Tag Archives: religion

An icon evolves⤴

from @ blethers

A couple of weeks ago, I went on an icon workshop. I spent four nights in one of my most familiar places, the Cathedral of The Isles on Cumbrae, doing something completely new; something that feels as life-changing as that January day in 1973 when I sang at the funeral of a friend who was also a priest and a mentor and came away changed for ever.

The first milestone was choosing my icon. Tatiana, our teacher, had brought some illustrations for those of us who had not already decided what they wanted to copy. I had downloaded a few versions of the Christ Pantocrator icon, as well as a photo of one I'd loved when I saw it but felt unequal to trying - one of the Noli me tangere moment, all facial expressions and sweeping robes. But when I saw the A4 sheet with a totally striking Pantocrator image, I was captured. Tatiana saw my face. "That is your icon," she said.

She explained that it was very old - probably 7th Century - and came from St Catherine's Monastery in Sinai. And right now the less ignorant reader will visualise what I'm talking about, because it's famous. But I didn't know this. I only knew that the face was really two faces - one the stern judge, one empathetic, looking right at ME. I took the sheet away to my room. By the time I went to bed, I was aghast at what I'd taken on.

Work on an icon begins with tracing - at least, that's the way I took. Another person at my table, an artist in a way I could never claim to be, drew hers freehand with her original only for inspiration. Me, I was out with the carbon paper, trying to trace significant lines from an icon that was far more naturalistic than any I'd ever seen. And I didn't make very many lines.


Then we had to etch the lines onto the white surface of the prepared board. Hindsight tells me I didn't etch enough - too few lines, too lightly scored. By the time I'd done the gold leaf halo and bible cover and "puddled" paint onto the garment and the face, I couldn't see any of the facial features. At all. "Leave it to dry,"said Tatiana. It'll probably be clearer in the morning - and the light will be better..."

I spent that evening chatting to an old friend who'd turned up - a musician, from my other life as a singer. I told him how Tatiana had brought 3 eggs in a bowl for us to paint with - she broke them, separated yolk from white, took the whites back to the kitchen and left us the yolk with which to mix our pigment. I told him about the pipettes, the brushes, the feeling of being 14 again. Jonathan took my mind off my impending struggles, made me laugh - and I went to bed much later than I'd intended.

The second full day began with rain, less sunshine than I felt I needed - and only an eye visible on the face of my icon. By some miracle I managed to draw more or less freehand, with a hard pencil, the lines I was going to need to guide me. Then I returned to a more orthodox way of icon-writing, with brush and egg tempera and a plate to mix my pigment on. I felt like a real artist, in a terrified sort of way. But I was on my way, and during that day, and evening - for some of us returned to the studio to continue painting after dinner - I began to see the face of Christ emerging under my hands.

And it was that last realisation that grew throughout the third full day, by the end of which Titus, Tatiana's partner, had sprayed two of the necessary three coats of varnish - outside, in the gathering dusk, because of the fumes - on my icon, and it was almost finished. That day was spent on the background - which further research on YouTube has taught me shows the domes of the monastery of St Catherine, but which I modelled on the honey-coloured stone of an Italian town as I tried to realise what on the original was too blurred to be distinct - and on painting the border, and the sides and back of the board. Every now and then, as I'd been warned I would, I wailed for Tatiana to come and help me with an intransigent line, or the miraculous effect of painting a wash of unadulterated egg yolk over a whole area of my icon and leaving it to dry. And all that time I felt those eyes on me, boring into me as I stroked pigment over the cheeks, highlights on the sleeves, shadows under the palm of the raised hand.


The final morning was busy with varnish, photographs of each other's work, packing, paying - and praying. We took our finished icons into the cathedral, where they they were individually blessed with holy water before we took them up to the altar and left them there during the Eucharist.
One of my fellow-iconographers presided; others served and read; my friend Jonathan played the organ for us. It was over. I have never felt more exhausted, physically and emotionally. I wanted it to go on, but I knew I was too tired to do another brush-stroke.

