Monday, 23 June 2014

Transitions

Yesterday I was at one of my very favourite places, St. Barnabas' Warrington. Even though there were a few people away the little church still looked and felt pleasantly full. It was Te Pouhere Sunday so I spoke about the early missions and the Treaty of Waitangi, but all the while I was thinking about something that had been preoccupying me for the past 24 hours. And that is transitions.

In the course of any given day we encounter situations where the rules of engagement change; where the ways of doing things and the things we say and even the things we think radically change. Take the service at St. Barnabas' for instance. For an hour or so I wore clothing that was more or less unexceptional in the context of the church but would have been bizarre should I have worn it while strolling down George St. in Dunedin. Inside the church we used language and concepts which would have been incomprehensible outside and we did things (communal singing, all sitting in rows facing the same way, kneeling and standing on cue, saying prayers aloud) which we would never dream of doing elsewhere. In other words, in the church context our rules of engagement change. We drop our normal everyday expectations and ways of engaging with each other and adopt a new set.

This doesn't just happen in church of course; we do it constantly. A family will have a set of rules which prevail when eating dinner and another for when visitors come and another when engaging in a spat and so forth. Schools, workplaces, clubs, all have their own various contexts and corresponding rules of engagement. We move seamlessly from one context to the next and as we enter or leave we make the appropriate shifts in behaviours and language.

As we make these changes there are little routines we go through to mark the shift from one reality to the next. At St. Barnabas a bell was rung, Lois, the priest in charge asked people to stand and sing a song, and hey presto!we were all in the little world of an Anglican liturgy. We stayed there until it had run its course when a set of ritualised words and my moving to the back of the church signaled that that little reality was over and people were free to chat, or do other activities not allowed in the liturgy but allowed in the world they were re-entering.

What interests me are these transitions. There are many of these little rituals that we employ almost unconsciously as the day passes. We sit at table and say grace then pile the plates and move, together, away from the table. We sit on the mat and sing a song to mark the start of the school day and take our bags off the hook to mark its ending. We don our gym clothes and then shower and change back into our street clothes. It seems to me that if they are done well these small transitional rituals seamlessly link all the little sub worlds together and integrate them one with the other. If they are not done well they cause anxiety in all present, and cause our lives to feel and appear fragmented.

I don't want to do much more than note the existence of these little transitions, but they are significant for our liturgies (obviously) but I suspect also for the way the various aspects of our lives hang together. There's a PhD in there for someone. If you're scrabbling around for your thesis, feel free.


2 comments:

Merv said...

Wow, you make us think! Fascinating insights.
One of the fuzziest transitions is letting visitors go home after dinner (or extracting ourselves to go home). We need your PhD student to set down the rules.

John Marcon said...

Greetings Kelvin - How effective transitions are when managed well and how disastrous when ignorance, arrogance or stupidity damages the process. Having just presided at a funeral of a 38 year-old woman with Scottish, Maori and Chinese links - all sensitively expressed in the service contributions of the families was to see good grief through the celebration of a wonderful life while facing the anger and pain. Grief as a healing process through common humanitarian bonds.
What if the people of Israel and Gaza attended each others' funerals - would they find so much common ground that a new transition toward equity and justice bring the quality of peace required to end the conflict?
John Marcon