Published by Jeremy Fagan on 21st November 2022

Sarum College’s Uncharted Journey

Contemporaneous notes from MODEM’s 2022 Conference, second speaker session.

UPDATE – James’ slideshow is now available to download below.

Rev. Prof. James Woodward is talking about an uncharted journey taken as leader at Sarum College through the pandemic. This consists of a number of stories, interlinking and at times conflicting stories, that happened, and is still happening, as we continue to live with the after effects of the pandemic, which does seem to be under some kind of control, at least in this country and the west.

The concept of the liminal has helped understand living with the uncertainties of Covid – the gap between the no longer and the not yet.

When younger, James spent a year working in a hospice, and was interested in the way that spirituality affected the stories we told around dying. Post-curacy, he started working as a chaplain at a hospital in Birmingham, which has shaped his understanding of leadership, and strategic leadership. Late 1980s, the government introduced ‘general managers’ into the health service, replacing senior medics who used to run hospitals, leading to a culture of health management. So departmental strategies, outcomes, targets and budgets became the norm. Five hospitals merged, and with them, the five separate chaplaincy teams became one team over four sites, and the new team worked with the health authority what the role and place of the chaplaincy was, and what the chaplaincy was for.

Healthcare chaplaincy were searching for a professional identity, and were caught up with proving their impact and benefit across the organisation. James’ doctoral research argued that this search for security and stability within the healthcare culture of the time was leading to a transactional and functional approach, rather than a relational and pastoral approach. Less interested in people and the complexity of the relationship at the bedside, and more professionalised in their role within the organisation.

A wider question for anyone is around professional identity, and security and stability within our roles.

Arnold van Gennep – The Rites of Passage: ‘The sweet spot between the known and the unknown, where originality happens; the key is to be able to linger there without panicking.’ This sums up the approach that Sarum tried to take during the pandemic.

The fundamental question that people had: Will everything be OK? Is my job safe? Will the college close?

There was a need to hear those genuine anxieties and fears, without absorbing them, and to hold the college in the liminal space – a non-anxious presence.

Victor Turner, The Edge of the Inside. Develops the idea of the liminal. ‘A quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs during transition, when a person or group of people is in between, something that has ended and something else that is not yet ready to begin.’

‘Liminal seasons require us to build the bridge as we walk on it.’ Not necessarily something that the CofE has always been good at. How far can any established organisation or institution build the bridge as we walk on it? What does this say about our identity and what the church really is?

Krista Tippett – Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. ‘Our present liminal era as a spiritual revolution, marked by profound spiritual curiosity, deep theological engagement, and a reawakening of a mystery that embraces silence. Tippett compares this period to the outbreak of early monasticism in the sixth century and the movement of the desert fathers and mothers in the first centuries of Christianity.’

For James, the church has failed in this moment of spiritual revolution, curiosity, and engagement. The church seems to have lost its interest in theology as a tool for holding the tensions. ‘Theology can help us cry, it can help us hold our vulnerability in a way which can hold in tension risk and safety. So is theology / religious life where our experience of anxiety and weariness be heard and narrated and understood?’

These questions of theology encompass:
Experience – lament, anxiety, weariness, self care
Reflection – where is God in this, choosing our priorities, naming the blessings
Action – confidence in faith communities, open to new showings, excited by opportunities

Some more questions of theology:
God is abundant and so is the life that God wants for us?
How do create, sustain and celebrate abundant life?
Naming our experience of grace and kindness.
Where is your experience of comfort and restoration?
How do we bring / share / see Hope?
Ingenuity, resilience, creativity, inclusion.

Natalie Wigg-Stevenson – Transgressive Devotion. Theology not for the weak of heart!


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