Father Tim Mansfield, Gnostic Priest and Rector of St. Urielʼs Parish of the Apostolic Johannite Church, in Sydney, Australia.
A Personal Journey
[Transcription: Andrew Rockell]
Tim: Good morning. When I was a kid, the parish priest always used to say a line from one of the Psalms before he began a sermon. I spent a bit of time this week rereading that line, because I always used to love it. So, let me give you a liberal retranslation to begin. “May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts, be now and always delightful to you, O Lord, my protection, my rock, my kinsman who sets me free.”
The word that brings me to worship this morning I guess, is ʻfireʼ . . .
Iʼm really bad at running over time. And Iʼm going to have a go at justifying that. I havenʼt prepared anything this morning, I thought Iʼd just stand up in front of you and see what happened.
I was born in Brisbane into the Anglican church. High Anglican. Bells and smells and lots of gold and incense. I was an, an - altar server from about ten till about twentyone. I wielded the thurible. I spent a good portion of my life assisting at baptisms and throwing incense around the room and terrifying old ladies in the front row, ʻcos I always did these massive sort of throws with the thurible. The thing would swing toward them and theyʼd all - cringe . . . Which Iʼve got to say, at fifteen, was a certain pleasure!
Around fifteen, I really, I started kinda re-examining my faith for myself. I read the New Testament from cover to cover. Foof! That Revelations! Thatʼs a cracker. So many possible digressions . . . Revelations contains the first intellectual property statement known to humanity. Just in that last little verse. And a fearsome one as well. Maybe Hollywood could learn something from it. I came to my own sort of determinations about What All That Meant. I rethought my whole faith and doctrine. Really. I got to university and I had a bunch of friends who were atheists and one of them challenged me at some point that people believed in God as a
kind of crutch. And I thought, “Well, I donʼt think Godʼs a crutch . . . I guess if God was a crutch then if I threw God away - if I threw my belief in God away - probably not how I thought about it at the time, I guess Iʼm reframing - if I threw my belief in God away, then Iʼd fall down, right?
Well, the only way to test that is to throw my belief away. So I did. And I didnʼt fall down. Which was good, right? But then I didnʼt seem to have a belief in God. But I guess I didnʼt need one.
So, I became an atheist at about eighteen. I suppose. I like to say I ʻformally embraced atheism.ʼ I discarded the faith. Curiously, I stayed an altar server till I was twenty-one. It was the Anglican church! Being an atheist didnʼt really matter particularly much. [laughter]. Itʼs awfully hard to make friends with ladies in their eighties when youʼre eighteen, really, so I just didnʼt want to throw my eighty year old friends away. They had lovely hats, and they made good scones, and so I just kept going. And at some point I moved out of my parentsʼ house and crossed town and getting to 7 a.m. Mass meant getting up at 5 a.m. and I was at Uni and that was just a, that was a show-stopper. So I stopped going to church.
And, my usual way of telling this story is that I drifted kind of unmoored through my twenties and thirties. And I guess a sense of a need for spirituality never really quite left me. Iʼm telling you this story partly to be a little - honest, ʻcos itʼs kind of weird that Iʼm standing here, called ʻFather Tim,ʼ giving you a sermon. Youʼve all been Christians for, by some counts, a lot longer than I have. Most of you probably havenʼt left and come back. A lot of you have probably stayed through. I left. I left when I was like, eighteen. Twenty, say. Depending on how you count. And I stayed out of the church for a long time.
Sometime in my late thirties I started meditating, I guess. And looking for somewhere to kinda moor a spirituality. And I danced around that kind of weird sort of generic brand black and gold kind of secular spirituality that so many of us try to navigate. And I noticed that, I noticed that I was missing the predictable things. I was missing music, and I was missing poetry and I was missing image and I was missing myth and I was missing story and I was missing that deep old pulse that is a spiritual tradition. So, the context I guess Iʼve got to sort of point out: I mean - I grew up in the ʻseventies, right? I grew up in the ʻseventies. Thereʼs probably, looking around the room, a few of you did.