Now my icon sits in an alcove in my house. I look at it every day. It has become a part of my life. And I can't wait to do another one.


Defective articles and the Love of God⤴

from @ blethers

I've been catching up on an unread bit of a Sunday paper, and found an interview with actor James McCardle. In the light of what I've been involved in recently, this struck me:
People who live a heteronormative life might feel they are free but until we life a life that includes equality of sexuality, gender, equality of class, equality of race then no-one is free.
There's no freedom at all unless there is freedom for all. I understand there have to be labels when there is still a fight to be had, but that shift has to be cultural and it's never going to work if you keep dividing people.
Yes, you say - or do you? Not yet, it seems, if you're a certain kind of church member. And it pains me, as a member of the church for the past 44 years, to have to say that. Especially after the relief many of us felt when my own denomination (and yes - that's another division) decided at last to remove the barriers to equal marriage in our churches. And then it came to deciding where these marriages would be celebrated.

I don't want to go into agonising detail of my latest discoveries - the how, the when. But I want to ask a question. What in God's name is going on in the minds of the people - and I think and pray that indeed they are a minority - who stand, grimly or miserably, in the way, barring the use of "their" church buildings for the celebration of a same-sex marriage?

"It's the word 'marriage'" they insist. It means a man and a woman."

I can think, as my mind flounders in the face of their intransigence, of two things that I didn't get the chance adequately to point out. The first is that such a meaning of the word is but one of four in the quite elderly Concise Oxford that I consulted. The second is that it's a word. Not the Word of God, whatever I believe that to be, just a word. A different word in all the languages of the world, from the close relations of the Latin languages to the intricacies of Russian ... and take a look at this, from an excellent blog:
The word «брак», of course, has another meaning in addition to “marriage”. Its second meaning is “defective articles, discards”. While some marriages do end up discarded, the two «брак»s are not linguistically related.
Language is fascinating, but if I were to enter into any such detail in conversation I'd be accused of being intimidatingly clever, far too fluent for my own good. But for anyone to bar the way to an equal sharing in the love of God in the poor house that we humans have built to gather so that we can feel we are together in sharing that love, for anyone to use a pathetic, human concept, expressed in language that humans have made in order to communicate with each other as an excuse to reserve that space for their own selfish use - is that of God? We don't even need to use language in our deepest communication with what we call God - God who knows the secret of our hearts...

So I'll put it simply:

Language is not of God.
Love is of God.


Not easy on a bus⤴

from @ blethers

I was reflecting the other day how much more difficult simple faith (in God, mostly, on this occasion, but not exclusively) has become in the past century or so. And I think I was ruminating ruefully - do you have a vision of a sad cow? Trouble is, we know too much. All of us, in varying degrees, are equipped with more awareness of what constitutes our surroundings than were our forebears.

Start with something non-religious. Think of these medical dramas which show even the time of my own childhood, the documentaries which show doctors as white-coated invincibles, the patients as wide-eyed innocents ready to believe that all will be well as they descend into what Robert Frost called "the dark of ether". Nowadays fully-fledged hypochondriacs like me can look up procedures, statistics, symptoms, photos (God preserve us from the photos) and learn doubt. We realise when we are being soothed, and the best that can happen is that when we're actually in extremis we feel soothed. It's when normality returns that the doubt arrives.

And I think it's much the same with religion. All the old certainties - from hell to heaven and places in between - are now subject to the scrutiny of science and knowledge. We know what's up there, out there, beyond ... it's not a mystery any more. We can no longer feel sure that God's in his (note - his) heaven, which is up there in the sky. I remember wrestling at University with the teleological and ontological proofs of the existence of God, at a time when I didn't believe in anything. It was a struggle, but not a spiritual one. It changed nothing; it was easier than Formal Logic; I passed the exam.

