Monday 15 August 2016

Roland Walls: In the world, but not of the world...

That distillation of the lines from the gospel of John, chapter 17, that disciples of Christ are in the world, but do not belong to the world, is a constant challenge to Christians today.

I have just (a few moments ago) finished reading "Mole Under the Fence", a series of conversations with Roland Walls.  Roland died a few years ago, after a remarkable life, especially centred on his time in the Community of the Transfiguration at Roslin.  He was a priest, a monk (effectively), a sharp and self-deprecating man who had Christ at the centre of his life.  I never met him, but a retired colleague of mine did, and lent me the book. 

Image from Northumbria Community

Roland lived a life of poverty, and always seemed to be at the edge of things.  He turned down an academic career in the Church of England, and lived life in that (ecclesiastically) strange country: Scotland.  He also "swam the Tiber", converting to Roman Catholicism, but in a rather Newman-like way, because that is how he and community were taken, rather than the angst-laden protest conversion that one hears and sees these days (usually about women in ministry).

Why am I blogging about him?  Because he has immensely challenged me.

He talks of Christians taking on the powerlessness and insignificance of Jesus on the Cross, rather than hanging onto the coat-tails of Christendom (I grossly, grossly paraphrase much of what he says).  He pretty much rejects institutional models of church (although has such immense and complete faith in church as a place where people ought to be able to encounter God).  He is rather non-plussed and embarrassed when people do NOT encounter God in churches.  The eucharistic encounter is central to him - to meet the Trinity (love defined and defining) in the simplicity and complexity of that uniting and dividing mystery.  And that's not even starting to scratch his views on justice, liberation theology, the social gospel, the Iona Community principles - the things that spill out when you do, really, meet God.

And I am immensely challenged.  I am married, and have a family to (now) get through University.  I am not free to drop everything and join the crucified human and divine saviour in a place of emptiness and poverty. I am part of an institutional machinery (in church, and even in a secular, state way) that rumbles on, in a more-or-less well oiled state. It measures success by growth and stability and influence and titles and even (God help us) the clothes we wear.  And I can be immensely fed by all that. Isn't it great to be part of something good and shiny and visibly successful (I hesitated over that word - what word is right?  The sense of being "in", of being "approved", of being "favoured"?)

But Roland challenges us all where we are, I hope and pray.  I am trapped, just as he was trapped by the poverty of his community and de-skilling of any form of institutional ministry by the community's rule.  I am trapped (very willingly) by family, by church, by duty - but in that state of being trapped, I can work (I hope and pray) to help others to encounter God in the communities which I serve.  I am human enough to feel my ego and pride being fed when things are grand: but I can try to be human enough to keep looking for the cross, and the broken garbage nailed there to remind us where and how we are actually invited to meet God.

We are in the world, and the world's "stuff": church, state, society, success, failure - it is all around us.. But I pray that we will not be of the world, defining ourselves by all that "stuff".  We are defined by the brokenness of the cross, meeting the delightfully and bewilderingly complex and simple Trinity of God in bread and wine. 


  1. It's so hard to feel inspired by someone like Roland when you know you're on another road with the same destination. Sometimes we just have to keep going because we'd lose so much energy crossing the rough ground in between ...( always loved a metaphor!)

    1. Yes, "inspired" isn't really the word you'd use, from what I've heard of him. I also gather he was tramp-like, rather smelly and generally not someone who personally engaged. His mind jumps out of the pages of the book. And "challenges" rather than "inspires". A John the Baptist character?

  2. Back in the late 70s when I spent some time in Coates Hall, both Roland and Bishop Neil Russell would sometimes come round for one reason or another. Several times a student opened the door and offered the figure on the doorstep some small change, thinking they were tramps. I can't claim to have have known either of them, but I do recall a certain twinkle in their eyes.