In The Minster (part II)

They all gather in the locker room, their kits hung ready for the event. The banter flies freely and the regular rituals begin. Theirs positioning, roles and tactics are explained and they prepare themselves to go out and ‘perform’…
I am talking, of course, of the scenes before a service at York Minster!

From my privileged position as placement student (or ‘interloper’, ‘apprentice’, ‘dogs-body’ and any other term to use to describe my temporary role at the Minster) I have watched the daily routine of services with the usual processionary positioning, reading allocations and general choreography. All of which have a more than fleeting similarity to those of a football match, except there’s no ‘opposition’! I can’t seem to fully sign up with the need for such detail and the rubrics (the written guides for how worship may be done.) I understand the need for order and guidelines to stop worship and public expressions of faith becoming sloppy and incoherent, ‘un-Common Worship’ would divide rather than bring some gravitational unity. What is sometimes communicated, however, is that legislation is keeping some people in positions of glory and power who should be the symbol of humility.

Take the interesting issue of having specific seats marked for Canons in the Cathedral (at the heights overlooking the congregation.) What could be communicated is they get reserved seating because they are important. Immediately the Scripture

‘…do not sit down in a place of honour… but when you are invited, take the lowest place’ (Luke 14:8,10)

I understand and can appreciate the many facets of this issue; what are the places of honour and how are they distinguished? The seats are at the back and not the front, for example. I am aware of the need for those members of the community to have a sense of ‘home’ in the place of prayer; to not be distracted in prayer by the interest on who’s sat where. It may come down to the way a position is treated and understood. The seat marked ‘Dean’ is seen as, perhaps, the best seat because it is designated for the Dean, a perceived position of power. When the Dean sits there (most services because it’s his ‘church’) people see that as him sitting in the position of power but actually people are judging the role and not the position.

This is particularly interesting when you consider the ‘role’ of priest within a congregation.

As many regular readers will know I have a both a high view of priesthood (sacramentally) but a low view of individual ‘leadership’. My time here at York Minster has helped me to articulate the exact call on me to be a ‘priest’. I have had for a long time a need to reject the ‘leader’ title because I don’t see that call in the New Testament nor the benefits of designating one person to decide and direct a group of people. What is communicated in leadership manuals and guides is a leader who is coming up with ideas and influencing people’s decisions. The language is slippery and falls into dubious responses to collaboration. I want more clarity in our use of leadership language.

For me a good ‘leader’ is a faithful ‘follower’. Jesus has called me to be a disciple and a servant of people. A servant rarely speaks to their master in a dominating manner, demanding their views to be heard; they may be asked for opinion but they are not there to offer it, necessarily. How do we exercise wise counsel in a radical flat leadership style?

Take the practical example of the chapter here at York Minster. The chapter is the governing body of the cathedral and is made up of clergy, administrative staff and laity. It is the chapter who make the decisions on how the cathedral is run and what responses or activities to make and engage with. The Dean is the ‘leader’ of the chapter. What may be inferred by this is that he is in charge; he makes decisions and holds the power. The impression I get and what I’ve been told by members of the chapter is that he is one among equals. His seat in the Chapter House is deliberately not central; it is not different from any of the other seats there. He is not positioned in a favourable place to ensure he is the focus. He has no deciding vote on issues. When I described this impression to his wife she immediately said, “But the buck ends with him!”

This is essential to my understanding of priestly leadership (if such a term could be coined!) A priest is an ambassador for Christ; someone who, by their life and discipleship calls the people of God to be Christ-like as they are Christ-like. Christ was a servant who lead as a servant. This radical and baffling paradox is perfectly shown in His journey to the cross. Christ followed the will of those he served to death. John’s prologue speaks of His people not accepting Him and nailing Him to the cross. Christ took the consequences of the decisions made by His people even if He may not, individually, have wanted Himself. We’re discussing issues of willingness to be crucified and I want to emphasise Christ was willing to do it because He was committed to being lead by the actions of His people, whatever form that takes.

Let me de-theologise this and use a hypothetical situation in a hypothetical chapter with a hypothetical Dean. This Dean is sat in a chapter meeting and a decision needs to be made about disruptive members of the community in worship. The Dean, personally thinks they should remain and not be abandoned. The chapter are tired of trying to deal with the disruptive member and wants them to pass them onto a parish church. The Dean knows that if they reject this member of the congregation that the press, the community and the local people will be very upset and angry. The vote is taken and the chapter votes majoritively to sensitively send the member elsewhere.

The Dean, as figure-head and spokesperson of the chapter, communicates this decision to the public despite him, personally, believing there’s another way. He, as figurehead and spokesperson of the chapter, also commits himself to suffer the consequences of that chosen action; taking the brunt of the ‘backlash’ on himself. Is this not a sacrificial act of servanthood? Is this not part of priestly ministry? To be a priestly leader is to be nothing more than a spokesperson and figurehead of a community.

This is not to say that as a priestly leader you do not state an opinion nor hold a position on matters but to follow Christ before the need to lead in a traditional sense is to die to your own opinion to serve others. This is painful and uncomfortable but it is this model of leadership that is being called upon us as disciples of Christ. No wonder Paul warns those who have positions of ‘authority’. This is the distinguishing mark, for me, from secular leadership.

So back to the Minster and positions of power!

The Dean, the canons and, for a time, I will sit in the places designated to us for a whole range of reasons, some good and some bad. It does not matter where we sit, however, but rather the attitude and the manner in which we sit there. A  position of power must be held by someone but it can and should be held by someone who seeks always to take the consequences of actions made by that role before the need to exert influence from it.

This has wider implications on how I see myself as a future priest but I have taken up too much time already! Must go and reflect on Archbishop Rowan Williams address to Synod which I believe covers lots of these issues and more on how we speak of ‘church’. I’ll try and link it more with theatre as this blogs remit is straying too much from that passion!