News and reflections on Embodied #1

Cambridge Deanery Synod

The Autumn meeting of the Cambridge Deanery Synod will be the Archdeacons’ People Fully Alive : Ely 2025 Autumn Roadshow. This will take the form of an Open Deanery meeting on Tuesday, 13th October at St Mark’s Church, Newnham at 1930.

 

Chapter reports

Chapter met on 23rd of August. The bulk of the Chapter meeting concerned the upkeep of the churchyard.

The desire is for us to be consistent, such that what we do inside the church is also reflected in how we manage the outside of the church. There are opportunities to make the churchyard more vibrant – a council scheme that we are taking up is Trees for babies, which would give us an opportunity to plant beneficial trees within the churchyard.

We considered that the churchyard also needs to be a safe place, particularly for children. Some aspects of the churchyard at the moment mean that this is not the case e.g. the vegetation in some areas acts as a screen for drug takers. In the light of this we decided to plant a Rosa rugosa along the north side of the church, which (unlike the current hypericum) does not provide a good screen, but nevertheless is excellent for wildlife.

It is also important that we prevent foliage within the churchyard damaging the church itself. Currently there is therefore an urgent need to trim ivy and certain trees which are in danger of doing so.

In the longer term we can make more of the opportunities that the churchyard affords. However, the above items are, for various reasons, more urgent. It was therefore agreed to pursue the above, and revisit the possibilities for the churchyard over subsequent chapter meetings.

Chapter also noted that the Rural Dean for our deanery has retired, and that another one will be appointed in due course.

 

Reflections on : Embodied 1 : The skin I live in

On 19th July we had our first of a new style of service for St Edward’s, “Embodied”, with the title “The skin I live in”, and reflecting on the Song of Songs. This service, along with the one the following week (“Foreign bodies”, focussing on the book of Job) was generally positively received, and in the light of that, we intend to run further Embodied services in the Autumn, with the next being on either October 18th or 25th (TBC).

Embodied #1 was not without some difficulties. I am aware of three (I am sure there are others) and this note is partially a way of acknowledging and responding to these.

First, (and naturally), comparisons were drawn between the Embodied service, and the former Odyssey services. In particular, it was noted that Odyssey services tended to invite a high-profile figure into the church, and that pattern was not being followed in the Embodied service.

The interregnum provides us with many challenges in running the church, and we have neither the opportunity nor time to negotiate the time of such high-profile figures. In fact, there is a danger that such figures detract from (or perhaps, distract from), rather than enhance, our spiritual growth. However, the interregnum also affords us (almost by necessity) opportunities to build on the strengths we have within our community. In the discussions after The skin I live in, it was evident how much we are able to encourage and challenge one another, and how important it is that we do so, given our extended period without an incumbent.

Second, the absence of a recognisable and familiar closing element in the liturgy meant that the service had something of an “unfinished” feel. In subsequent Embodied services, we will adapt the liturgy to make sure the service draws to a more natural end-point.

Third, some found it hard to hear the discourse component of the service. In the second Embodied service, we made better use of the sound reinforcement that we have at St Edward’s, and the audibility was much better. I have also reproduced below some of the elements of the discourse for those who had difficulty hearing, or who wish to reflect further on what was said.

 

Components of the discourse from Embodied 1 : The skin I live in

Augustine’s injunction to flee the body Augustine, in the middle of his life, encouraged Christians that they should “flee” the body, which he (at that time) perceived wholly as a distraction from serving God. This teaching has, to some extent, propagated down the ages and, at the least, leaves us with a church which has a propensity to be squeamish about discussion of anything bodily.

But The Song of Songs is a great – and biblical – contrast to this, with its super-abundantly bodily content. The narrative appears to quite clearly concern the power and intoxicating delights associated with the body, keenly anticipated by a bride, and, by implication, her equally enthusiastic groom. Over the centuries, there have been much ink spilt to make the text ‘safe’, often by seeking to impose purely allegorical or metaphorical readings on it (the bride is the church, and the lover is Christ; the bride is Israel, and the lover God).

But despite such commentators’ efforts, the text insistently keeps body and mind firmly together. Not only are body and mind seen as indivisible but also the whole of the natural word – animal, vegetable and mineral –   is constantly evoked in the mages used to describe the pair and their relation to each other.

And in the Song’s full embodiment of the human, it is through the sensory that the world , and the humans in it, are understood and experienced: the Song draws on sight, sound, touch , taste and smell in its evocation of the lovers and their feeling for each other; – and one consequence of that, and of the fusion of the mental and bodily , is that ‘the moral status’ of the body becomes relevant / inescapable.

In terms of a Christian context the emphasis on the bodily is entirely familiar and necessary. Christianity is to an unusual extent an embodied faith : it begins with God made incarnate, ‘fleshed’. The gospel narratives tell of a life very much in touch with physicality – healings, food and drink (last supper, the feeding the 5000), and then moves to the core moments of crucifixion and resurrection. And in these we see two of the great themes of the Song of Songs come together – not just embodiment, but also embodiment expressing itself in love; for example, cf John 15:13 “Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends”.

And, pulling back to the Song of Songs we get the idea that love demands a response; there is (in the Song) no impartial observer who stands apart: this is a work of constant action, not all of it benign or comfortable – searching for the beloved through darkened streets, getting beaten up by watchmen, a repeated sense of being lost – as well as rejoicing, feasting , ecstatic declarations of love and desire.

And that lack of any ‘removed’ ‘aloof; observer might be seen as a prefiguration of all we are told of the relationship which Christ desires with us. Mediaeval commentators constantly emphasize that Christ needs to love as well as to be loved; they figure him as ardent in his loving quest for each of us. That resonates with the sort of interdependency, the constant interconnectedness, we find in the Song of Songs where all aspects of the natural world are invoked to describe the lovers at the heart of the poem.

And that in its turn takes us back to the words at the heart of the song which we heard at the start of the service; we can echo to Christ – “Draw me: we will run after you.”

 

With thanks to Alison Hennegan.

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