Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Projection

Bishops Tea Party: oil by Garth Tapper, Gillman Collection

I have received a lot of letters and cards and emails over the past few weeks. Most of them are warm and pleasant and measured but there are a few that are not. On the one hand there are those -admittedly very few - which gush over-enthusiastically and on the other there are those -admittedly very few - which sneer and chide and snipe. I'm told that this is a feature of episcopal life, and I had better get used to it. I'm not talking here about those who have realistic and well founded hopes for the next few years nor of those who, based on knowledge of me, have realistic and well founded misgivings about my capabilities. I'm talking rather about people with whom I have never shared three connected words of conversation but who nevertheless take it upon themselves to upbraid me for the inner workings of my psyche and my motivations; or those who seem to mistake me for some sort of saviour.

As in every case where the emotional loading is far in excess of the appropriate level for the circumstance, it's all about projection. That is, feelings which have been generated in someone's life by an experience at some other time and in some other place, and which for various reasons have not been adequately expressed, and which lie dormant and unacknowledged in the person's psyche, have somehow found a focus in me. This is to be expected because it is part and parcel of ordination. In being ordained, we become living symbols. Just as a church building, though it is just another ordinary structure of wood and glass and mortar becomes a focus for people's deepest joys and longings, so the ordained person, just an ordinary woman or man, becomes a focus for people's deep feelings. Urban T Holmes III spells out this process in some detail in his wonderful little book, The Priest In Community. It may all sound like a lot of esoteric mumbo jumbo until you experience it, from the inside. I remember soon after I was ordained in 1979 walking through Christchurch's Cathedral Square. Dressed in clerical black shirt and trousers, I walked past a group of about a dozen members of the Mongrel Mob. As I passed close by them they stopped their animated conversation and all cast their eyes to the ground. They were big tough guys but what was represented in the black clothing and the collar was stronger than they were. Over the last 30 years that experience, or ones like it have been repeated many, many times. It would be a bit hard to bear if I allowed myself to believe that it was about me and my personal power to charm or calm, persuade or inspire, provoke or endanger. It is all about projection. As a priest I am a coathook on which people hang their feelings. Theirs, not mine.

And it seems that a bishop is a bigger coathook which can accomodate more and bigger.

I'm not complaining about this. Projection is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact it is absolutely unavoidable in ordinary human interactions and the instrument of priesthood can only perform its work in the human soul by way of projection. Where the danger is for me is in allowing these unrealistic views of me - good or bad - to inform my own opinion of myself. As soon as I believe (as some would seem to have it) that I truly am the worst Idea since Mr Hitler said to Mrs Hitler come upstairs Helga, I'm feeling a little frisky then I have lost my humanity and I am in trouble. And my humanity is in equal danger if I start to believe (as some would seem to have it) that the salvation of the human race is somehow down to me.

Other people's projections can carry a fairly heavy spiritual weight. If I don't prevent them from landing on me, I need to shuck them off as quickly as possible. To do this, I need to do two things. One is to try and stay as close to God as I possibly can (as Marcus Ardern used to tell me, if you don't feel humble in the presence of God there's not much of it there) . The other is to find people who are comfortable enough with their own humanity that they can reflect mine back to me. These things have been happening for me lately. Remind me to tell you about it sometime.

5 comments:

Elaine Dent said...

Thank you for risking putting in words something that is a danger for pastors/priests in local congregations. We, too, can and do allow projections of us as saviors to be placed on our shoulders by anxious congregations...to our own detriment. We can't carry them, of course, and so I find helpful what you said about humility in the presence of God.

Anonymous said...

Ah, Marcus Ardern - there's a name from the past! We had him along to lead a Christian Union mission at Otago University, c. 1977. He bravely faced the sneers of Student union lounge lizards.
Every blessing on the weeks ahead, Kelvin.

Brian
(Canterbury, UK, ex-Dunedin)

maurice said...

there from marcus ardern www.marcus ardern.net it was nice to find kelvin on internet. a good true=man...........

Anonymous said...

You touch on things that are important to me. Several years ago, for reasons I do not wish to get into here, I began to wonder about my rights as the 'receiver' of speech. The other person obviously wanted to shout at me and felt they had the right to do so. But I decided that as the one being told off I also have rights. Put bluntly the other person may need to tell me off but that does not mean I need to be told off. From that day to this I make decisions about how I am spoken to.
"The ends do not justify the means". That applies to speech as much as everything else. And Christians have been uneven in applying the principle. But perhaps that is another thread.
Bill Schroeder

Kathryn said...

Kelvin, I'm sure you will do well in your new position in life. You are practical and capable and centred on the job in hand. God has a (BIG) plan for you. He chose you to be Bishop (you might have been elected by men, but God chose YOU, Kelvin.)
Let the sneerers and chiders and snipers, sneer & chide & snipe away. Let it roll off you Kelvin.
I think it is fantastic that your clothing has the power to affect members of the Mongrel Mob. You are our mighty God's representative. May He always bless you and keep you safe.
Kathryn :-)