Sunday, 12 March 2017

Another Plea from Me to the C of E: There is no 'mutual flourishing', just 'flourishing'.

Image: 'Christ Healing the Sick' by Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich (1742). Picture in public domain, downloaded from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I'd hesitate to say that I've just celebrated an anniversary, but it's true that I have just passed a strange sort of a milestone in my life. It was twenty years ago last month that I was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease; by the time I sat in a consultant gastroenterologist's hospital room and listened in dazed silence as I was prescribed steroids and signed off work, I had become so weak and ill that I could barely eat and couldn't walk far without keeling over in stomach cramps that shot pain into every nerve of my body. The diagnosis was both a relief and a shock; within days, the steroids had started to do their work and for the first time in over a year I could feel my body strengthening, but at the same time, the prospect of adjusting to a future of hospitals, medication and pain management, and more than that, adjusting to the knowledge that my body had developed in such a way that my immune system was compromised so as to lay me open to other illnesses, everyday and more serious, was profoundly unsettling for a twenty-three year old who had just accepted a job offer in Japan.

As a Christian, my own instinct and that of my church was to pray: for relief, for healing, for hope for the future, for a sense of what God might be doing in the midst of such confusing and painful circumstances. Over the years, those prayers have continued, and I have experienced more moments of grace than I could ever remember; moments when peace has flooded my sore and exhausted body, moments when I have been given the strength to do things that seemed beyond me. Since my diagnosis, I've trained and worked as a secondary school teacher, I've trained and and am working as a vicar, and I've birthed and am bringing up two wonderful children. I've travelled to some fabulous places, spent a year working with a Christian charity in South East Asia (my consultant: 'Whatever you do, don't eat the street food!') and earned three degrees and a teaching qualification. However, even with all these moments of grace and great opportunities that have come my way, there is no getting away from the fact that Crohn's is, pardon the pun, a pain in the backside. Twenty years later, I am still negotiating pain, exhaustion, medication, and hospitals. I am well most of the time, but never by accident. I am incredibly grateful for all the good in my life, for the strength that each day brings, and for the spiritual solace that physical illness has forced me to seek out, but the honest truth is that I wouldn't wish this on anyone.  

As my life, and my prayers have continued, I have slowly started to ponder the complexities of auto-immune diseases such as Crohn's. Auto-immune disease occurs, I have learnt, when an overly vigilant immune system reacts against, and attempts to reject, one of the body's own systems (in the case of Crohn's, the digestive system), behaving towards the bodily system in the same way that it would towards dangerous pathogens intruding from outside. The problem is obvious: a digestive system is not a pathogen. It is, in fact, essential to life and health. I've come to think of auto-immune diseases as a kind of hyper-allergy; an allergy not to some external, otherwise health-giving stuff like peanuts or eggs, but to part of its own intrinsic self. You can avoid nuts; you can't avoid your digestive system. And what starts in one system can easily spread to other parts of the body as the immune system's defense instinct runs riot through bones, causing arthritis, and in my case, my eyes. The effect of having a hyper-active immune system that fights off bits of itself like some misguided comic book superhero is not, as you might be excused for thinking, that the body becomes super-charged; rather, the opposite: a body that spends all its energy mistaking parts of itself as threats and engaging in a bizarre, anarchic, intra-corporeal civil war, doesn't have much left over once all the internal fighting has been accounted for. No wonder I am exhausted so often.

The church, St Paul writes, is the body of Christ. 'We who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another,' as the words from Romans 12 which are paraphrased in our Anglican Communion service remind us every time we break bread together. It's so easy to hear these words as idealistic pie-in-the-sky, or as florid rhetoric, but for me, this is spiritual reality. If I have any identity in Christ at all - if my faith means anything - it is because I am part of something bigger than myself, something to which I have something to give, and something from which I gain life itself, something without which I am not really fully myself. Our highly individualised, cult-phobic culture might find this idea alarming or, as I was called the other day, 'hopelessly sentimental', but ultimately, Paul's either right, or deluded, or deluding. These words either mean something or they don't.

