way and find yourself profoundly changed by the daily encounter with a sacred route travelled in company with  an ever changing but astonishingly deeply connected community. But of course each of the routes will impart a very different flavour to your pilgrimage.

The overwhelming majority of people walk the Camino Frances. This is the route popularised in countless books and in a couple of recent movies. Beginning in the French town of St. Jean Pied de Port, the Camino Frances covers 800 km to Santiago through three distinct stages, each representing about a third of the distance. From France until Burgos the route is across gently rolling farmland. Then there is an abrupt change, as from Burgos to Astorga the way lies across a flat, straight, dry plain called the Meseta. Lastly,  from Astorga onwards, the path climbs up and down over hills and through valleys where there is farmland and forest and many charming little towns. I think the Camino Frances is the most pleasant and varied and interesting of the routes,  but its main problem is the abundance of people. This is not a problem most of the time as they are all going the same way, and although there is usually another pilgrim in sight of you, they are well spaced out along the track, meaning, that by speeding up a bit or slowing down a bit, you can have as much or as little company as you want. The problem arises in towns where  the competition for beds and for space in the cafes can become intense. Paradoxically, the great benefit of the Camino Frances is the abundance of people. As the numbers of  have increased over recent years, so have the facilities to cater to them. No matter how early you start walking or how late you stop you'll generally find an open shop of cafe on the Camino Frances.

The Northern Caminos, the Norte and the Primitivo, are quite different in character.

The Norte follows follows the Bay of Biscao through affluent coastal Spain where the villages have been gentrified and where there are housing developments all over the place. The beaches are beautiful but they are sometimes crowded and the prices charged are tourist prices, not pilgrim prices (both of which are higher than local prices by the way). The track often uses roads and formed footpaths, so much of the Norte is paved which can be a big problem unless you have very good boots. There are many more large towns on the Norte and although there are some very pretty little villages they are nowhere near as common as on the Frances. Because there are far fewer pilgrims, the facilities are not as developed. Most days you wont find a cafe open much before 11 am for instance, and the alberges are far fewer, although, as the Spanish government is trying to promote the Norte to take some pressure off the Frances,  some are very new and very comfortable.

The Primitivo, which branches off the Norte, is sometimes rugged, and, as the name suggests, ancient. It follows a mountainous path from Oviedo through to Lugo, and is, in places, very beautiful. While there are comparatively very few pilgrims, the infrastructure is still very good.

In a little over a year we will return to Spain and walk the Camino one more time. I'd like to hope that this won't be the last time, but realistically there are limits placed on us by finances and by our ageing bodies. Possibly, in later life one of the short caminos - the Ingles at 125 km or the Potugues at 200 km - might be a possibility and both are comparatively flat and very scenic. Clemency is keen to walk the Camino Frances again, but I would like to take a route not familiar to me. The Via De La Plata or the Camino Mozarabe are options  but both would involve about 1100 km of walking, much of which would be through the hot, arid heart of Spain, and Clemency is not keen. So our compromise solution might be to walk one of the French Caminos, probably starting in Le Puy-en-Velay and then following the Frances once we got to Spain. We have been told that this route through Central France is spectacularly beautiful, and that while there aren't as many dedicated pilgrim hostels there is abundant accommodation. And it's France, so there is nothing to complain about when it comes to food and wine. To avoid crowds and the summer heat we would want to be in Spain as early in April or as late in September as we could manage, but we'll see how the year turns out.

And if  I was advising someone new to the Camino? The best first camino, in my opinion, for the completeness of the experience and the range of facilities available, would be the Camino Frances in early Spring or late autumn.  

Thursday, 7 January 2016


Scott and Brids katajija Noah

My grandson Noah began to speak, like most children I guess, at about 10 months old, and one of his earliest words was one he made up for himself. It is katajija ( the spelling here is an approximation but it will do). It is a verb. It means to hold one end of something while someone else holds the other end. He has used this word consistently and contextually through his life and a very useful word it is too. For instance: when he and I were in the botanical gardens recently, walking back to the car, I had both hands full. I was carrying the bag of food and nappies (he's still only two), the bike he had got sick of riding and his bike helmet. When we got to the car park and I needed him to be attached to me in some way I said, "Noah katajija the helmet please." And he did.

It really is a splendid and useful word, for which there is no equivalent in the English language. You katajija a Christmas cracker before you pull it. You get someone to katajija a bedsheet when you want to fold it. To skip you need a couple of others to katajija a rope. And it has wider uses that I can think of. Conversations will falter if they are not being katajijaed. And so will relationships. We all know the sinking feeling when we realise that in a chat or a friendship, there is actually no one hanging on to the other end.

So from now on I'll work it into my conversation whenever it seems appropriate. One day you'll open up the OED and there it will be. And you'll know where you heard it first.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016


About 60 years ago, when my family lived in Halfway Bush, my father took me to the Taieri Aerodrome to see a plane. I guess I was 3 or 4 years old, and the plane was a Douglas DC 3. I can remember standing on the tarmac with Dad, goodness knows why we were allowed to be there, and looking up at its vastness and grandeur. By today's standards the old Dakota is fairly crude and fairly small but to the 1955 iteration of me it was huge and modern and wonderful. The nose towered high above me and the great engines, with their three bladed propellers, were vast and powerful.

I went home suitably awestruck.A few days later I was alone in the back yard of our house when a plane flew over. I recognised it as the same DC 3 that I had so recently stood underneath, only now it was very, very small. In a flash of insight I realised it was small because it was a long way away, and the thought entered my little head that for it to be that tiny it must be a very long way away indeed. And I thought about someone sitting in the plane and looking out of the window, back down at me and how tiny I must appear to them. I had a mental picture of what I and my house must look like and in an instant I knew three things: 1. I was very small. 2. The world is very big and, 3. I was not the centre of it. It was an epiphany. All these years later I can still feel the dizzying vertigo as, instantly, I shrank and the world grew around me.  For the first time, but not the last I was bowled over by knowledge. My world crumbled and reformed and even at that age I knew I had stumbled into some truth that was enormous and important.

I went inside to where my mother was working in the kitchen and tried to explain to her what I had seen,  and I learned something else: 4. If you try to explain it to people they usually just don't get it.

An epiphany is a realisation. That is, it is about making real. It might involve the acquisition of new knowledge but it is more likely to be making connections between scraps of knowledge already acquired: I knew before that morning that things got smaller when they moved far away, and that the world was big and that I was small, but in viewing the flying plane these abstractions had suddenly become real; they had become an established part of the universe I inhabited and I learned then, probably 40 years before I could properly articulate it, that epiphanies require a kind of death. The old world I inhabited, whatever it was, had been manufactured by my 3 year old brain, and it was deficient. For me to grow the old world had to go so a newer bigger one could replace it.

So tomorrow we remember a bunch of Zoroastrian magicians consulting their astrological charts and deciding that a new star was the harbinger of a long prophesied king in a far off land. They made the journey to check out their hypothesis and their world was blown apart, as was ours, by their findings. Epiphany.

So for me. Since that day in the back yard of a little state house in Dunedin, the world has, time and time and time again, opened itself to me, leading me into that exquisite death and rising again, by which it has drawn me to itself; and to the great and complex and elegant mind of which it is both manifestation and sign.