Sunday, 9 October 2016

Reflections on the Advocate & advocacy

The definition of advocacy from the mental health charity Mind is the act of getting support from another person to help you express your views and wishes, and to help make sure your voice is heard’. 

There is a growing recognition of the need for this sort of advocacy and its real power and worth. Advocacy enables those who, for whatever reason, cannot articulate their own story: in other words those who cannot give an account of what makes them, them; their identity; who they are.

Classically, in legal terms, we are familiar with the role of the advocate as the person who has the expertise and training to articulate the story or case of another person in their defence, the role a barrister takes in our system. The advocate gives clarity to the defendant’s story, marshals evidence and articulates the case. The advocate is not the defendant. The advocate does not even have to believe the defendant, but comes to inhabit the defendant’s story such that it can be put on the defendant’s behalf.

That is the case for someone accused of a crime, but advocacy goes wider than that. We can add to the example of ‘Mind’ those of advocacy for the many groups of people whose voice goes unheard in society, like carers at home, minorities, children, those undergoing coercive control, survivors of abuse or trauma, those for whom life is being sucked out of them by over domineering colleagues or family members.

This sort of advocacy in a social sense, either in the workplace, at school or society, draws on the same skills. This often hinges on helping someone not simply articulate their own story, but to help them to understand it and take hold of it. The advocate in this sense also helps identify when someone else is suppressing a person’s story or their identity and sense of who they are.

So for example, part of my role as a chaplain, indeed in my job description, is one of advocacy. This is advocacy in the second sense that is not about a courtroom. That might be advocacy on behalf of a student who extenuating circumstances affecting his or her work, or a member of staff who is feels victimised or bullied by another.

More generally I am, with fellow chaplains, an advocate for the place of faith and belief on campus, which involves telling the story of the way personal faith and belief within a community of faith is integral to the identities of so many people.

In the Christian Church the role of a priest is to help God’s people to articulate their story corporately and personally. That is the sense in which a priest is a storyteller. Not spinning yarns, but holding together a narrative of identity, into which is woven the hope, the faith and the love of God presented to us in Jesus Christ, who, in the power of the Holy Spirit, gives us the narrative of what it is to be human and a creature made in the image and likeness of God, where we find our first identity.

This is where our dedication to the Holy Spirit at this Cathedral points us to the importance of advocacy because advocacy is at its heart the work of the Holy Spirit, named in the Gospels as parakletos, the principal meaning of which is ‘lawyer for the defence’, ‘defender of the accused’, or in the words of the Te Deum sung at Morning Prayer, ‘the Holy Spirit, advocate and guide’.

The Spirit is the advocate who helps us articulate our identity in Christ, and draws into the narrative of the love of the Father and Son. This is the process of sounding the depths of our faith, seeing who we are in relation to who Jesus Christ is, all the better to understand how we take hold of our humanity and the person we were created to be.

That is the context of Advocate in the passage of St John 15.12-end. Read in the context of the imminent prospect of martyrdom and it has a very pressing character: the parakletos is what gives the martyr the ability to speak and act as one shaped by the story of the death of Jesus that becomes more than a wasted life but one that is enveloped in the friendship of God, the fruitfulness from God and testimony of God.

For those of us not facing martyrdom, the parakletos still operates to shape our lives that we, like the martyrs, abide in the love of God that gives wholly of itself.

So then we have the parakletos on our side, but that implies that there is someone or something not on our side. This is what the Bible, and Jesus, term Satan, a name which means the adversary, the one who puts the case against us, the one who wants to declare us guilty.

The adversary wants to unravel the story of God’s love, faithfulness and simply being on our side. The adversary wants us to believe that we are laden with guilt, never good enough. The adversary wants to tell the church today a story that takes us off in directions of despair and patching things together, not remaining faithful to the story of God.

As the story unravels we become gospel amnesiacs and then we really are lost and in need of seeking out, which of course God will do. Counsels of despair about the future of the church or the worthiness of human beings disregard the work of the Holy Spirit, our Advocate and Guide.

Perhaps sometimes the problem is that we tell the story against ourselves.

Surely inspired by the Spirit, the Advocate, St Paul asks in Romans, ‘If God is for us who can be against us?...who will bring any charge against God’s elect?’ (Romans 8.31b, 33a). It’s a question that comes in a passage where Paul has asserted that the Spirit helps us in our weakness. Paul knew as we do that our live and hope comes from the extent to which we are grafted in, to use St John’s imagery, into the life of the True Vine, Jesus Christ. It is this life that gives us the capacity to love in a way that counts nothing of the cost, to be fruitful and to testify to that love for as Paul answers his own question:

“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8.37-39

There’s the case for the defence, the story into which we are grafted, the story of the self-giving, saving love of Jesus Christ articulated for us in our life in the parakletos, our Advocate and Guide. 'Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful people, and kindle in us the fire of your love'.

© Andrew Bishop, 2016

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