All this conspires to make me increasingly irritated at people who assume that if you adhere to a faith you are either "throwing reason out of the window" (what my father said when I announced I was going to be confirmed at the age of 28) or are somehow sufficiently ill-informed to accept a child's version of religion. (I also become irritated at Christians who insist that that's the only way, but that's another story). Someone who thinks and challenges and argues is going to bring that attitude to what they call God - and if having done so they can find themselves happy with the language and attitudes of a faith system, that is where they will exercise their minds as well as their souls.

God - that word we use to describe the indescribable, remember? - God hasn't shrunk because we know the workings of the world that we used to consider a sacred mystery. God isn't the little shrivelled creature of some celebrated fiction. My understanding of this word, this concept, is of something at once all-encompassing and omnipresent and at the same time tiny enough to be within every mind that allows itself to wonder, every heart that allows itself to melt. God is in every moment of thankfulness; still there when the heart hardens and shuts God out.

When a faith-structure allows for this kind of vision, provides the framework of beauty and wonder and loss of the self-consciousness that inhibits, gives space for sorrow and joy and the tears of both, that is what I call Church.  When I find myself in it, I am grateful. When it is threatened - and it can so easily be threatened - it is like an impending death. When it solidifies into something else, I'm better off without it, sad though that feels.

But try explaining that over the dinner-table. Or on a bus.

Not easy on a bus⤴

from @ blethers

I was reflecting the other day how much more difficult simple faith (in God, mostly, on this occasion, but not exclusively) has become in the past century or so. And I think I was ruminating ruefully - do you have a vision of a sad cow? Trouble is, we know too much. All of us, in varying degrees, are equipped with more awareness of what constitutes our surroundings than were our forebears.

Start with something non-religious. Think of these medical dramas which show even the time of my own childhood, the documentaries which show doctors as white-coated invincibles, the patients as wide-eyed innocents ready to believe that all will be well as they descend into what Robert Frost called "the dark of ether". Nowadays fully-fledged hypochondriacs like me can look up procedures, statistics, symptoms, photos (God preserve us from the photos) and learn doubt. We realise when we are being soothed, and the best that can happen is that when we're actually in extremis we feel soothed. It's when normality returns that the doubt arrives.

And I think it's much the same with religion. All the old certainties - from hell to heaven and places in between - are now subject to the scrutiny of science and knowledge. We know what's up there, out there, beyond ... it's not a mystery any more. We can no longer feel sure that God's in his (note - his) heaven, which is up there in the sky. I remember wrestling at University with the teleological and ontological proofs of the existence of God, at a time when I didn't believe in anything. It was a struggle, but not a spiritual one. It changed nothing; it was easier than Formal Logic; I passed the exam.

All this conspires to make me increasingly irritated at people who assume that if you adhere to a faith you are either "throwing reason out of the window" (what my father said when I announced I was going to be confirmed at the age of 28) or are somehow sufficiently ill-informed to accept a child's version of religion. (I also become irritated at Christians who insist that that's the only way, but that's another story). Someone who thinks and challenges and argues is going to bring that attitude to what they call God - and if having done so they can find themselves happy with the language and attitudes of a faith system, that is where they will exercise their minds as well as their souls.

God - that word we use to describe the indescribable, remember? - God hasn't shrunk because we know the workings of the world that we used to consider a sacred mystery. God isn't the little shrivelled creature of some celebrated fiction. My understanding of this word, this concept, is of something at once all-encompassing and omnipresent and at the same time tiny enough to be within every mind that allows itself to wonder, every heart that allows itself to melt. God is in every moment of thankfulness; still there when the heart hardens and shuts God out.

When a faith-structure allows for this kind of vision, provides the framework of beauty and wonder and loss of the self-consciousness that inhibits, gives space for sorrow and joy and the tears of both, that is what I call Church.  When I find myself in it, I am grateful. When it is threatened - and it can so easily be threatened - it is like an impending death. When it solidifies into something else, I'm better off without it, sad though that feels.

