One of the things that I love most about being Rector of St Bride’s is that our ministry to journalists enables me to meet people whom most clergy would simply never have the chance to meet, and to go to places where clergy would never normally be able to go. I have sat round the conference table of a national newspaper to watch the editors put together the following day’s edition; I have sat behind a bank of screens to watch the news go out live. And of course, I won’t even mention the nuptials of Rupert Murdoch and Jerry Hall. (Bother! I just seem to have mentioned it!) And alongside all of that I have an increasing respect for the profession. We really do need good journalists, and we really do need to recognise the importance of good journalism.
When people hear that I am Rector of the Journalists’ Church, they often ask me whether I myself have a background in journalism. Which I always find somewhat amusing because absolutely nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, before coming here eight years ago, I had spent my entire ministry doing everything in my power to avoid journalists, viewing them with a deep suspicion and mistrust that basically came out of fear.
And there was a reason for this. Many years ago, when I was working in theological education, two young students of mine, in completely unrelated incidents, had their lives absolutely destroyed by the tabloid press. What made it worse was that neither of them had actually done anything wrong – they were just naïve and unguarded in remarks they had made, and interviews that they gave. And a couple of journalists, intent on mischief, had a field day, distorting and misrepresenting the whole picture, and producing stories that both ended up on the front page. And the impact on those two students was devastating.
My personal experience of journalists was less extreme, but I too had had the experience of being misquoted – and on one occasion a piece about my then church was accompanied by the photograph of another church altogether, in what was a deliberate attempt to convey the completely misleading impression that the article wanted to give. ‘Never trust the press’, I thought.
And alongside all of this was my own long-standing reluctance to put anything that I wrote myself into print. It felt just too exposing to put one’s own thoughts and ideas – one’s own soul – out there into the world for other people to critique and comment on, and tear apart. That is why it was not until two years before I came here that I finally published a book. My problem wasn’t writer’s block – I could certainly write stuff; it was publishing block. And even worse than that was the thought of being interviewed for television, particularly when it was live. I couldn’t imagine anything worse.
So for me, the world of journalism, publishing, and media interviews was for me a place of intense fear and mistrust. Which is, of course, why the Lord, in his infinite mercy and wisdom, sent me to be Rector of the Journalists’ Church, where not only do I spend significant parts of every week dealing with journalists and every aspect of the media industry – But I am also expected to give live interviews, and to write stuff – including for national newspapers. I had always suspected that the Lord has an extremely peculiar sense of humour, and for me this experience clinched it.
So, by this stage you will be asking, why on earth did I even consider applying for this post? The answer to that is quite hard to put into words, particularly because at the time it made no rational sense whatsoever. But somewhere in the pit of my stomach I just recognised that this was the place where I was called to be, terrifying though it felt. And, no – I don’t understand it either.
So in order to do this job at all, I had to resolve on my very first day, that I would just swallow my fears and do stuff. I would begin by saying yes to everything: If I was invited to give an interview, I would do it. If I was invited to write a column for the Times or the FT, I would just do it. As I did.
And the weird thing is that when I did actually face those fears, forget my anxieties and just plunge in – I found that I could do it. And at times I was actually quite good at it. And most bizarrely of all, that I even enjoyed doing it.
There was a really significant lesson for me in all of this about the life of faith. Firstly, how unhelpful it is to spend your time and energy trying to avoid the thing you most fear. It really is worth pausing to look at the things of which you are afraid and to ask yourself the question: ‘what is the worst that could happen here?’ For me, it was something to do with the fear of being judged and found inadequate; of being misunderstood or misrepresented; or exposed as foolish or inadequate. In short, what lay at the root of my own particular fear was my pride.
And what that experience also reinforced was something that I have repeatedly discovered throughout my journey of faith. Which is that ours is a faith that finds new life and new hope not by avoiding darkness, but by entering into its very heart. You cannot have a resurrection without first having a death. The American actor and humorist Will Rogers, once said: ‘The best way out of a difficulty is through it.’ He was so right!
A story is told of John and Charles Wesley, concerning the missionary journey that they made to America in 1735. En route there was a terrible storm, with waves battering their ship, causing the passengers to scream with terror, convinced that they were facing certain death. All that is except a group of German Moravians, men women and children, who remained completely unfazed, and continued singing hymns and praising God while their boat was being engulfed by massive waves. And what struck John Wesley, in what proved to be a turning point for him in his own life, was their total lack of fear. They were unafraid to die. And they were unafraid to die because of their total trust in God.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus prepares to take leave of his disciples in order to begin the terrible journey to his own trial and crucifixion, with the words with which we began this service: ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.’ He continues: ‘Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.’
Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.
You will have heard me say before, but it bears constant repeating, that most of the evils in human life have fear somewhere at their heart. Fear of being a failure; fear of looking foolish; fear of that person being more successful or powerful than me; fear that what I have might be taken away. Fear that I might be abandoned or lost or forgotten. Which is why so much dysfunctional human conduct originates in fear.
And the one phrase that crops up more often than any other in the Gospels is ‘Do not be afraid.’ So many of the teachings of Jesus and the other New Testament authors, addresses the subject of our fear: ‘Perfect love casts out fear.’ And I see that lived out in real life all the time. I was reflecting at our midweek communion service this week about the importance of finding that ‘still place’ in your soul; a place of at-onement with God; a place of peace; it is a place that you may find in a quiet spot somewhere – but it is also a place you can find in prayer – which means you can find it anywhere. A place where you can be fed by the presence of God, however much chaos and uncertainty circles around you. A place where you can discover that there really is no need to be afraid anymore. So you can embrace the thing of which you are most afraid.
Some of you may be familiar with the wonderful poem by Janet Rand called ‘Risk’:
To laugh is to risk appearing the fool,
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach out for another is to risk involvement,
To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self.
To place ideas and dreams before a crowd is to risk being called naïve.
To love is to risk not being loved in return.
To live is to risk dying,
To hope is to risk despair.
To try is to risk failure.
But risk must be taken, because the greatest hazard
in life is to risk nothing.
The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing, and becomes nothing.
They may avoid suffering and sorrow, but they
cannot learn, feel, change, grow, love, live.
Chained by their certitude, they are slaves;
they have forfeited their freedom.
Only a person who risks is truly free.