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The Church can help to heal fractured lives

by
05 June 2015

People need a bracing theology of God in order to live in the gap between what should be and what is, argues Lucy Winkett

I HAVE been watching day-time TV. This is in preparation for a lecture, you understand - not because I find myself with no one to see and no prayers to say at 11 a.m. on a Wednesday.

I have been watching the hugely popular Jeremy Kyle, who exposes disputes, usually family ones, in front of an audience. Under titles such as "My sister's baby is my boyfriend's", and with regular recourse to lie-detector tests, the shows attract millions of viewers every day.

It may be that, for the vast majority of the population who live without reference to organised religion, these TV shows have become ways in which to address our innate need to confess and resolve the messes that we get into, in a way that was once solely the preserve of the Church. They offer a kind of secularised version of confession - sometimes accusation of the self, as well as others - and a yearning for restoration that might be expressed in a kind of communal, or at least public, absolution.

The narrative in the confessional TV shows is akin to different versions of the American dream: whoever you are, you can make the most of yourself. There is no morality attached to ontology: your identity is neutral in itself, and the goal of life is self-actualisation and self-fulfilment, even if it is at the expense of another person.

Personal responsibility is heavily emphasised, the desire for revenge accepted, and the most ferocious audience reaction reserved for any whiff of confusion. In among all the shouting and kerfuffle, often rather beautiful hopes and dreams are expressed: to try to do right by a child; to try to make up a broken relationship with a sibling; to confront an addiction; to find love; and so on.

In front of the audience and with a strong-minded host, however, there is little room for ambiguity, confusion, uncertainty, or fragility. What is billed as tough love often turns into a merciless shrieking rage, which most of us might recognise buried in ourselves, but rarely allow out in public.

 

THAT there is a disconnection between the theological language of confession, repentance, redemption, and sin, and the usual use of these concepts in public conversations is something that I have reflected on as I have watched these programmes.

For Christians, sin is the expression of the fractured nature of humanity's connection with God, and the fractured nature of human relationships, too. Sin is a way of talking about the separateness, the as-yet-unrepaired bond between the Creator and the created, which humans recognise often in an unasked-for yearning.

This yearning comes unannounced, in the presence of great art, or on a clifftop, when we are in love, or in church. It is a desire that things should be better, or that we should be kinder, or that everything should be more peaceful somehow.

Such an often inarticulate yearning, combined with the frustration of living with things as they are, is something that we might recognise as part of the human condition which is given particular expression in Christianity: something like living in the gap.

 

I WANT to suggest that this gap, which we know about and live in, is something that Christian practice addresses unflinchingly and compassionately. It is given expression in the Anglican teaching about confession that "All may, none must, some should."

Yet the gap that all people live in is often pejoratively called hypocrisy by a risk-averse version of secularism which joylessly assumes malevolent intent in what is often (but is obviously not always) more like confusion, distress, or simply getting stuff wrong, hurting others, and hurting ourselves in the process.

The abandonment of trust in God leads us to fear the small deaths of shame and isolation which remind us of the last death we will inevitably know: the death of our body and the end of our life.

This is not to say that in reality Christians are any better: to be honest, this fear is not uncommon in church life, too. It is evident in a functional atheism that assumes, deep down, that God is not here, or, depending on our spiritual experience, assumes that God is either too far away or, conversely, too like us to be trusted with our deepest desires and bravest intentions.

What occurs to me as I watch is that our theology of God, either spoken about in Christian con-versations, or unspoken in public discourse, is at the heart of this. Without a theology of God which is bracing enough and kind enough to deal with our fundamentally fractured lives, living in this gap becomes intolerable. And so we arrive at a hyperbolic, fearful scapegoating of those parts of ourselves or others which we condemn.

 

IF THERE is a hysterical or overly punitive atmosphere around wrongdoing, inside or outside the Church, it can be an indication that we have lost our perspective on the movement of time itself. Sound and fury, expressed in the present, can be at heart an expression of powerlessness about the past, a howl of rage that what is done is done with no mechanism at our disposal to be set free. The New York Times columnist and writer of spiritual bestsellers Anne Lamott puts this well in her one-liner "There are three things I cannot change - the past, the truth and you."

The Church does have ways to express God's releasing of us from our powerlessness: the rhythm of confession, forgiveness, and absolution - God of us, and us of one another. But finding ways to communicate this in our often merciless public conversations is one of the great challenges that we face.

 

The Revd Lucy Winkett is the Rector of St James's, Piccadilly, in London.

 

This article is based on part of the Eric Symes Abbott Memorial Lecture, delivered last month in Westminster Abbey and Keble College, Oxford. The complete lecture is available on a podcast at www.westminster-abbey.org/events

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