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Masking the face of God

14 June 2013

FOR something that is based on revelation, religion does seem to hide quite a lot. Or at least this was the sense of a man I spoke to the other day.

But first a social-media update: Canon Mark Oakley recently tweeted a link to a report of an attack on gay-rights marchers in Georgia, which included the throwing of rocks, and which was led by a priest. Irakli Vacharadze, who led the Tbilisi-based gay-rights group that organised the rally, said: "They wanted to kill all of us."

Another of the marchers, Nino Bolkvadze, said that if they had not been close to the buses when the violence began, "we would all have been corpses." But the Church appears unashamed of its leadership in the onslaught. In a statement, the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, compared homosexuals to drug addicts, and called the rally a "violation of the rights of the majority" of Georgians.

In response to the story, Canon Oakley quotes Fr Harry Williams: "Nothing is so apt to mask the face of God as religion."

His comment reminded me of a recent conversation with a man who looks after the spiritual welfare of clerics. On the face of it, what could be a more rewarding occupation? Yet he was in some despair. "They bring their role to me," he said. "But never themselves. When will one of them walk in as themselves?"

It was not a clergy-bashing conversation. We were agreed on the uniqueness of the ministry. Who else can live and breathe in the local community on so many different levels, and in so many different settings? I can't think of another job like it. Yet those who walk with clergy in spiritual direction often agree that they, perhaps more than others, can use their position to avoid themselves. So can religion mask our own face, as well as God's?

I angered a priest recently who believed that self-awareness was "Buddhist", and had no relation to theology. His understanding was that you are your theology. There is no "self" to speak of; so what is the point of awareness?

My understanding, however, is that our theology is intimately related to our psychology. A man who is mentally unwell cannot possess a theology of pristine wonder. All aspects of ourselves are linked, which is a truth with pastoral implications: if we cannot hold our conflicted selves in awareness, we will be unable to hold those in our community.

Theology is not just God-talk. Theology is also the vessel that holds our God-talk; it is our searching, contradictory, pondering, angry, hurting, hoping self. If we are to unmask the face of God, we may need first to unmask ourselves.

Simon Parke is the author of A Vicar, Crucified (DLT, 2013).

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