But try explaining that over the dinner-table. Or on a bus.

A Treaty with metaphor⤴

from @ blethers



I've been listening quite a bit to Leonard Cohen's final album - You want it darker - and in particular to one song that many, including me, regard as his last. Treaty, a song which is reprised by a string quartet as the final track on the disc, has provoked several thoughtful responses, ranging from questions about its meaning to personal accounts of how it has come to symbolise and to soothe at this particular time in the writers' lives.

It's got me thinking too. Cohen was "a Sabbath-observant Jew", we are told, and his language reflects that background - but not only that. In Treaty, some of the symbolism comes from Jewish tradition - the fields rejoicing at Jubilee; some that is as familiar to Christian as to Jew - the serpent in the Garden; reference to changing the water into wine sounds like the marriage at Cana, in the Christian canon. Elsewhere on the album there is the juxtaposition of Jewish prayer with reference to the Crucifixion - and to me the effect is of a seamless blending of imagery which has a profound effect.

But then, I'm a Christian - I belong within a certain tradition, just as Cohen belonged in his. The joy for me is that the imagery works, so that without spelling it out I gain an insight into the regrets and compromises that we recognise as we grow old, and claim them as my own. But when I say that, am I asserting the rightness of my interpretation? Am I succeeding in what, to the best of my remembrance, Matthew Arnold demanded - to see the object as in itself it really is? I had to write an essay on this, the first essay set in the Ordinary English Class at Glasgow University in October 1964; I wish I could rewrite it now, when I have so much more to bring to it than the frantic garnering of other people's ideas that my essay amounted to then. But I digress.

What I'm trying to say is this: because I have access to a wide-ranging framework of imagery gained through several decades of worshipping and reading in a Christian context, I feel a resonance with Cohen's song. But if I were to attempt to explain it to a completely non-religious person, someone who has not grown up with the language, someone who has resolutely turned their back on such nebulous superstition, I would find it much harder - or at least, I would have to find another set of metaphors and different imagery to lay out that which I have a shorthand for.

So is all religion, in the end, set out in metaphor? My hero, the poet-priest R.S.Thomas, thought so. In a video clip the interviewer John Osmond asks RS Thomas whether his rôles as poet and priest conflict. No, he replies, because poetry is metaphor, and religion is also metaphor. He sees no conflict between administering the Christian sacraments, which are metaphor, and administering the metaphor of poetry. I have that video somewhere, though for want of a suitable connection to my TV I can no longer play it. But the memory of that interview sticks in my mind, and points to what I now recognise as my own position.

We use language to describe our experience. When we experience something new, we describe it in terms of the familiar, the known. When we continue to experience this, we perhaps change our similes into metaphor - so, God is no longer "like" something else (or like nothing we've ever experienced at all), God "is" something else. And then the attributes of the original something else become God's also, and the metaphor hardens with each accretion. Before you know where you are, God (or any other spiritual experience for which you originally had no words) has become solid, fixed, immutable - and lost something in the process.

I fear I'm drifting into territory where others, much more learned than I, already hold sway. Bear with me, folks - I'm doing this for myself. But the wonderful thing about Leonard Cohen's song - and about many, many more that he wrote in a lifelong pursuit of what he called "blackening pages" - is that he never himself explained what he meant. He left it to us to respond. And that, now that he's gone, is what people are doing in droves.

And this, I offer, is the antithesis of what I hate about organised religion. There is plenty to love, but rigid fundamentalism isn't part of that. Let's hear it for metaphor, and the freedom to respond: I do not care who takes this bloody hill.

A Treaty with metaphor⤴

from @ blethers



I've been listening quite a bit to Leonard Cohen's final album - You want it darker - and in particular to one song that many, including me, regard as his last. Treaty, a song which is reprised by a string quartet as the final track on the disc, has provoked several thoughtful responses, ranging from questions about its meaning to personal accounts of how it has come to symbolise and to soothe at this particular time in the writers' lives.

