On holiday in Falmouth this summer, and wandering through the town, I was irresistibly drawn in to a bookshop, as I sometimes am. And there on the shelf I saw a book by George Monbiot who writes for ‘The Guardian’ on environmental matters. In it he makes an eloquent plea for the re-wilding of some of our moorland areas.
But what drew me was the book’s title: ‘Feral’. I wasn’t sure why I was drawn in until I read his definition of ‘feral’ as being “in a wild state, especially after escape from captivity or domestication.” And then the lights came on.
Of course I am a feral priest: called to escape the captivity of the institutional Church many years ago by God, and who has since exercised a ministry mainly in spiritual direction outside its domestication. I remember well how scary it felt to leave. A friend described me ‘as a man about to jump off a cliff’ and so it felt. And yet it also seemed that there was no real alternative. And I remember to my great surprise how no longer being a stipendiary clergyman of the Church of England felt a huge relief. I was free: scared but free! I remember how it seemed as if scales fell from my eyes and I beheld a world in glorious colour which previously had been in black and white. And I realised something of what captivity and domestication had done to me.
As a feral priest I had to learn a different set of skills. I had to learn to place my trust in God where previously the unstated assumption was that I should trust the institution and its leaders. I had to trust God to provide, through the agency of Her children, enough money to survive, a roof over my head, and the means to exercise the ministry to which He was calling me.
I also had to learn to trust myself, my own intuitive sense of what priesthood meant. I often talk about ‘internalised’ priesthood as the state in which I have learnt to trust that because God has called me to be a priest there must be something essentially ‘priestly’ about me and that if I try to be truly myself then that priesthood will flow out through me without much conscious effort on my part. I no longer need the external props of ‘priesthood’ as once I did. Don’t get me wrong, I continue to enjoy leading worship and preaching when invited to do so, but my priesthood is not dependent on my doing those things.
Jesus, of course was ‘feral’. He exercised His ministry on the edge of, or outside the religious institution in which He had grown up, and by implication challenged it. So did Francis of Assisi. So do increasing numbers of men and women today: and not just priests, indeed mainly not priests. It is one of the joys of spiritual direction to see someone escape the domestication of what they’ve been taught they should think and do, for the freedom of what they know deep down themselves. There are large numbers of ‘feral Christians’ on the loose. George Monbiot might be encouraged. The process of ‘feralisation’ is a bigger one than he perhaps imagined.
I’m reminded of a phrase of, I think, Richard Holloway, who spoke about feeling himself to be part of a church ‘in exile’. But the two phrases don’t carry the same sort of energy for me. To be ‘in exile’ in a Biblical sense carries overtones of being cast out against one’s will, excluded from what feels like home, and sent to a place to which one does not want to go and where one feels a stranger. It’s a place of pain. To go ‘feral’ may include experiencing all of the above, but for me it also meant a sense of call rather than exclusion, and it points to a sense of discovered freedom and delight in what has been newly discovered. It’s a place of precarious, gracious joy.