And, okay, so this is a time when [Centering Prayer founders] Basil Pennington and William Menninger are having their first meetings with Father Thomas Keating and discussing - that ʻweʼve got to find some way of bringing the contemplative tradition back to life.ʼ And that was waaay over in America. And I guess John Main was probably teaching Christian Meditation at this point. And probably Christian Zen and Christian Vipassana were a gleam in somebodyʼs eye. But, I mean, life in the pews was - the service. And the cakes . . . And then you went home. And there was no sense of for me in my church, there no sense of mysticism. There was no sense of the contemplative journey. There was no sense of - okay, once Iʼve finished Sunday School, then what? Well then you join the Lionʼs club. And you know, serve the community. And you do stuff. And thereʼs less sense of how my spiritual journey could have deepened . . .
And then I started reading about other peopleʼs religions and it seemed that in other religions thereʼs a point where you reach that point and then someone kind of spots that, you want something deeper. And some old bloke with a beard says “Ah! Come with me! Come behind this curtain - thereʼs another room!ʼ, you know. And you get taken back and get taught some extra stuff. I really regretted that my tradition didnʼt seem to have that. So, I wound up navigating this kind of, sort arid, I guess, is how I think about it now, kind of secular spirituality in my late thirties. And I started to notice I wanted something with a bit more life and colour and juice and craziness and blood and humanity in it. So obviously, I went looking at Zen. Which you gradually discover, does have blood and juice and humanity in it, but it . . . From a Western kind of Zen point of view, that seems to be exactly what itʼs not.
So I sniffed around in that for a little bit, messed around in Hinduism for a little bit, and at some point I woke up and thought ʻWell, what about Christianity? Is it insane to go and look back at Christianity?ʼ And so I did. And so my attention got drawn to, I guess, Gnostic Christianity. Iʼd read Elaine Pagels [author of prize-winning book The Gnostic Gospels] back when I was in my twenties. I went looking for - modern Gnostic churches. Of which there are dozens in the United States and absolutely none in Australasia. So, I found one that seemed not insane. It had a minimal number of rainbows on its website. And not too many strange depictions of weird angelic happenings and things. And it seemed like they seemed mildly interested in helping people, rather than getting absorbed in, you know, mystical insight all the time. So I signed on and . . . clicked on the link that said ʻVocationsʼ on the website. Kinda broadly thinking that if there were going to be Gnostic churches in Australasia, then someone had to volunteer to be a priest.
So I got the application pack and I applied and, two years ago, I got ordained. Which isnʼt really how I imagined life working out. Which . . . I guess Iʼd hoped Iʼd find some certainty. Maybe. Maybe thatʼs what I was thinking I was finding. This church looked really old. Iʼve since discovered itʼs like five years old. As Brenda said, itʼs really tiny. We have a dozen priests. Really. We have maybe a hundred and twenty people involved in worldwide. And scattered across the whole of North America. Our patriarchal seat is in Calgary. Famous mostly for the Calgary stampede - an annual gathering of cowboys. Roping cows. Which I think is great, personally.
But the more I dug into my church, and the more I dug into what Gnostic Christianity could mean, the more I realised - we just didnʼt know. I mean, weʼve got these books, I spoke on Wednesday night [Other Voices, Other Rooms - An introduction to the Gnostic Gospels, Cityside, Wednesday 15 September 2010] about these books from Nag Hammadi, in Egypt, these ʻGnostic Gospels,ʼ that were found in 45. Itʼs very enticing, and very beguiling and very fascinating. And we donʼt know a damn thing about those people. Thereʼs no clue. We have no information about how those communities worked. We have no information about what sort of spiritual practice they did. We got nothing. Weʼve got these fascinating books that seem to be saying something terribly important, or at least terribly important to the people that wrote them. But weʼve got no idea what they did.
And so - what does my church look like? We look Catholic. I wear a chasuble when I say Mass. I ʻsay Massʼ! We do a Eucharist service. I baptise people. I threw someone in a river, just last Easter. I took him out again . . . Three times, mind you. It was funny as well, ʻcos heʼs very tall and gangly and - Iʼm not! Itʼs really hard to handle someone down into a river when theyʼre that tall. So weʼve got a great shot of when he lost his footing on the rocks. [laughter]. And it looks like Iʼm drowning him, ʻcos his legs are kicking up, and - .[laughter] But heck, if youʼre gonna baptise someone, chuck ʻem in a river! Unless itʼs a child. Thatʼs probably not a wise idea.