Now those of you who follow church news and are given to an allegorical frame of mind might see where I'm going with this. I wrote a blog post this week after Bishop Philip North withdrew his acceptance of the Bishopric of Sheffield, citing 'highly individualised attacks' in a heart-rending statement. In my post, I suggest that the only way that the church can move on from this painful flare-up is to learn to trust. Yes, that might sound facile or 'hopelessly sentimental' in the highly-charged atmosphere of mistrust which this situation exemplifies. Yes, 'trust' is a contested concept and a debased currency in our culture which has so badly abused the trust of  so many, as sickening stories of systemic child abuse sadly spill out. Yes, trust involves risk; yes, trust is scary because it is, in fact, the opposite of protectivism and therefore trust must be considered carefully. However, all this nothwithstanding, my twenty years of Crohn's Disease teach me that a body whose physiology is such that it mistrusts its own internal systems is a body in desperate need of learning to recognise, and trust itself; without such self-recognition, healing is impossible (fascinatingly, talk therapies have been recognised as contributing significantly to the wellbeing of people with auto-immune conditions). An immune system so alert to danger that it turns on itself is an immune system which is, ironically, incapable of protecting the body from real pathogens. While the bizarre, anarchic intra-corporeal civil war rages on, life and strength leak out and sickness creeps in.

The question, then, is this: how do we discern what is intrinsic, life-giving and health-inspiring to the body of Christ, and what are the intruding pathogens? The answer, I suggest, is this: that which is made out of the same stuff as the rest of the body. Not that which does the same thing, or behaves in the same way, because as we all know, the human body is full of internal variety, but that which is made out of one or other of the same organic substances that create a human body. The body of Christ has ways of deciding this; its own lab, if you like, for testing  and approving that which is life-giving and that which is a danger-posing pathogen. That lab is, of course, the church's processes of discernment, and in particular the Synodical-governmental and episcopal-leadership processes which agreed, three years ago, that women bishops would be a healthy growth for the overall church whilst also promising space for the members of the body for whom this move would not promote wellbeing.

Now without wishing to be flippant, I know far too much about the careful balancing up of contra-indications in medicine, and the considered risks that medics make in prescribing treatments that will be likely to benefit the patient as a whole, but could damage essential parts of the body (I have spent most of my adult life making these calculated risks and taking particular care of the bits of me that might become damaged by my medicines). Back in 2014, these members of the church body who could not benefit from women bishops or women priests were recognised as parts of the body, and were promised particular care. The appointment of +Philip to Sheffield seemed to re-affirm the recognition of his place in the body, and that of his fellow traditionalist Anglo-Catholics with him. His withdrawal of the basis of 'highly personalised attacks' indicates that maybe what might have happened in the last few months is something not unlike a flare-up of an auto-immune condition in which the body goes into hyper-drive to protect itself from something which is, actually, itself. If I am a member of you and you are a member of me, then a highly personalised attack on you, or me, is nothing other than an ecclesial auto-immune disease.  This is why the language of 'mutual flourishing', while clear, is slightly unhelpful; if I am a member of you, and you are a member of me, there is no such thing as 'mutual flourishing.' There is only 'flourishing.'

In order to flourish, bodies need to be checked over and tested (I am currently undergoing a raft of tests to 're-stage' my Crohn's Disease); the allegory might hold that healthy debate within the body of the church could perform an analogical function. So my second plea to the C of E is this: please let's find ways of talking to each other in such a way that recognises each other as members of the same body so that we can work together to 'strengthen what remains' (Revelation 3:2) and fight off the true dangers that threaten our wellbeing. We can only do that if we trust each other. No more misguided comic book superheroes; we've got some real work to do if we are going to be Christ's hands and feet on earth. Let's not waste our energy slowly killing ourself.        

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