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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Thursday, May 18, 2006
    We're none of us anywhere near perfect, and in fact mostly we are in very unsafe territory. This much is clear from the outset of Barbara's new book, I Am Somewhere Else: Gospel Reflections from an Emerging Church, which I took to read on retreat today.

    And this thesis was tested at lunchtime when on a walk out of Loyola Hall to the garage to get a butty, I was stopped in my tracks by a young schoolgirl who ran up to ask me a question which would haunt me, and dominate my thoughts for the rest of the afternoon. It was something she really needed to know, and she'd somehow identified me as one who might be able to help her. Her question was this: "Do you know where Duran Duran got their name from?"

    That rattled me. I squeezed my eyes shut, reopened them, rubbed my chin, grimaced, and told her that I really ought to know that but just couldn't remember. And walked on feeling a desperate sense of having let the young girl down.

    Barbara's book is an extended meditation on the experience of baking bread with an ever-changing gathered community of people in a room above a city centre cooperative bookshop. She describes so well the various stages of breadmaking, and with them the themes which they conjure, when breadmaking is an activity shared by a whole bundle of broken, breaking, angry, reassembling people around a very big table. And where some of the Christian gospel stories play their part in the interaction, as bread and soup are shared.

    One of the best things about breadmaking appears to be that it takes a long time and so gives the people around the table plenty of opportunity to share each other's experiences and really start to engage. Barbara has an interesting way of describing this:

    The starting point of understanding experience is to 'experience our experience' and to 'experience our experience without fear'. What I mean by this is the need to give ourselves space to listen and to honour the things that have happened to us so that we do not just have experiences but we pause and wonder at the things that are happening to us.

    And the book is full of stories of people who have baked and shared bread in Somewhere Else over the past five years, which clearly show how deeply they have 'experienced their experience', and how well Barbara has observed (and no doubt contributed towards) this.

    There will be much to return to, again and again, in this book. Some fascinating reflections in the field of what might be dustily called 'pastoral theology'. Today I was especially struck by a recurring question, is there a relationship between safety and salvation? Barbara describes her concern at having to step over rough sleeper Michael to get through the door on the morning of a day when survivors of abuse were being offered safe space in the centre. And this unfolds into a discussion which observes that nowhere really is completely safe, and certainly not the church (though it hides behind salvation language to pretend it is). The beginning of safety - and salvation - is in facing this difficult truth.

    Which takes me back to me being accosted by an appealing schoolgirl in view of staff and parents at the gates. It's perhaps just as well I didn't have the answer to her question in my head at the time, because it's an unsafe explanation. Duran Duran are named for the evil baddie in the steamy cult sci-fi classic Barbarella, starring the frequently naked Jane Fonda.