The parish I am visiting this Sunday have issued a Press Release. It tells the world that among a series of repairs and improvements to be celebrated is the church?s new toilet, and goes on to declare that, ?The facilities will be put to use fully for the first time at a dedication service led by the Bishop of Dudley?.
I will leave it to my readers to speculate on what specific liturgical actions and movements might be appropriate to fulfil this promise. For me though it has served as a reminder of how significant a role the humble lavatory has played in my spiritual and ministerial formation.
Between school and university I worked six months in a labouring job. As the lowest of the low in the factory it fell to me to cover the jobs nobody else wanted to do. So when the cleaner went off on his fortnight?s holiday every blocked pan and overflowing urinal became my personal responsibility. I learned both that no task is beneath me and that even the most unpleasant duties pass. And I came to understand the gospel truth that engaging with the dirt and mess of life does not in itself defile us.
As a young vicar working in deprived urban areas there was a constant struggle to bring resources into the community. Governments attempted to show concern and interest by authorising a whole series of exceptional funds and programmes to combat poverty, unemployment or whatever the latest target might be. Much of it was well-intentioned but the delivery mechanisms were poorly thought through. I discovered that a proposal to improve church lavatories was the ideal quick spend medium sized project that officers badly needed to land on their desks in January ? just at the moment when they were being pressed to allocate the remainder of their budgets. ?Be wise as serpents?, says the gospel, and the new church loo was its practical outcome.
More problematically, I have learned the value of the comfort break in handling complex issues. I?ve long lost count of the number of occasions on which the breakthrough has occurred not at the negotiating table but in the gents? urinal. The psychological change from confronting across a table to standing side by side whilst engaged in a basic bodily function cannot be underestimated. Indeed I am told that a common ploy of industrial arbitrators in the 1970?s was to ply disputing sides with coffee and then call a strategic break. The problem of course is that it is hard to see how to incorporate gender inclusivity.
I could add other examples, but my point is that Christianity is an earthy religion. Our faith takes seriously that we are bodily beings. We follow one who took our flesh, with all its material nature, and we assert belief in ?the resurrection of the body? not the immortality of the soul. In blunt language we are not only Thinking Anglicans but eating, drinking, and defecating Anglicans. The tendency of religious writers and pundits is to over-spiritualise, to speak in abstracts and to attach labels to human beings that emphasise difference rather than commonality.
As a new teenage Christian in the mid 1970?s I was fortunate to come across the meditations of the French writer Michel Quoist. His ability to reflect theologically on the most prosaic and everyday objects and events continues to inspire me today. So I shall perform my liturgical duties this Sunday with gusto. Knowing that dedicating the church loo is no less important than dedicating a new stained glass window. And giving thanks for the ways in which God uses the ordinary stuff of life to reveal the gospel truth.