So I guess this Gnostic church that Iʼve joined, gives me probably, two gifts. And one, is that - we donʼt know. One is the certainty. Iʼve found some certainty. Iʼm certain that we just donʼt know! And the more Iʼve read around early Christianity to try to work out what on earth these Gnostics were on about. These Gnostic Christians I stress, were on about. Thereʼs lots of Gnostics - there was Platonic Gnostics and Jewish Gnostics and there were quite a lot of Gnostic Christians. . . The more I become resolved that: we just donʼt know.
But the weird byproduct of that investigation has been - I donʼt think we know anything about the first two hundred years of Christianity. I canʼt work out with any certainty what anyone was talking about. I canʼt work out with any certainty - who wrote the Gospels, or what they meant by them or where they were or who they were even talking to. Itʼs all completely mysterious. Which ought to leave me feeling completely terrified.
But the other gift that I get from the - well, thereʼs this other word, gnosis. What does this word 'gnosis' mean. Classically, ʻknowledge.ʼ And the Greeks were a very fastidious and particular people. Theyʼre not anymore, eh! Go to a Greek restaurant a few times in a week and theyʼre not particularly fastidious or particular . . . Lovely. Fantastic lamb. Not very fastidious or particular. [laughter].
Thereʼs several words for knowledge in Greek and the, the two we tend to dwell on are one: episteme - we get epistemic, and epistemology and those sorts of words from episteme. And episteme means the kind of knowledge, well, let me give you my standard analogies. If you read Letʼs Go Paris then youʼve picked up some epistemic knowledge of Paris. If you go to Paris, get drunk in Paris, wake up in a gutter in Paris, fall in love in Paris, travel the Metro in Paris - then youʼre developing gnosis of Paris. Youʼve been to
Paris. Youʼve embraced Paris. Youʼve loved Paris. Now when youʼre talking to someone about Paris, who do you talk to? The guy whoʼs studied the Letʼs Go Paris book? Or the one whoʼs fallen in love, gotten drunk, got arrested probably, been released, and fallen in love with Paris and known it.
And so thatʼs what ʻgnosisʼ really means. Paul uses it all the way through the letters, this word. ʻOoh, these terrifying Gnostics. Theyʼre so scaryʼ . . . Not really scary. People who feel that the right thing to do about God isnʼt ʻbelieving,ʼ it isnʼt ʻfaith.ʼ I mean those things are really important, faithʼs really important, beliefʼs really important - it guides us in the journey.
But the place weʼre headed is 'to know.' And ʻto knowʼ in Hebrew, which is the cultural world of those people, Iʼve come to decide, - and I have to keep re-phrasing this as ʻIʼve decidedʼ - one of the other gifts I get from my church is a complete absence of certainty around any teaching. I said on Wednesday night ʻWeʼre a non-magisterial churchʼ - I donʼt get granted teaching authority. Our church doesnʼt think anything in particular, or believe anything in particular - ʻjust listen to me ʻcos I knowʼ . . . You just have to take my word for it. This is what I reckon in terms of my belief, in terms of where Iʼm at . . .
Iʼve got less and less interested in belief as timeʼs gone on. Although belief itself is fascinating. Although - thatʼs a digression and really, thereʼs only twenty minutes! In Hebrew, in the full world, in which our Lord was teaching, to know always carries with it a twin sense of ʻto embrace.ʼ And to love. And not just to love in a nicey, nicey, cuddly, cuddly kind of way. To love in a way that a wife loves a husband and a husband loves a wife. Iʼm a gay man. In the way a husband loves a husband and a wife loves a wife. In a bodily, joyous, completely consuming way. Thatʼs what gnosis means. So I have this gift of this uncertainty. Which is a gift of curiosity. What Iʼm constantly forced to bring to my spirituality is an open - guess . . . A curiosity about what on earth this means. ʻWhat does this mean . . . ?ʼ Thereʼs absolutely no certainty in this. Thereʼs no solidity in this. In this journey that I seem to have found myself on.
