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An Easter love letter to Pope Francis

Claire Henderson Davis - The Tablet - Wed, May 6th 2020

An Easter love letter to Pope Francis

As we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus, a performance artist and theologian makes a very personal appeal to Pope Francis to recognise a new understanding of priesthood

Dear Holy Father,
My brother Francis.

I am taking the step of writing an open letter to you because I feel that I am in a position to speak on behalf of many Catholics who have left the Church, or who are hanging on by their fingertips. I also speak for many of my own post-Second Vatican Council generation who see the Church as benignly irrelevant, if not actively detrimental to human flourishing, and are looking everywhere else for God. I fear that my words would not reach you through more private channels, and I wish to open up a new conversation about the future of the Church.

I have spent many years in the Anglican Church, which has become my adopted house of worship, but I am called home by your encyclical Laudato Si’, with a desire to return not as a child or as a supplicant, but as an heir coming into my inheritance, and as an adult with much to offer. I am the daughter of Charles Davis, a priest who left the Church in 1967 because he could no longer find his path to God inside her walls, and Florence Henderson, a member of the Grail, and an expert in the liturgy, whose priestly calling was invisible to a Church struggling with God’s image in women.

My parents taught me all they could of theology and liturgy, and I have studied these myself, but I have also pursued disciplines they did not know – dance, psychotherapy and permaculture – practices that release the body, open the heart, and teach our connection to the whole of Creation. At one stage in my travels, I became a plumber to support myself, grounding the mind with practical work. My situation is unusual among my peers because although my parents left the Church, they did not abandon the tradition. They took charge of my formation, keeping me at a distance from the more oppressive elements of the Church’s life. Because of this, I have remained creatively engaged, with a strong sense of my own vocation as an actor in the shared story we are living and telling about our path to God. And yet, my vocation finds no place in the Church as it is currently structured.

In Laudato Si’ , you write: “Our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” You talk about how “this sister now cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her”. For me, these powerful words apply not only to the Earth – especially keenly this Easter, at a time when they seem especially prophetic – but to all women and to the feminine in both women and men. They describe not only our destruction of the planet, but also our oppression of the body, feeling and sexuality, the consequences of which have been so painfully exposed in the abuse scandals of recent decades. Is it not time for a new form of priestly training that brings together the schooling of thought with the bodily disciplines required for emotional and sexual maturity; an incarnational formation based on the full equality of Word and Flesh?

I have spent many years wandering in the wilderness, trying to live a vocation that has no home. I have come to understand this vocation in terms of priestly calling – not a priesthood of bread and wine, but of flesh becoming word becoming flesh in an unfolding process of bodily resurrection. Where are my generation, particularly in the West, looking for God? Not in church pews, in homilies, or even in the Eucharist, but in practices like yoga, psychotherapy, and tribal rituals from other cultures that promise wholeness of body, mind and heart, offering an experience of intensity and transformation. I wonder if our imagining of priesthood can broaden to meet this need? Not dismissing the Church’s existing sacramental priesthood, but making space for other ministries to be called priestly.

In my understanding, the work of a priest is to uncover through their life, witness and ministry, the path to God in such a way that others may walk with them. The role of a priest is to gather the community and to celebrate the liturgy. This is what I have been doing for more than 20 years, but the community I have been serving is on the edge or outside the Church altogether, and the liturgies I have been creating and celebrating are ones which embody, through dance, music and text, the narrative of who we are, where we come from, and where we are going in such a way that the story implicates us, reels us in. I am still deeply engaged with our tradition, but in a way that embeds our story of salvation in the present, open to a future as yet unknown.

What story is the Church currently telling in her liturgy – not just in her services but in her embodied, corporate life seen in its entirety? Is it a story of fear and flight from change and uncertainty? Is it a nostalgic story, hankering for a bygone age? Or is it a story of the body’s longing for resurrection to spontaneity and joy? These are overly simplistic choices – reality on the ground is always more complex – but they do express something of our current predicament. Your leadership has given me great hope, and a desire to come home. But is there any place for my vocation in your Church?

The Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe writes: “A creative, revolutionary change, then, even though it is not a mere advance along the old lines of continuity, but a discovery of new lines, does not fully realise itself until it can be seen as in a new kind of continuity with the past.” I have an idea about opening a centre that could offer the kind of priestly training I have described above, surely necessary if we are to build a new kind of Church and to realise the vision you so prophetically express in Laudato Si’. I see it as a place that would teach not only theology but those disciplines required for a new form of liturgical embodiment – voice, movement, psychotherapy, permaculture – the kind of training needed for a priesthood focused on healing our relationship to the Earth, to all living things, and to each other as bodily creatures.

I also have a burden to lay at your feet. Sometimes separation requires anger. My father left the Church in an angry way, denouncing its corruption. Anger can be a pure fire burning away dead wood, but uncontained it becomes a destructive force, wreaking devastation. My father’s anger was both, and my brother and I have carried its burden for many years. In order for a child to return home an adult, it is necessary to find some acceptance of our parents’ humanity and vulnerability, to acknowledge the original sin we all carry – not the eating of an apple, but the passing on of dysfunction from one generation to the next until the cycle can be broken and healed. I have spent many years praying in the desert, and through practice and discipline, and with a great deal of help, I have worked hard to break the cycle in my own family, to let go of much of what prevents the universe flowing through me. This work never completely ends but I am free enough now that I feel ready to come forward on this wider stage. I would like to invite all those who wish to join me in the creation of this centre to step forward to offer their support, so that together we might realise this vision.

My brother Francis, you chose this name because you wished to renew the Church, to call her back to her vocation as a home for the poor, for those on the edge without a place in the world’s present structure. We need a new structure for the Church if our tradition is to live and breathe and grow, a new naming of God to embody in our liturgy, one which raises the divine feminine to full equality. It is only this that will lead us on the path you set out in Laudato Si’.

By some strange chance, or perhaps not, I am named for St Clare of Assisi, Francis’ companion. I have made a liturgy of Laudato Si’, in collaboration with fellow artists, called All Creation Waits, which is about their friendship, set today in the emergency of climate change. I would like to offer it to you as a gift.

I lay down my anger at your feet and come in love.

Your sister, Claire

Claire Henderson Davis is a dancer/choreographer and theologian.
More information about her work and how to support it can be found on her website

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