It's got me thinking too. Cohen was "a Sabbath-observant Jew", we are told, and his language reflects that background - but not only that. In Treaty, some of the symbolism comes from Jewish tradition - the fields rejoicing at Jubilee; some that is as familiar to Christian as to Jew - the serpent in the Garden; reference to changing the water into wine sounds like the marriage at Cana, in the Christian canon. Elsewhere on the album there is the juxtaposition of Jewish prayer with reference to the Crucifixion - and to me the effect is of a seamless blending of imagery which has a profound effect.

But then, I'm a Christian - I belong within a certain tradition, just as Cohen belonged in his. The joy for me is that the imagery works, so that without spelling it out I gain an insight into the regrets and compromises that we recognise as we grow old, and claim them as my own. But when I say that, am I asserting the rightness of my interpretation? Am I succeeding in what, to the best of my remembrance, Matthew Arnold demanded - to see the object as in itself it really is? I had to write an essay on this, the first essay set in the Ordinary English Class at Glasgow University in October 1964; I wish I could rewrite it now, when I have so much more to bring to it than the frantic garnering of other people's ideas that my essay amounted to then. But I digress.

What I'm trying to say is this: because I have access to a wide-ranging framework of imagery gained through several decades of worshipping and reading in a Christian context, I feel a resonance with Cohen's song. But if I were to attempt to explain it to a completely non-religious person, someone who has not grown up with the language, someone who has resolutely turned their back on such nebulous superstition, I would find it much harder - or at least, I would have to find another set of metaphors and different imagery to lay out that which I have a shorthand for.

So is all religion, in the end, set out in metaphor? My hero, the poet-priest R.S.Thomas, thought so. In a video clip the interviewer John Osmond asks RS Thomas whether his rôles as poet and priest conflict. No, he replies, because poetry is metaphor, and religion is also metaphor. He sees no conflict between administering the Christian sacraments, which are metaphor, and administering the metaphor of poetry. I have that video somewhere, though for want of a suitable connection to my TV I can no longer play it. But the memory of that interview sticks in my mind, and points to what I now recognise as my own position.

We use language to describe our experience. When we experience something new, we describe it in terms of the familiar, the known. When we continue to experience this, we perhaps change our similes into metaphor - so, God is no longer "like" something else (or like nothing we've ever experienced at all), God "is" something else. And then the attributes of the original something else become God's also, and the metaphor hardens with each accretion. Before you know where you are, God (or any other spiritual experience for which you originally had no words) has become solid, fixed, immutable - and lost something in the process.

I fear I'm drifting into territory where others, much more learned than I, already hold sway. Bear with me, folks - I'm doing this for myself. But the wonderful thing about Leonard Cohen's song - and about many, many more that he wrote in a lifelong pursuit of what he called "blackening pages" - is that he never himself explained what he meant. He left it to us to respond. And that, now that he's gone, is what people are doing in droves.

And this, I offer, is the antithesis of what I hate about organised religion. There is plenty to love, but rigid fundamentalism isn't part of that. Let's hear it for metaphor, and the freedom to respond: I do not care who takes this bloody hill.

Scottish Interfaith Week 2016⤴

from @ Education Scotland's Learning Blog

Small - Interfaith ScotlandJoin Dr Maureen Sier, Director of Interfaith Scotland and Frances Hume, Development Officer to find out more about Scottish Interfaith Week 2016 on Thursday 1st September at 4pm.

Dr Maureen Sier, Director of Interfaith Scotland and Frances Hume, Development Officer will share about Scottish Interfaith Week 2016 – what it is, why it is important, and what resources are available for teachers to mark the week in schools. Scottish Interfaith Week is taking place from 13th – 20th November. The week provides an opportunity to celebrate Scotland’s diversity and to plan events that bring people together to promote dialogue, understanding and co-operation between people of all faiths and none.

