maggi dawn

Month: February, 2017

A Theology of Waiting

excerpted from Like the Wideness of the Sea: Women Bishops and the Church of England, chapter 2. 

Although it is sometimes right to wait, there is no monopoly of virtue in patient waiting. To agree to wait beyond the point of acceptability requires a passivity that is profoundly bad for the soul. And in this situation the call to wait, and wait, and wait again carries an undercurrent of immense, disempowering betrayal.

A dream deferred

To wait through disappointments and broken deadlines while a resolution is repeatedly deferred is damaging to individuals, relationships and institutions. Extreme cases of a deferral of hope are seen when people spend large portions of their lives waiting for inquests or judicial reviews. Even when justice is eventually done, the tragedy is not lost on us as we watch people released from lengthy prison sentences following a discovery of a miscarriage of justice, or families who have waited many years for inquests to be revisited after murder or abduction cases. The already heavy burden of a tragedy or huge error is greatly compounded by those lost years; we feel the sickening thud of injustice as we realize that ten, twenty, thirty years of someone’s life have been put on hold, and it comes home to us, as St Augustine put it, that “the drops of time are precious to me[1]”.  A recent example was the reopening of the investigation into the Hillsborough disaster. The panel, led by the [then] Bishop of Liverpool, uncovered the fact that what was already a great tragedy had been turned into a “double injustice” through the failure of the original inquest to bring the matter to its proper conclusion. Countless other stories have appeared in the press in recent years of people who having initially suffered terrible abuses, then lose years of their life through a failure of process before they find the freedom that comes from proper attention being given to their situation, and a clear, just statement is made. What these cases have in common is that a single injustice is compounded by the time that goes by, while those whose cries are unheard are simply left with no recourse to justice. The original injustice may be irreversible, but further, unnecessary harm is done by the deferral of justice in such situations…


Like the Wideness of the Sea was written prior to the acceptance of women as Bishops in the Church of England.It logs a history of the process up to that time, and the second Chapter, A Theology of Waiting, has application to any situation where decisions are deferred unreasonably.

Available from these sources and more:

Kindle UK

Paperback UK

Kindle USA

Paperback USA

Paperback NZ

[1]  Augustine, Confessions 11:2

Ordinary Time


What’s so ordinary about Ordinary Time?

After the anticipation of Advent, the spectacle of Christmas, the revelation of Epiphany and the blessing of all those lights at Candlemas, isn’t ‘ordinary’ a bit of a let-down? Who wants to be ordinary?

It has to be said, in the current climate, ordinary seems appealing and far from us. We seem to be living through the ‘interesting times’ of the apocryphal curse, and it seems a long time since the pleasantly dull days when one could show up at work and find everyone sipping their coffee with nothing but village gossip to talk about. Oh, for a return to ordinary.

In the context of church seasons, however, it’s a misconception that ‘ordinary’ means ‘not unusual’ or ‘not special’. Ordinary time isn’t plain, or unexceptional. The word comes from the Latin ordinalis, which has to do with putting things in the right order. Ticking the weeks off one by one. Numbering them, or naming them, so that you know where you are. When you put things in a numbered series – first, second, third, etc. – those are called ordinal numbers (in the linguistic use of the term, not the same thing as the set theory usage). Ordinal, ordo, and the Ordinary (bishop or office holder) all come from ordinalis, and they are all about either putting things in order, or arranging them in sequence.

The really big slab of ordinary time comes after the Easter season – more than twenty weeks leading back to Advent when the church year starts all over again. But this little slip of ordinary time between Candlemas and Lent, which can be as short as a week, doesn’t have to be insignificant.* You might be quite glad for something low key, to catch your breath before the next big thing – after all, endless feasts lose their sparkle if there is nothing to contrast them with. But even if they are quiet and unremarkable, that doesn’t mean the days don’t count for anything. It just means we count them as they happen.

*There is debate in some quarters as to whether Ordinary Time starts right after Epiphany, or after Candlemas. In the UK, it was always my habit to take the decorations down at Epiphany. But now I live in a part of the world that is regularly under snow for a good while after Christmas, I am much in favor of remaining in celebratory mode for as long as possible.

Candlemas. Presentation. Nunc Dimittis.

