by Debra Dean Murphy, guest contributor
I didn’t get up at 4 a.m. today, but I do hope to catch a good bit of the wedding of William Windsor and Kate Middleton. I doubt I’ll have much trouble finding it replayed (and replayed and replayed) across the spectrum of cable and broadcast networks in the days and weeks to come.
Amid all the hype about the ceremony is a deep undercurrent of cynicism about these kinds of affairs, some of it rooted in the love/hate relationship Americans have always had with the British monarchy. We’re both drawn to and baffled by it — envious, perhaps, of its rich, centuries-long tradition, yet bewildered by the rigid and often humorless deference to protocol borne of that same tradition. (And then there are those who are downright hostile to the institution, extolling the American colonists who “fought a bloody war for the privilege to ignore the king of England”).
Many Americans will view the ceremony in Westminster Abbey with sensibilities shaped by a decade of reality TV’s take on matrimony: the bride as cutthroat competitor in a harem of beauties (The Bachelor), obscenely conspicuous consumption (Say Yes to the Dress), and “Wow, honey,” — as the veil is lifted — ”nice nose job!” (Bridalplasty).
Undergirding each of these “realities” is the notion of marriage as the culmination of a fairytale relationship — not the beginning, mind you, of a journey of discovery and friendship with its inevitable bumps in the road (more like sinkholes and craters) — but a consummate, bank-breaking spectacle staged primarily for the benefit of envious onlookers. No wonder we’re cynical.
But one thing that makes me more hopeful than cynical about this royal wedding is that the third person on the altar along with William and Kate, the one who married the nervous couple in view of the whole world, is the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.
I have admired Williams since I first encountered his writings in seminary in the late 1980s when he was the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford University. The depth and breadth of his scholarship has always been staggeringly impressive. Whether writing on the Resurrection or Arianism or 9/11 or Dostoevsky, Williams — whose work is rooted in his vocation as priest — is an erudite, eloquent, humble, hopeful, generous communicator of the Christian gospel.
That he became the head of the worldwide Anglican communion in this age of soundbytes and short attention spans is lamentable — for him, perhaps, but especially for the rest of us. His careful, thoughtful way with words, the patience with which he engages his many and varied interlocutors, the long view he takes of the Church’s work in the world — none of this has endeared him to a skeptical, secular Britain nor to an Anglican Church ever on the edge of schism.
But Williams presses on with characteristic humility to illumine the issues that confront global Christianity. And with quiet authority he takes on matters of the human heart, human sexuality, and human community: fidelity in relationships, the risks of manipulation that attend all our relationships, and the grace necessary to sustain relationships like marriage for the long haul.
His writing is often at once mystical and deeply pragmatic, simultaneously acknowledging the mystery at the center of human sexuality and the mundane attentiveness required to persevere — and flourish — with another. In a sermon entitled “Is There a Christian Sexual Ethic?” Williams writes:
"The grace that is to be discovered in nakedness, in yielding, is released to be itself when we give up the self-protecting strategies of non-commitment, experiment, and gratification, and decide instead for the danger of promising to be there for another without a saving clause that would license us to abandon the enterprise as soon as the other declines to be possessed unilaterally by us, as soon as the other’s otherness gives us difficulty. In such a perspective, we have time for each other. A commitment without limits being set in advance says that we have (potentially) a lifetime to “create” each other together. By giving ourselves over to each other, we make something of each other."
In a video prepared by Lambeth Palace in anticipation of the royal wedding, Williams talks about the “mystery” and “delight” at the heart of marriage, and that ”to be a witness [to a wedding] is to be more than a spectator.”
For cynics, this might seem like a slick media strategy designed to bring more attention to an event already wildly overhyped. But Williams locates this event (and every wedding) theologically as a “moment of hope and affirmation about people’s present and future” and he counts it a privilege to “wish [William and Kate] the courage and clarity to live out this big commitment.”
So, yes, there will be plenty of commercial excesses in today’s televised nuptials — lots of gossip about guests and gowns, lots of sarcasm and cynicism about the futures of the future king and queen. But maybe there will also be room for a moment of quiet gratitude for the gift of witnessing, with a few other billion people, the “commitments that are possible,” as Williams says, when two people take each other for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until they are parted by death.
Debra Dean Murphy is an assistant professor of Religion and Christian Education at West Virginia Wesleyan College and serves on the board of The Ekklesia Project. She regularly blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture, and Politics.
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by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Well, we may as well add to the deluge of posts about the royal wedding with a prenuptial video from the Archbishop of Canterbury, who presided over Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding ceremony today. In this Lambeth Palace production, Rowan Williams shares his optimism in knowing that a young couple are still willing to commit to one another and discover each another during these modern times in a fast-paced world:
"Here are young people sending a message of hopefulness, sending a message of generosity across the world. And, it’s my privilege to bless that in the name of God, to witness that in the name of God, and to send them on their way."
by Cary Gibson, guest contributor
During the last week of August, 20,000 sojourners gathered at the 37thGreenbelt Festival in Cheltenham, England. Greenbelt’s identity as a social justice and arts festival has always been firmly rooted within a Christian tradition that is world-affirming, politically and culturally engaged, seeking embrace over exclusion.
