By The Ven David Gunn-Johnson
Assumptions – we all make them – all the time. Most of our assumptions, large and small, are based on experience and are thus reasonable in spite of the uncertainties of life. For example I assume that the sun will come up tomorrow even if I don’t see it for the clouds. I assume that my saunter across Cathedral Green in search of a pasty will somehow result in a pasty being eaten – either by me or a marauding seagull.
However, when we extend our assumptions to people, and use those assumptions to make judgements, we are on very treacherous ground. I was reminded of this forcibly on Cathedral Green only a few days ago which made me realise that when we think we have learned a lesson about our dealing with people, we just have to learn it again. That encounter took me back to several incidents during the years of ministry so, before I share this most recent one just two from the pages of history.
I remember going to visit one of the remoter parishes in North Devon, far off the beaten track, and finding in the churchyard a rather unkempt, almost skeletal person asleep among the graves. Here I thought was a wayfarer, doing no harm but the officious archdeacon in me wanted to know when he would be moving on. We had a meeting in the churchyard later that day. Imagine my embarrassment when I discovered that he was the monk leading a quiet day for that Deanery. He thought my mistake – my assumption – hilarious. I was still blushing days, even weeks, later.
Then there was the time when a parishioner made an earnest request that I should call in after Evening Prayer. I knew that this particular parishioner was in the habit of mixing Martinis at that hour so I went with light and eager step. No Martini! Just a telling off about the noise of the organ practice late in the evening.
Now to the encounter outside the Cathedral. It bears on this article because I have been told repeatedly that we are writing for people who have had some contact with us but may not be regulars so “Not too Churchy” was the instruction.
He was an engaging character and definitely not “Churchy”. The language was of a different kind from that which I use for sermons but I had heard all the words before. His comment on the clerical collar I wore was absolutely on the nail. “You wearing that, means I can talk to you.” In my own words, it is a sign of availability and not of status. He was also fascinated by the building and how it had been put together over the centuries but had never actually been inside. I asked if he was put off by all the religion that went on in there and was astounded by his response. (Here I am trying to remember his exact words where they can be printed)
“No. Not at all. What you “people” (he didn’t say people) do in there, all the prayers and singing and stuff (he didn’t say ‘stuff’ either) are what makes it special; makes it different; more than a building and it leaks out to us who don’t come in.”
Those words, “It leaks out” gave me a revived sense of what we are doing when we say the daily prayers and keep the memory of the saints. Centuries of “prayers and singing and stuff” have made this place what it is but it also needs to be allowed to leak out. It took someone who has never been in the place to make me see that anew.