The theme of Scottish Interfaith Week this year is ‘Religion and the Media’, recognising the powerful effect that the media can have on people of different faiths. Maureen and Frances will outline resources available for teachers on this theme. They will also give an outline of the work of Interfaith Scotland including the variety of workshops that they offer in schools.

Sign up and join live in Glow TV – Scottish Interfaith Week 2016

If you unable to join us for the live event you can always catch up with the recording at another time – Glow TV’s Watch Again.

Fair buzzing in Oban⤴

from @ blethers

Victorious table at dinner
I've mulled it over for the past five days, but now I realise that Synod reports are being demanded - not, happily, from me - right left and centre and it's time I put down my take on the Argyll and The Isles Diocesan Synod. The main impetus, to be honest, came from two online sources: the Primus' blog, in which he said his synod had 'a buzz', and the commiserations of friends on Facebook that I should be enduring this thing.

I'll deal with the latter first. The only commiserations I might have deserved lay in the fact that the Synod itself was held in (yet another) windowless room on a gloriously sunny day in a location next to a sea loch and an attractively wooded shore line: I did get stir crazy, and spent the lunch break picking my way down to a beach and over dub and mire as the birds sang round me. The rest of the time I was really enjoying myself, both on the pre-Synod day (it's hardly worth it to bring people from such a far-flung area unless they get a decent shot at socialising) and during Synod itself.

And that brings me to the former stimulus: I don't know what caused the buzz at the St Andrew's Synod, but I have a good idea of what contributed to our buzz. (I'd really like to know, by the way, what manner of buzzing goes on elsewhere ...) First of all, of course, we have an extraordinary bishop who could cause a buzz in a morgue. He delivered an ode, for Heaven's sake. But actually it was more than this. I am convinced that the excitement arose from the fact that instead of sitting in stupor listening to presentation after presentation we were allowed to talk to each other, about everything from the balance sheets to the first time we'd encountered the Holy Spirit.

This was achieved by a variety of methods, but primarily by the fact that on the Pre-Synod day, reviewing our progress with Building the Vision, we had two facilitators making us mix - moving people from one table to another after the manner of a Snowball waltz, for instance. At Synod, each table had a facilitator (I was one) to get people talking, as at General Synod a couple of years ago. And yes, we talked about the accounts and as a result made demands for more detail, clarification, amplification ... Before anyone asks, I had a plant at my table, an accountant who could make more sense of a balance sheet than I care to, so that I could merely render into words the data he fed me.

By the end of the two days, I came to this conclusion: people are excited by what brings them together in a situation like this. They become animated by the chance to share it with others whom they don't really know - because this unlocks the kind of honesty you sometimes find in a hospital ward, the honesty of strangers, when inhibition and fear of something you say coming back to bite you can be cast aside. So that is what lay behind the astonishment of the imported facilitator when she remarked on the alacrity with which pairs and groups got to grips with the Big Questions - she couldn't believe how little fencing she met as she moved round.

I have to confess that I enjoy facilitating a group. I love being able to make people feel at ease with one another and with the topics they've been asked to consider. I love realising I've managed to break the ice without losing anyone under it.  It feeds all sorts of my own needs for interaction - and that's before we get on to the subject matter under discussion.

I haven't mentioned the other aspects of this meeting, that had me and others in Oban from late on Monday afternoon till late afternoon on Wednesday. I've not talked about a riotous dinner after the Synod Eucharist, nor about the quiz that my table won and the Bishop's Easter Egg (our prize) that I suspect may have vanished to Cumbrae. I've not mentioned the Monday night, the dinner on the pier with old and new friends, nor the delight of watching a first-time visitor grow in confidence as the days went on. I can't tell you how much I laughed, nor how much I was laughed at. It was all part of the whole.

