The Revd Amanda Barraclough is Vicar of St. Mary's Woodkirk, a large suburban parish 5 miles south of Leeds. She is married to Derek, with three grown up children. Amanda wrote the following reflection for our magazine:
'Thinking outside the box’. It’s a phrase which, being in vogue, is bandied about a lot these days. I can’t recall having heard it a decade ago – though I’m sure some ‘Balderdash and Piffle’ buff out there will be able to enlighten me as to its origins.(Answers on a postcard….)
What exactly is the ‘box’ I’m meant to be thinking outside of? Sometimes for me, the box is the church. Though I have been taught to value this beautiful box, with its heritage and liturgy, it is still a box. Looking around my home, boxes tend to be used to contain things, to keep things tidy, or to protect fragile things. Too often, it seems to me, the church can be used as a box with those functions.
Coming to faith at the age of 13, church was my refuge, a safe, protective environment for fragile faith. It remained so into early adulthood. It took some straight talking from some patient and godly clergy to urge me to take a gospel which was far more robust than I gave it credit for into the rough and tumble of life outside the box. One member of clergy, whether wisely or foolishly (the boundary seems a narrow one!) sent me door-knocking – alone – to see how the church was perceived in the community. Like the disciples – and probably quaking as much as them (at least they had a buddy!) – I went. Like them, I returned rejoicing at what I had heard and found. God at work – and the box nowhere in sight.
Just recently, I spent time with a young woman whose encounter with God came through GMTV. One gloomy January Monday – supposedly the most depressing day of the year, according to the presenter – God challenged her to look at her life. On occasional church attendances her spiritual guard was up – but not whilst watching GMTV!! Then the young man whose blinding flash of momentary clarity about his future life and partner came whilst chopping down Christmas trees. God really does break through in the most creative and imaginative ways!
And that’s where my soap-box, if I have one, comes out. If God is so breath-takingly creative, and imaginative, why is the church so predictable? Having been involved in lay ministry in a charismatic evangelical tradition, and now find myself vicar of a church which prides itself on its traditionalism, I know that predictability can take many forms, and is a danger across all traditions. Holy Spirit, breathe on our imaginations, renew our creativity!
When I hear adults using the word ‘imagination’ , it’s often in the context of fears- “The phone went at midnight, and my imagination went into overdrive”, or “My daughter was late home – I didn’t want to imagine why!” Squeezed out of us as we leave childhood behind, the remnants of imagination that we retain are not generally ones we embrace willingly. Yet the Scriptures seem to me full of people whose capacity for spiritual imagination fired them. And I find a healthy dose of imagination in ministry, in preaching, in preparation for worship, goes a long way. Maybe these days it’s called ‘thinking outside the box’.
Perhaps a note of caution is in order. At the selection conference I attended when exploring ordination I was asked to describe the worst church service I had ever attended. (Well, what would you say?) I talked of a service so surreal it felt like it had been prepared by someone on hallucinogenic drugs. Nothing was ‘normal’, there was no ‘comfort zone’, and because everything was consciously designed to surprise, in a strange way, nothing did. One of the glories of the Anglican tradition is the structure which provides that wonderful basis form which delightful and divine notes of surprise can genuinely happen.
Though I often fail, I long to grow a church – however traditional- where those gasps of surprise can happen at 10.30 on a Sunday morning, as the Spirit enlarges our capacity to engage with God ‘outside the box’. And where those who have had a ‘GMTV experience’ can come to interpret their encounter with the God who has tapped them on the shoulder in some very unconventional ways.
As ReSource developed, a recognition of its ministry to the ‘Amanda generation’ was identified. I, Amanda, was a child of an ARM church, and like many others now find myself an ordained leader of a church which ARM never touched. It is in this Holy Spirit creativity, this reawakened godly imagination that, for me, allows me a spiritual authenticity in which I am true to my roots in a traditional setting. And I thank God that ReSource is around, thinking ‘outside the box’, to affirm and equip me, and many others, in that ministry.