Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Inspired by R S Thomas

The poet R S Thomas was mentioned on Twitter recently. Seeing the tweet I was reminded I have neglected Thomas lately. In the 1990s and early 2000s I would find myself reading a Thomas poem at least once every month. References to R S Thomas in the media I read were frequent enough then to remind me of him. Quotes from his poetry cropped up in sermons and in the religious press.

The parishioners of the rural Essex villages I served in the early 1990s were aware I admired R S Thomas' work, presumably from references and quotes I used. A churchwarden who used to holiday on the Lleyn peninsula in Wales,  where R S Thomas sometimes conducted church services, came back from a visit there one year and presented me with a copy of the Collected Poems,  signed by the great man himself on an Easter Sunday! The book occupies pride of place on my study shelves but I see it's not been opened for a while.

The tweet I saw originated from a person who wrote that though an atheist she'd been moved to think again about faith by a Thomas poem. Thomas' poetry dwells often on mortality,  opaqueness of meaning in, and the finitude of, life;  the emptiness and fragility of human endeavour; the insignificance of humanity in the grand sweep of nature. Not for Thomas the confident assertion that humanity is the crown of God's creation. It's God's absence that is the most pressing reality of the world in the poetry of Thomas. But the most arresting moments - which are often the focus of the poem -  are signals of a divine presence and love.

So why have I forgotten to read Thomas for the past decade? And perhaps I'm not the only Anglican to have left his poems on the shelf in those years.
My best guess at an answer is that we've been living through a decade when uncertainty and equivocation in matters of faith have fallen out of fashion.  Churches which offer certainty about where God is and what He (sic) is doing right now are the ones which grow in size and dynamic and have a young age profile. The Church of England in its respective dioceses has been suffused from the top down with the clear light of corporate planning methods;   beckoning parishes to the sunny uplands of continual improvement and growth. The theory is that if churches set themselves clear priorities, well - informed by their local context, and marshall their resources to achieve these goals effectively they will attract sufficient members and support to be sustainable and make a difference in their communities. There is evidence from the experience of early adopter dioceses such as London that this approach works on its own terms. So it has been rolled out across the whole Church of England.

It's an approach which doesn't allow much room for uncertainty and equivocation about the "product" churches offer. Most of  the Church's energy recently has been spent on marketing effectively. Senior church leaders are anxious for the parish clergy and local churches to get their act together in terms of "selling the product"  to the people of England. Ironically what's driving this sales campaign is the unwillingness, increasing with each successive generation,  of the mainstream of English society to prefer the product on offer.  The Church of England's strategy appears as sustainable as if a major technology company had decided it need no longer invest in creating and innovating new products but instead devoted all its resources to marketing existing ones.

But aren't churches dealing with eternal truths which cannot be changed? I hear you protest. Surely the Church can't change its story? Well,  yes actually.  The essence and heart of the Christian narrative about life the universe and everything is that yes, the story can be utterly changed. The story hinges on an event of total narrative reversal - the resurrection of Christ from death. Its foundational event involved the total re- framing of the known human narrative and experience of God in that community upto that point. The dynamic of Christian life is in truth, or should be if genuinely Christian, a continual questioning and re - framing of the story so far.
Christian history contains many examples of this questioning and re - framing: the Protestant Reformation;  or the virtual disappearance of eternal punishment of the unrepentant as a sermon theme in mainstream West European churches since the hell on earth of the First World War. The prominent themes of popular Christian preaching in mid - nineteenth century England would feel like a completely different religion if they were to be preached again in churches today.

So there is an imperative on the Church to question and re - frame the God story in far - reaching ways. If existing institutional forms of church fail to do this then we must hope it will happen elsewhere.

So back to R S Thomas and what the themes of his poetry might offer to the now urgent need of the Church of England. This is the need to become a church which really wants to rediscover and re-tell a new story of God. A story which connects in the world we have now. This will mean being a Church which ceases  expending itself on ever more frantic efforts to repackage and promote a product long past obsolescence, a story which can no longer be heard.

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