Because of my sexuality, and because so much of the engagement between being a gay man and being a Christian for me has been about being forbidden, being marginalised, being shut down, for any sexual person . . . Thereʼs a complicated story about how Christianity works with your sexuality, in the last hundred years. Itʼs been a difficult journey! And so part of what Iʼve brought to this is a definite intention, that Iʼm not interested in a Christianity which writes my sexuality out of the picture. My sexual being
out of the picture. My physical being out of the picture. Iʼm not interested in a kind of . . . attenuated path of ascent, which has me flying up into the clouds and leaving behind my physical body. Thatʼs - why on earth would I be? Why on earth would anyone be? Why on earth did we tolerate it for so long? To know is to know Christ, in your very body. If Iʼd been prepared, I would have brought my St. Simeon quote with me from the other night, but . . . ʻWe awaken in Christʼs body,ʼ says St. Simeon, ʻas Christ awakens in our bodies.ʼ As every inch of us. 'I look at my hand and my poor hand is Christ.' He says, ʻDo my words seem blasphemous? Then open to him who is opening to you so deeply.ʼ
Our Lord said, “I am come to cast fire on the earth. And what will I, but that it be kindled?” Thereʼs lots of ways of interpreting that. But I put it to you, that the thing, the characteristic of fire, is its utter boundary-lessness. Its complete uncertainty. We talk about the flickering flame all the time, right? You put your hand through fire. It has no boundary, it has no edge. And yet it is itself. Itʼs still its unique self. I think, what Iʼm being called to do as a Christian, is to come alive in Christ, in this moment, in this body. To give up this sense of certainty on which Iʼve grounded my identity. To give up these edges and these boundaries. To give up this - ego thing - which I seem to be so devoted to doing. And to cast myself adrift. To surrender. To give it all up. And hence to burn. To become flame.
Thereʼs that great story of St. Anthony in the desert. You know, thereʼs the young monk, - youʼve all heard this story, right? If youʼve ever been to a contemplative prayer workshop of some kind, someoneʼs told you this story, ʻcos everyone loves retelling it . . . This monk comes to him and says, ʻLook, I - I confess everyday, pray the Lordʼs Prayer, I read the Psalms, you know, I go to Mass . . . What else can I do?” And St. Anthony holds his hand up and his fingers are alight. And he says “If you wish, you can become all flame.”
What on earth is he talking about? What a mad thing to say! To come alive in Christ in this moment, to come alive in this very body. To give up all this contracting that we do, the contracting against each other. The turning away. That ʻI just donʼt wanna know.ʼ This sense that, that my spirituality has to be comfortable for me. That it has to please me. That it has to feel nice. I canʼt read the Gospels and come away thinking that my spiritualityʼs meant to be nice and comfortable and pleasing! [laughs]. Itʼs got to be
troubling. And terrifying. And completely alive in every moment.
So thatʼs my deal. To give up certainty, and to give security and to give up safety, and to give up the rock. And to become all flame. Or at least, thatʼs how it seems to me today. [laughs].
May the Lord let his face shine upon you and be merciful to you on this and every day. May the utmost source of all reign down upon you, her breath, bringing you to life, fanning the flame of your being and bringing you to life in Christ.
If you donʼt mind, and if this doesnʼt offend you, and if it pleases you a little, may I bless you in this moment, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Brenda: Did you want to take questions? Or shall we just leave it there . . ?
Tim: . . .
Brenda: There may not be any! . . .
Tim: I once lived with a girl who got into a terrible fight with a boy in the share house. And heʼd had this crockery that his mother had given him that was very precious. And she was so enraged with him, she went into the kitchen and she got all the plates and she threw them on the floor and they smashed into a million pieces and she stormed out of the house . . . And then she came back to get her purse . . . [laughter] So - Iʼve come back to
get my purse, if anyone has any questions . . .[laughter]
Question: Did you find any - arguments, or certainties, on which to base your hopes?
Tim: Of course!