Today if you go to a church that celebrates seasonally you are likely to come across some mention of the infant Jesus being presented in the Temple. It was, I suppose, the first century equivalent of a baby dedication. The configuration was different, but the same themes were there: something – animals, poultry or other food  – got prepared and taken to the celebrations, gifts were brought and presented, and at the center of it all is the baby, focusing the attention on thanksgiving for the wonder of new life, relief that life has prevailed through the trauma of birth, and good wishes for the future life of the child.

In a suprisingly egalitarian clip in the gospels, two elderly prophets were present. One woman and one man: Anna, and Simeon. We don’t really know much about these two, except that they spent their lives contemplatively watching and waiting, paying attention to the signs of the times, seeing people come and go. People watchers often become astute readers of faces. All those times observing the wrinkling of a nose, the furrowing of a brow, the cracking of a smile, the shedding of tears. Like learning to read words on a page, you have to pay attention to faces to learn to read them.

Anna and Simeon read the three faces of mother, father, child. They looked into the hazy gaze of those infant eyes that as yet could hardly focus, and his unlined, unknowing baby face. They saw the meagre gifts the couple brought, and read the narrative of poverty; they looked at the gnarled and scarred hands of the man who carried the gifts, and read the story of hard physical work. And they looked at the young, spirited mother, so recently  over the threshold of womanhood, and in her face they read a half-written poem of joy and wonder, a good measure of defiance, and a little apprehension. She knew, yet she didn’t quite know, the significance of the child in her arms.

And they knew too. They saw something. Was it the baby’s face, the untold story in his mother’s eyes, or the unpronounceable secrets that his father had seen in his dreams?  Or was it all three of their faces that spoke of potential, promise, prophecy?

Thank God, said Anna. Thank God. This is what we’ve waited to see.
Now, Lord, said Simeon. Now I can die a happy man, for mine eyes have seen.

First published February 2nd 2014

Added note: The story ends with Anna immediately turning around and speaking publicly to those gathered in the Temple. On this day, the prophet and preacher in the Temple was a woman. People often say that Mary Magdalene was the first evangelist, and if you are counting from the resurrection, I guess that’s true. But don’t forget that Jesus’ mother had already pronounced the Magnificat, a poetic praise-prophecy any preacher would be glad to deliver. And here, although we don’t know what she said, it was Anna, not Simeon, who took the platform. Worth thinking about.

Brigid’s Lake of Beer

St. Brigid's Well

St Brigid of Ireland, the Abbess of Kildare (c. 450-52

St Brigid’s day is a time for purification and the rediscovery of creativity–an interesting juxtaposition in itself, as sometimes it’s in the midst of clearing out the clutter that I find new creative ideas begin to gestate.

Most of Brigid’s miracles had a maternal quality, often involving milk.  But she is also known for the poem attributed to her longing for a lake of beer to share with women, men and God. One should, perhaps, bear in mind that ale, in Brigid’s time, was far weaker than it is today, and that as water was not always safe for drinking ale, for those who could afford it, was the drink of choice. So her prayer is not so much a Dionysian dream, more a vision of safe food and nurture for all. Still, an eternal party without a hangover is a pretty nice image of church.

Jest apart, there is something that strikes home this year in Bridgid’s poem: her wish for a united human family is expressed with the recognition that unity can only be achieved when repentance, peace, charity, mercy and cheerfulness are given and received. She envisions these things as gifts of substance, to be given in physical quantity. Not wafty ideas, theories, or orders from on high, but “things”. Vats of peace, vessels of charity, caves of mercy, and drinkable cheerfulness. The current climate is one of the most socially divided I have ever lived through; finding ways to make peace, love, mercy, repentance and joy both tangible and share-able seems to me the best acct of resistance we can engage in.

I wish I had a great lake of ale for the King of kings,
and the family of heaven to drink it through time eternal.

I wish I had the meats of belief and genuine piety,
the flails of repentance, and the men of heaven in my house.
I would like vats of peace to be at their disposal,
vessels of charity for distribution,
caves of mercy for their company,
and cheerfulness to be in their drinking.

I would want Jesus also to be in their midst,
together with the three Marys of illustrious renown,
and the people of heaven from all parts.
I would like to be a tenant to the Lord,
so if I should suffer distress,
he would confer on me a blessing. Amen.