The program is so vast and diverse it’s impossible to encounter more than a fraction of what is on offer. There’s no single Greenbelt experience; there are 20,000 Greenbelt stories. This is just a thin slice of mine.
"GB10" marked my 18th year at the festival, so it’s fair to call it something of a pilgrimage — to a sacred space that exists amongst the people in an atmosphere of intentional, mutual welcome. These four days each year have often been the closest thing I’ve had to church. And, for the friends with whom I make the pilgrimage, Greenbelt has an important role in our community: we gather from around the world to embrace togetherness, share meals that anchor our days, and have our ongoing conversations woven with new threads.
This year’s festival held personal significance for me. As I prepare to marry and immigrate to the United States, my best friend Jayne and I were on perhaps our last Greenbelt road trip together. This end of an era was salved with celebration of new beginnings ahead and the gratitude for all we’ve shared thus far. In recent years we’ve been attending as contributors with Ikon, an experimental arts collective from Belfast, Northern Ireland. Our summers are usually busy with creative planning for our festival events. Free of any such logistical responsibilities this year, I found myself looking to be provoked by others.
Greenbelt marks something of a New Year moment — an opportunity to reflect on the year since the last festival, to have one’s mindfulness reawakened, to be reinvigorated for the year to come. Contemplating the theme of “the art of looking sideways,” I found myself wondering, ‘Looking sideways at what?’
An art workshop, “I Draw To Know Myself Better,” opened with a brief reflection on the creativity all humans share: we create to know ourselves, our world, and our place in it. Making art is a constant process of asking: Who am I? Where am I? Why am I here?
Perhaps as a response, some words of the late John O’Donohue kept coming to mind:
"A review of life usually considers the facts of experience, the thresholds, the situations and the people who participated with us along the way. We take this to be the real material of our lives; it becomes the mirror that allows us to glimpse who we are and what meaning our lives have. The facts of what we have lived stand out. We take them as given and real. Yet all these facts have issued from that huge adjacency of possibility, that neighboring world that shimmers invisibly behind all that we take to be real."
—The Poetics of Possibility
That adjacent realm is perhaps what lies close when one is in what the Celtic tradition calls “a thin place.” That neighboring world is one pregnant with possibility, and it is calling us to remember to look sideways. Looking askance, we might find a world of possibilities inviting us, and discover that maybe the stories we haven’t (yet) lived are the ones we haven’t (yet) heard telling themselves to us. If there is possibility that wants us to hear its invitation, tapping our shoulder so that we might notice and bring it into the visible world, to breathe its life, then maybe our alternative futures are with us all the time, walking beside us.
Greenbelt is a space in which people gather to think critically and its long tradition of social justice theology is rooted both in the realities of human experience and the hopeful possibilities of just peace. As the festival approached, I was troubled by ensuing religious controversies denying the freedom and dignity of the LGBTQ and Islamic communities. I’d been thinking a lot about Jesus’ parable of The Good Samaritan, conscious of how easy it is to walk on by in silence rather than serving those suffering on the roadside. The theme of the festival for me became one of living intentionally, mindful of possibility, seeking to turn and see the stranger in need who is my neighbor at my side. What alternative ways of being and action might I better embody? I found myself, once again, challenged to think through my own privileges — particularly of economic class, nationality, race, and education — but also inspired.
Dave Andrews stridently challenged the festival, and me, on the vital gospel response to poverty and injustice here on Earth with Jesus’ words in "The Be-Attitude Revolution." My dear friend Pádraig O Tuama also explored “incarnational theology” in "How Do You Spell Hell?" — a mirthful, moving, and characteristically poetic sharing of real stories, which express what it means to be present to one another and recover our personhood in life’s most broken experiences.
In a thought-provoking panel discussion on musicians and artists as social activists, Dan Haseltine, founder of blood:water mission said, “Activism is in the DNA of the artist” — the artist’s prophetic role is to tell real stories that expose the beauty and life that persists in the midst of horror. I’ve been thinking a lot about his comment that any act of service done for another, however small, is a counter cultural act, because our culture isolates us. When we tell of the hell experienced by our neighbor-in-need, prophetic voices are not called to provoke paralysis. For even though so many of us in the Western church are living in the persistent contradiction of our prosperity, when we choose to think critically about the impact of our actions, he added, “It’s not everything. It’s not nothing. And that’s something.”
Greenbelt 2011’s theme is Dreaming of Home. There’s a tender kind of irony to think that I’ll be living far from many of these friends I love. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Greenbelt, it’s this: There are thin places everywhere, where the unseen is palpably present, ripe with possibility and therefore hope. I can’t do everything but I won’t do nothing. If one remembers to look sideways and be wholly present to our neighbor-in-need and welcome the possibilities for alternative peaceful & just futures we might share, then this life can be it’s own kind of pilgrimage: an everyday act of something.
Peace be with you, neighbor.
The images above from the Greenbelt Festival are used with permission of Colin Fraser Wishart.
Cary Gibson currently lives in Dublin, Ireland. She explores theology through the arts and recently completed an MA in Women’s Studies at University College Dublin. She has a habit of blogging and tweeting.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on SOF Observed. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.Comments