Question: Continues [inaudible]
Tim: All I can say is ʻAll provisional, of course.ʼ Iʼve got less and less interested in the ideas of it, I think, over time. Iʼm fascinated by this tradition. And construed broadly. I guess.
Question: The Christian tradition?
Tim: Yes. The Christian tradition. East to West, North to South, now to, you know, 30 A.D. Possibly before, you know. Thatʼs one of the things we do is we kinda try and cut the teaching off from what came before it. To try and take it out of its Jewishness, out if its Babylonian-ness, even. ʻCos we donʼt know, thatʼs right. But thereʼs this sort of depth that comes through when you sort of do dig back in some way. What Old Testament Jewishness was like. Although thereʼs thousands of years of Old Testament Jewishness there. The Tanakh goes over, you know, a couple of thousand years. But thereʼs so much of it, you canʼt hold it all. Itʼs the sort of territory to allow the mind to roam over when it needs a bit of stimulation, I guess.
Question: Do your services use a more structured approach?
Tim: Yeah. Totally. Very square. Very routine. This - [Cityside] is much more exciting. We tend to pull stuff out of a broader range of scripture. We pull stuff out of the Gnostic Scripture as well as from Canonical Scripture. We have prayers that sound a little odd. ʻCos, ʻcos I weʼre going for a more open sense of the divine. I guess.
Question: About using structure to get somewhere unstructured as a conscious intention.
Tim: Itʼs what our particular church does. And thereʼs a few other churches that take that [approach]. For me the way it works is that gnosis happens, the Holy Spirit moves where she will, Christ speaks to us in every moment, you know . . .
Question: I come from the Catholic tradition . . . [inaudible]
Tim: The way it makes sense to me is, Christianity, the Christian tradition has long, I mean the whole contemplative tradition, both in East and West, the Hesychasm [the ʻJesus Prayerʼ] tradition amongst the Orthodox, lectio particularly, the tradition of chanting the lines of the Psalms - amongst the Desert Fathers, and all that stuff . . . is this slow individual process of, ah . . . I love the way Cynthia always frames this, Cynthia Bourgeault always frames it, is kind of, tuning and refining the heart. Our ability to feel and to come and our inner sensitivity to what seems to be going on. ʻWhatʼs going on with you?ʼ Can I you know, am I getting you? You know? Are we - ?ʼ
So, tuning the heart, which is a contemplative journey, is immediately about relationship. Itʼs about ʻAm I aware of my constant invitation into relationship with the Trinity?ʼ ʻAm I aware of my constant relationship with the people Iʼm sharing the room with?ʼ So, church works in a couple of ways. I think it, I think it works a lot better, in the way that we all seem to be hearing that it works, which is: coming together in community when youʼre spending enough of that private time in meditation, prayer and contemplation. To do that work of tuning the heart. But then to bring that nicely tuned heart into community. Into being with other people. And getting better at showing up. Getting better at just being human. Whether itʼs folks at church, or whether itʼs the guy that asks you for money at the train station, or the drunk guy thatʼs just fallen over. That everyoneʼs walking past ʻcos heʼs drunk. Heʼs still hurt. Basic, simple, human stuff like that.
But then the third dimension, and this is why we bother with liturgy. Which is a puzzle really. If youʼve gone through Buddhism, you know, whatʼs liturgy about? I spent ages calling it ʻliturgical practiceʼ to make it sound more credible. But - whatʼs liturgy? Well, let me get really hard-core and Catholic for a second. Itʼs putting that tuned heart in the very presence of the outpouring of the divine in the bread and the wine. In the body and the blood of Christ, youʼre coming face to face. With Christ. Unambiguously. Every single time. Regardless of how bad, stupid, dumb and how poor a creature the priest is. Thatʼs the truth of it.
Tim: The action of the Eucharist. Every Eucharist. I would argue. Regardless of, you know, I . . . God always shows up. Apostolic succession or not. Within Roman canon law or not. You know. Whether youʼre a good Baptist or not. Whether the Baptist Unionʼs cranky with you. This week. Or not . . .
Question: About beliefs.
