The church of St Martin’s-in-the-Field faces on to Trafalgar Square and offers ‘a safe space’ for many people. Alongside worshipers, and classical music-lovers, it attracts homeless people with whom it seems to have a special and long-term bond. Online, we often enjoy the sermons from the Vicar, Sam Wells, and various thought-provoking lecture series.
On Monday evening this week, we decided to do more than listen online and went into town to hear a talk on ‘encountering the other’ by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Speaking about encountering the other in our lives and within ourselves, he lived up to expectations, addressing a packed church. As always, he spoke profound truths with simple honesty, humility and characteristically gentle humour! He talked about ‘meeting what I do not own or control and learning from it’ and ‘taking the uninvited and inviting it.’ When we encounter what is unfamiliar in others, we need to ‘create between us a space that belongs to neither of us.’ He pointed out that ‘initiatives and ideas which are not your own can provide the ground for creativity,’ and suggested that many religious people ‘haven’t been very good at using language without aggression’.
On Tuesday evening, much closer to home, we heard another talk given by a woman pastor from the Netherlands who works with diverse people on their faith journeys. She referred to addicts, refugees, immigrants, abused and abusive people, alongside successful professionals, healthy families, and diligent students. Like Rowan Williams, she stressed the importance of her practice of creating safe spaces for fragile and vulnerable people. She said that often means two things. The first is the importance of meeting to talk in a neutral place. So, she does a lot of her ministry in coffee shops where neither she nor they own the space. That way, she said, people can feel free to leave whenever they choose. Another piece of advice from her: ‘Allow yourself not to have all the answers all the time!’ which reminded us of another friend talking about such skills, ‘Let God be God. Don’t feel it’s your job to defend God.’
A particular characteristic of the safe space is that people can come and go and not feel that they are being judged. They can be their true, grimy selves. Listen long enough and it’s not unusual to hear them judge themselves. Somehow a shared space and a tea or coffee cup helps them to be more at ease. The café can easily become a place of confession. Bartenders have probably known that for a long time. Hairdressers too sometimes.
To listen without judging. To listen without simply looking for a spot where we can jump in. To listen and then to ask a well-directed, compassionate question. To live a life which offers some safety to others. To find others who will offer safe spaces to us. After both evenings, we talked about learning to offer - and sometimes to find - this sort of welcome and to enjoy the encounters it offers. Why is it often so difficult - especially for two people like us who have spent much of their lives teaching and preaching?
Last word to Rowan Williams: ‘Holy people make you feel more than yourself. There’s an invitation in being seen through and welcomed’.