When a nine-year-old girl, whom you’ve never met before, gives you one of those fierce hugs that only children give, you know it as a life-defining moment (one that you’ll probably remember as you’re dying), and even more so when the hug comes with the words ‘You’re such a nice lady’.
I wonder if this is the form of greeting given by angels to heaven’s new arrivals.
I like to think of angels as beings we do not see, except on very rare occasions and usually while we are still very young. Even so, they are, I suspect, very much around in moments of unaffected love, such as the one I have described. I was privileged to receive this hug as the child in question was leaving a party which had been full of love and laughter. There had been a ceilidh, and ceilidhs always make for love and laughter and for wonderful parties.
Again, I suspect something like a ceilidh goes on in the great party of heaven, possibly with the occasional ‘rest’ period for everyone to catch their breath, as well as welcome newcomers who may or may not be natural dancers. From the ceilidh, which probably gave rise to the hug (I think we’d been partners at some point), we learn community. Not the kind of rather solemn community which comes to mind when that word is invoked as some kind of proto-social ideal, but a reckless ‘not minding’ of what impression we are making or failing to make, as we join in the dance. The same is true of the reciprocal hug I received from the nine-year-old. There was no impression needed.
What really prompts such hugs? I think it is a kind of graced and holy obedience. By that I mean an obedience that comes as unconsciously as breathing, because it is the natural response to unaffected love. A ceilidh requires this kind of natural response to the general measure, or rhythm, which is being played by the band, and to the words of the caller. Without their music and the caller’s words there can be no response, no unaffected love between the dancers. There can be no dance.
The kingdom of heaven begins in the moment when we get the ‘measure’ of the dance, when we sense the rhythm and music in ourselves which prompts a kind of carefree obedience. For the dance to work, we must be obedient to its measure spelled out to us in the instructions and encouragement of the caller. Together, the music, the rhythm and the voice of the caller, combine to make us aware of the pull of love we feel towards our many partners. As a result, this kind of dance always involves a general sense of belonging to each other, no matter who you begin with as a partner at the start of the dance. My husband is not an enthusiastic dancer and I’m ashamed to admit that I borrowed someone else’s (with her agreement) for the final ‘strip the willow’.
The morning after the ceilidh we attended an ordination service in one of the nation’s iconic cathedrals. The ordination service was a dance in its own right – at least up to a point. Orchestration, fine timing, attention to detail and many beautiful and impressive words, both said and sung, reminded me of a kind of extended ‘pavane’ or ‘gavotte’. There was great beauty in the form, and in much of the dress. These are the things that many of the people sitting in the pews will remember. There was also a formal gesture of community, a styalised rendering of communion, in the exchange of the peace between strangers. But for all its choreography and carefully chosen words and actions, and despite the joyfulness of the occasion, the service lacked something of the deep and reckless love of a ceilidh.
Perhaps this is why the institutional church is losing touch with people. There is something solemn and unjoyful at work beneath its surface which jars with what is said and done on such occasions as this ordination. Some of us are uncomfortably aware of the internal politics and the machinations of power which are at work at its highest echelons, and within its very heart.
In ceremonies of ordination these higher echelons of power are both affirmed and celebrated through dress, liturgy and ritual. But as with all theatre, it is often a very different story in the green room downstairs. There, once the robes have been discarded, the private face of the Church will quietly re-assert itself. There will be a general sense of ‘bonhomie’, with old friends and political allies acknowledging each other. There will be a seeking out, with a passing joke or greeting, of people who might be useful to other people. There will be a degree of suspicion, even of fear, when eyes meet and silent confrontation of one kind or another bitterly reasserts itself.
But there will also be hugs, and many of them will be unaffected and full of the joy one experiences in an uncomplicated and trusting friendship, although these will mostly take place between ‘junior’ members of the power structure. Those at the higher end, with heavy robes and the valuable accoutrements which go with them to think of before they start hugging, will usually be unrobing in a separate room or perhaps, in the case of an ordination, making their way to the steps outside to be photographed with the newly ordained.
This year, some of them have been made to jump up and down for these photographs. This, on the whole, they will not have enjoyed. It is never good to be forced to look silly and I suspect that, in the long term, making bishops look silly in public undermines their true worth (which is often hidden beneath the robes and mitres) and does nothing to further trust and unaffected love between bishops and their clergy.