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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

On Going to See Shakespeare

Last week we went to Sheffield to see The Winter's Tale. The Crucible Theatre has a thrust stage and we had seats close to it. It always takes me a few minutes to get used to Shakespearian language, but in this environment so near to the action we could hear everything clearly. It was a great performance: such a pity that the theatre was half-empty.

Winter's Tale is a favourite play of mine. It's one of the late dramas that are not easy to classify, as if in his maturity Shakespeare is reaching beyond straightforward categories. It starts out as a classical tragedy where, like Othello, the tragic flaw is jealousy. Leontes imagines that his old friend Polixenes is having an affair with his wife Hermione. The drama vividly depicts a man eaten up by self-absorption jealousy, his rapid disintegration bringing about the collapse of a family's whole world with the deaths of his wife and his young son.

But then comedy breaks into the hopelessness. The famous stage direction  'exit, pursued by a bear' seems to introduce a note of parody, hinting that nothing is quite what it seems. There is a clown and lots of flirtatious dancing, and all is set for a happy ending with paradise restored and broken relationships mended. But (spoiler alert) Shakespeare gets there by using a device that has puzzled critics because it seems as if it resorts to trickery. At the climax of the play Paulina brings the statue of lost Hermione back to life. It's a tease, for we don't know whether she was ever really dead or had simply been hidden away and looked after by Paulina. Anyway, in a beautiful recognition scene she and Leontes are reunited and the drama achieves its resolution.

Does the play itself 'lose its mind', disintegrating from the high art of tragedy into what at times feels close to farce? Does the comedy, following hard on the heels of so much grimness, mock what went before as if to say, don't take any of this too seriously: it's just illusion, a ceremony to mark the passage of the seasons? Perhaps it's a parody on both tragedy and comedy: the scarcely believable speed at which things go wrong at the beginning, the sudden lurch into an apparently careless comedy complete with songs, ballet and pick-pocketing slapstick and a miracle (if that's what it is) to end with and undermine belief still further.

Or is Shakespeare, far from being careless, showing his mastery of dramatic form by merging the two genres in one art-work and making what is unbelievable at one level credible at another?

Here's where I find the drama especially telling. As a theologian, I see profound resonances in The Winter's Tale of the central Christian story of the passion and resurrection of Christ.  It's not that any one figure is an image of Jesus (unless it is Paulina whose action in the drama is to bring about both judgment and redemption). It is the drama itself that feels irresistibly Christological, taking us through a passion-like experience of suffering and pain into a realm of laughter, reconciliation and dancing that suggest resurrection and the kingdom of God. So the play is a great transformation scene, leading us out of winter into spring and summer, bringing colour into the sombre monochromes with which it began. This is one way in which the movement from tragedy to comedy is not just credible but ultimately necessary. (See F Buechner,  The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale.)

Paulina says near the end: 'it is required you do awake your faith'. Which is why, when the statue comes to life (and who envies the actor who has to stand there so still for so long?), you can smile at the ludicrousness of what is happening, or else find yourself believing in it and being deeply moved. Theatre is always an act of faith for playwright, actors and above all, audience. In The Winter's Tale, we seem to be summoned into an act of faith that draws us into the life of things, into God. Either parody or gospel - or maybe both, because in an important way the gospel parodies the silliness of self-important human lives and says: look beyond this and see something that is not transient but eternal. Shakespeare is always big enough for there to be endless possibilities in the way we respond. And by keeping us guessing, he always has the last laugh.

Marvellous theatre. Why don't I go to see Shakespeare much more often?

Thursday, 10 October 2013

'People are saying...': on being criticised

A few days ago a fellow priest tweeted that she was having a tough time in the parish because she was finding herself criticised and misunderstood. Which of us hasn’t been there, and not just clergy but anyone who has a public leadership role of any kind?

I can’t pretend to be an expert on how to deal with these difficult experiences (ask my wife!). However, age does bring a certain perspective which I find helps. So I thought I’d reflect on what I’m trying to learn about this. Here are eight points, offered tentatively because this is a lifelong journey in the making. 

1              Accept that criticism is a completely normal part not just of public life or parish life but life. Don’t think of it as unusual or exceptional. It’s the consequence of having views, making decisions and acting on them, being your own person and not subject to other people’s whims, fancies and directives. If you are not being criticised, take it as evidence that you are not making an impact, are subject to others’ power over you, and have not yet begun to live as an autonomous grown-up.

2              Stay in role. Try hard not to begin by taking it personally, but see if you can discover what aspect of your role is under scrutiny here. A leader is a symbol of the institution or community of which she or he is the visible representative. Symbolic people always attract unconscious projections and transferences, especially in the church which is itself a richly symbolic environment. It may be that whatever is being criticised may have more to do with what you represent than with you personally. It may have historical dimensions you are unaware of. There may be unacknowledged authority issues for your critic. Sometimes you can distance yourself and say that this genuinely has nothing to do with you personally.