Tim: Two separate questions. Me - Iʼm . . . Iʼm quite fond of beliefs. I have quite a lot of them. I move them in and out depending on what I need that day. [laughs]. I have a whole [?] bag of beliefs but I just donʼt - . . . I have them, they donʼt have me. Maybe thatʼs the way to put it . . . Iʼm quite fond of the things. You know. Theyʼre handy. Thereʼs moments when I need to fiercely believe you know, something, for the next five minutes. And then, you know, whatever, itʼs all good.
In terms of the church, the church has a bunch of principles. Twelve, I think. They say twelve, but Iʼve never actually counted them. But itʼs a nice number? And when youʼre in front of a Christian audience, you say ʻTwelve principles,ʼ and everyone thinks ʻTwelve principles, yeah - right . . .” So itʼs got to be three or twelve. Itʼs ʻthe rules.ʼ Itʼs the only two permissible numbers in our mission context. but thatʼs what the church stands for. Yeah, that we think, what the church thinks is important as a corporate body, but . . .
Question: About role of Centering Prayer in Timʼs church.
Tim: We keep it as a distinct thing. Well . . . it is a regular, we have a contemplative service, that quite a few different parishes around the world do. We do it from time to time. Which has a contemplation moment after the Gospel. So, we read the Word, we chant a little, and then, predictably enough, ʻBe Still and Know That I Am God.ʼ And then twenty minutes of Centering Prayer, usually. Although I leave it open to people what they actually do. If people come from a different meditation tradition, thatʼs fine. But yeah, Centering Prayerʼs, for my particular parish, Centering Prayer is the kind of pulse and heartbeat of everything we do. We meet for Centering Prayer a whole lot more often than we meet for the Eucharist [laughs]. But I kinda feel like the Eucharist is a time for moving the attention outward, rather than inward. So, a lot of the time, the Eucharist is about being together, and praying together and singing together, and then facing each other and actually coming eye to eye. So. But - thatʼs just me. Other people . . .
Question: About what kind of beliefs the AJCʼs are.
Tim: Iʼll give you an uncontroversial one. We affirm [laughs] we affirm the Trinitarian nature of God. In experience, we experience god as divine source, divine progenitor, the birther of the cosmos. We affirm that we receive God as the ever-present Spirit around us, among us, the quiet whisper in the ear at the right moment, the gentle nudge of a soft breeze, the lovely word from those recovered Nestorian Scriptures from the Chinese Church in 700. ʻThe cool breeze,ʼ you know, ʻthat blows through the room and takes out the dead air.ʼ We affirm that we encounter God as Christ, as an embodied human being, living with other human beings. We encounter Christ in the face of the other, asking for help. We encounter Christ in the face of the other you know, suggesting to us, a change in our point of view. We encounter Christ in our very own bodies. In our own, very own physicality. In our manifest existence. So thatʼs an uncontroversial kind of principle.
Question: And a more controversial one?
Tim: A slightly more controversial one . . . [laughter] That Christ is present in every single human being as the sacred flame. The flame that burns in every human in every time and place and person. You are divine, they are divine, we are divine together. Which is another way of saying the same thing. And itʼs that in us which brings us to . . . which sets us alight! [laughs]. Brings us to salvation.
Iʼm fascinated by ʻsalvation.ʼ ʻCos in a first century Jewish context, when these are folks who are a couple of hundred years out of slavery in Babylon... Salvation, being ʻsaved,ʼ means ʻbeing set free.ʼ Liberated! [laughs].
Brenda: One more question?
Tim: One more.
Question: About - numbers of and in Timʼs church in Australia; whether itʼs represented in New Zealand [Tim: Not as far as I know]. And on the life of the congregation.
Tim: Just to frame that question - there are six people! [laughter]. And our parish is called - ʻSydney.ʼ [laughter]. So just getting them in the same room once a week is quite a struggle. I run a Centering Prayer night on Mondays. We do a contemplative prayer thing once a month on a Sunday afternoon. I do a Eucharist, two or three times a month, depending. Sometimes at a home, sometimes in a chapel. People meet up in twos and threes, socially, amongst that. So . . . yeah. Not a particularly interesting answer, but, there it is . . .
Thank you very much!