So yes: there was an enormous buzz at the Argyll Synod. There was laughter, there were tears, there was pastoral work being done over lunch breaks, there was kindness, there were friendships rekindled. For me, there was also the knowledge that it was my last: I've served on General Synod for the past 10 years as alternate or elected representative, and it's time to step down. I'm not a committee person, and I hate being trapped indoors. But even with all that, I'm sure of one thing. I'll miss it.

Fair buzzing in Oban⤴

from @ blethers

Victorious table at dinner
I've mulled it over for the past five days, but now I realise that Synod reports are being demanded - not, happily, from me - right left and centre and it's time I put down my take on the Argyll and The Isles Diocesan Synod. The main impetus, to be honest, came from two online sources: the Primus' blog, in which he said his synod had 'a buzz', and the commiserations of friends on Facebook that I should be enduring this thing.

I'll deal with the latter first. The only commiserations I might have deserved lay in the fact that the Synod itself was held in (yet another) windowless room on a gloriously sunny day in a location next to a sea loch and an attractively wooded shore line: I did get stir crazy, and spent the lunch break picking my way down to a beach and over dub and mire as the birds sang round me. The rest of the time I was really enjoying myself, both on the pre-Synod day (it's hardly worth it to bring people from such a far-flung area unless they get a decent shot at socialising) and during Synod itself.

And that brings me to the former stimulus: I don't know what caused the buzz at the St Andrew's Synod, but I have a good idea of what contributed to our buzz. (I'd really like to know, by the way, what manner of buzzing goes on elsewhere ...) First of all, of course, we have an extraordinary bishop who could cause a buzz in a morgue. He delivered an ode, for Heaven's sake. But actually it was more than this. I am convinced that the excitement arose from the fact that instead of sitting in stupor listening to presentation after presentation we were allowed to talk to each other, about everything from the balance sheets to the first time we'd encountered the Holy Spirit.

This was achieved by a variety of methods, but primarily by the fact that on the Pre-Synod day, reviewing our progress with Building the Vision, we had two facilitators making us mix - moving people from one table to another after the manner of a Snowball waltz, for instance. At Synod, each table had a facilitator (I was one) to get people talking, as at General Synod a couple of years ago. And yes, we talked about the accounts and as a result made demands for more detail, clarification, amplification ... Before anyone asks, I had a plant at my table, an accountant who could make more sense of a balance sheet than I care to, so that I could merely render into words the data he fed me.

By the end of the two days, I came to this conclusion: people are excited by what brings them together in a situation like this. They become animated by the chance to share it with others whom they don't really know - because this unlocks the kind of honesty you sometimes find in a hospital ward, the honesty of strangers, when inhibition and fear of something you say coming back to bite you can be cast aside. So that is what lay behind the astonishment of the imported facilitator when she remarked on the alacrity with which pairs and groups got to grips with the Big Questions - she couldn't believe how little fencing she met as she moved round.

I have to confess that I enjoy facilitating a group. I love being able to make people feel at ease with one another and with the topics they've been asked to consider. I love realising I've managed to break the ice without losing anyone under it.  It feeds all sorts of my own needs for interaction - and that's before we get on to the subject matter under discussion.

I haven't mentioned the other aspects of this meeting, that had me and others in Oban from late on Monday afternoon till late afternoon on Wednesday. I've not talked about a riotous dinner after the Synod Eucharist, nor about the quiz that my table won and the Bishop's Easter Egg (our prize) that I suspect may have vanished to Cumbrae. I've not mentioned the Monday night, the dinner on the pier with old and new friends, nor the delight of watching a first-time visitor grow in confidence as the days went on. I can't tell you how much I laughed, nor how much I was laughed at. It was all part of the whole.

So yes: there was an enormous buzz at the Argyll Synod. There was laughter, there were tears, there was pastoral work being done over lunch breaks, there was kindness, there were friendships rekindled. For me, there was also the knowledge that it was my last: I've served on General Synod for the past 10 years as alternate or elected representative, and it's time to step down. I'm not a committee person, and I hate being trapped indoors. But even with all that, I'm sure of one thing. I'll miss it.