3              Don’t let your natural hurt or resentment get in the way of your emotional and spiritual intelligence. Being self-aware is all-important.  Ask yourself whether the issue may have something to do with your personal style or attitude in leadership. If it does, you may still be entirely content with how you are, and how you handled whatever it was that provoked the criticism. On the other hand you may want to ask yourself if there was anything you could have said or done differently, or some way in which you could have been different in the way you exercised your ministry. That's always a good question to ask.

4              Don’t be rough with your critics. Try not to be defensive. Above all, show that you are listening carefully.  Look them in the eye. Answer with questions that will help you to clarify what is at issue. Don’t get into a heated argument if you can help it, especially if the language of right or wrong starts creeping in. Don’t raise your voice, even if you are angry. ‘A soft answer turns away wrath.’ If there is a genuine disagreement, by all means debate it, and don't apologise for having your own views even if they are unpopular. But stay in your head and don't shout.

5              Identify accurately when you need to apologise. If saying sorry is necessary, then don’t delay: say it as soon as you can. But don’t apologise for something you know in your heart you shouldn’t apologise for, even if others are exerting considerable emotional power over you. You must never sacrifice your own integrity. But when you apologise (not ‘if’ - who doesn’t have to say sorry from time to time?), resist the temptation to explain yourself. ‘I’m sorry’ is often completely disarming. ‘I’m sorry, but I need you to know why it happened’ less so.  

6              Reflect on the experience of criticism. It’s not comfortable to do, but we have a lot to learn from it, both about the dynamics of relationships and organisations, but also about ourselves and how we cope with negativity in our roles. If you got angry, notice it and ask why. If you have a supervisor or someone in an accompanying ro le towards you (maybe call them a ‘critical friend'?), take it to them for discussion. Hearing ourselves talk about bad experiences with a skilled listener can be both healing and informative.

7              Don’t indulge in feeling misunderstood or criticised. Nothing is more destructive of good leadership than harbouring grudges, especially when you are up against the same few (and it’s usually a few) who want to find fault time after time. In the psalms, the antidote to resentment is gratitude. It’s good to foster the habit of finding things to be thankful for in the workplace despite the challenges.  One day it may be possible to be grateful for what you learned through others’ criticism of you: despite what it felt like at the time, it may have given you insights you didn’t have before, and helped you to learn.

8              Finally, always cherish your integrity. It is the most important gift we bring to leadership. It’s vital that we can way when criticised that we meant it for the best and had at heart the welfare of others. When I mess up, this is what I come back to. Most people will forgive our mistakes if we acknowledge them, and they believe that our motives were altruistic and not self-serving. The psalm speaks about ‘truth in the inward parts’. It’s not that we can’t deceive ourselves (‘and the truth is not in us’), but taking seriously our human and spiritual development will help us recognise self-deception when we see it. And own up to it where we have to.

Like I said, it’s work in progress.  In leadership, in ministry, it always is.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

The Students are back in Durham!

I walked into the town centre today. The streets of Durham were thronged with young people enjoying an afternoon out in the balmy October air. For the students are back at the start of another academic year in the University. This little city of ours is awakening out of a long dreamy summer ready for the bracing air of autumn and winter.

Last weekend the freshers arrived, many accompanied by bewildered-looking parents trying to navigate large cars through the narrow streets of the medieval city (on the Bailey we call it 'Volvo Sunday').  This week over 6000 of them have streamed into the Cathedral college by college for University matriculation ceremonies. It's interesting to look round the Cathedral during these occasions. Some freshers look a bit baffled by it all ('how did I come to be here?). Others put on a big and not altogether convincing show of bravado. Many have already started to hunt in packs: for security in this new kind of world, better to stick together. A few seem determined to be solitary.

This ceremony of being admitted to the register (matricula) is a big rite of passage into adulthood for those who have come straight from school. It's a chance for me to welcome them to Durham and say a little about the Cathedral and what it offers students. I always get a laugh when I talk about this medieval cathedral having a FaceBook page, whose ageing dean tweets from time to time. The president of the Student Union speaks about student life, and the Vice-Chancellor makes them feel good about having got into one of the nation's top universities.

It's slightly trying to drive or walk up and down the Bailey and Sadler Street in October: new students take a few weeks to get the hang of how pedestrians and road traffic have to befriend each other as we thread our way gingerly along. But the leisurely pace allows time for unexpected and pleasant encounters. Today I have had three long and interesting conversations on the pavement. I have been smiled at by one or two teenagers I'd not knowingly met - no doubt freshers who'd seen me in the Cathedral or, if they were from St Chad's, at the College's welcome ceremony last Sunday.

These brief encounters are among the pleasures of Durham life. On a Saturday, it's no use trying to get down to town and back in half an hour for a quick visit to M&S or Waterstones.  When you are the dean in a miniature city, a lot of locals know you by sight, including students. It's an enjoyable opportunity to mingle, bump into others (sometimes literally), open conversations, notice people. Who knows where these unlooked-for meetings and conversations may lead? Especially when, like freshers, you are new to the place?

Students bring great liveliness to our city. I see this as a gift. Sometimes there are stresses and strains between town and gown, and residents become grumpy. But I want to emphasize the benefits students bring to Durham. It's good to have them back. Here's wishing freshers the best of times at university. And a good new year to all students.