Fair buzzing in Oban⤴

from @ blethers

Victorious table at dinner
I've mulled it over for the past five days, but now I realise that Synod reports are being demanded - not, happily, from me - right left and centre and it's time I put down my take on the Argyll and The Isles Diocesan Synod. The main impetus, to be honest, came from two online sources: the Primus' blog, in which he said his synod had 'a buzz', and the commiserations of friends on Facebook that I should be enduring this thing.

I'll deal with the latter first. The only commiserations I might have deserved lay in the fact that the Synod itself was held in (yet another) windowless room on a gloriously sunny day in a location next to a sea loch and an attractively wooded shore line: I did get stir crazy, and spent the lunch break picking my way down to a beach and over dub and mire as the birds sang round me. The rest of the time I was really enjoying myself, both on the pre-Synod day (it's hardly worth it to bring people from such a far-flung area unless they get a decent shot at socialising) and during Synod itself.

And that brings me to the former stimulus: I don't know what caused the buzz at the St Andrew's Synod, but I have a good idea of what contributed to our buzz. (I'd really like to know, by the way, what manner of buzzing goes on elsewhere ...) First of all, of course, we have an extraordinary bishop who could cause a buzz in a morgue. He delivered an ode, for Heaven's sake. But actually it was more than this. I am convinced that the excitement arose from the fact that instead of sitting in stupor listening to presentation after presentation we were allowed to talk to each other, about everything from the balance sheets to the first time we'd encountered the Holy Spirit.

This was achieved by a variety of methods, but primarily by the fact that on the Pre-Synod day, reviewing our progress with Building the Vision, we had two facilitators making us mix - moving people from one table to another after the manner of a Snowball waltz, for instance. At Synod, each table had a facilitator (I was one) to get people talking, as at General Synod a couple of years ago. And yes, we talked about the accounts and as a result made demands for more detail, clarification, amplification ... Before anyone asks, I had a plant at my table, an accountant who could make more sense of a balance sheet than I care to, so that I could merely render into words the data he fed me.

By the end of the two days, I came to this conclusion: people are excited by what brings them together in a situation like this. They become animated by the chance to share it with others whom they don't really know - because this unlocks the kind of honesty you sometimes find in a hospital ward, the honesty of strangers, when inhibition and fear of something you say coming back to bite you can be cast aside. So that is what lay behind the astonishment of the imported facilitator when she remarked on the alacrity with which pairs and groups got to grips with the Big Questions - she couldn't believe how little fencing she met as she moved round.

I have to confess that I enjoy facilitating a group. I love being able to make people feel at ease with one another and with the topics they've been asked to consider. I love realising I've managed to break the ice without losing anyone under it.  It feeds all sorts of my own needs for interaction - and that's before we get on to the subject matter under discussion.

I haven't mentioned the other aspects of this meeting, that had me and others in Oban from late on Monday afternoon till late afternoon on Wednesday. I've not talked about a riotous dinner after the Synod Eucharist, nor about the quiz that my table won and the Bishop's Easter Egg (our prize) that I suspect may have vanished to Cumbrae. I've not mentioned the Monday night, the dinner on the pier with old and new friends, nor the delight of watching a first-time visitor grow in confidence as the days went on. I can't tell you how much I laughed, nor how much I was laughed at. It was all part of the whole.

So yes: there was an enormous buzz at the Argyll Synod. There was laughter, there were tears, there was pastoral work being done over lunch breaks, there was kindness, there were friendships rekindled. For me, there was also the knowledge that it was my last: I've served on General Synod for the past 10 years as alternate or elected representative, and it's time to step down. I'm not a committee person, and I hate being trapped indoors. But even with all that, I'm sure of one thing. I'll miss it.