Autoethnography: challenging narratives
Perhaps the greatest challenge in producing an issue of Anvil dedicated to autoethnography is to persuade the reader to progress beyond the title.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it may seem pretty esoteric, perhaps requiring a dictionary before you have finished the opening sentence. However, we hope we can convince you to delve into the articles and poems that follow, where the evocative telling of everyday experiences and challenging narratives form a creative resource for theological reflection and the exploration of diverse social issues. The origins of this particular issue lie in an MA class in Anthropology and Christian Mission, a fact that explains something of the uniqueness of the contributions, which, with two exceptions, are written by present and former students on CMS’s MA in Theology, Ministry and Mission. The class in question was using autoethnography as a prelude to exploring contemporary realities of class, race and gender: the way these play out in society and the implications for mission. Blown away by the quality of their responses, we felt they deserved a wider audience, and out of that experience this issue of Anvil emerged.
Historically, anthropology has not always resisted the temptation to deliver experts in other people’s lives. Postmodern anthropological approaches have called that into question, highlighting the subjectivity of our observations, challenging the distinctions between observer and observed and noting the fluidity and porous nature of the cultural categories we might seek to create. Autoethnography takes us beyond the distinctions between observer and observed, highlighting the importance of our own experience, the stories of our lives, in providing a valid and authentic place from which to explore culture and identity and, as we shall see, offering a rich source for theological reflection. Brene Brown once described stories as data with a soul. It is perhaps this soulfulness that is distinctive of autoethnographic writing: a form of writing or performance that is intentionally evocative seeking out ways of knowing that invite transformative responses – what Heather Walton terms emancipatory epistemologies.
In her article Heather Walton provides an introduction to autoethnography, highlighting the way it has emerged within the discipline of anthropology and, in particular, its application to theological reflection.
She describes autoethnographic writing as a creative process of telling stories that shed light on wider issues, potentially leading us to be more prayerfully attentive to the world around us. She notes how this process of reflexivity asks difficult questions of ourselves, creating possibilities to engage with neglected ethical questions including our own complicity in silence, something illustrated in a number of the contributions. She points to how it encourages us to own and speak out of our own experience and in so doing challenges the way white western Christians so often speak of and on behalf of others. Within the article she describes the different forms that autoethnography can take, some of which are illustrated in the contributions that follow – including performance autoethnography, which is illustrated in the poetry of Cathy Ross and Ruth Wells, and in the spoken-word piece by Luke Larner.
Walton notes the way autoethnography can communicate insights from perspectives that are often marginalised or silenced by dominant western narratives. This is particularly evident in Cathy Ross’s poems, “Tobermory Laundry” and “I Wonder Why”. Both these pieces, arising from epiphanic moments, use verse to explore the hiddenness of women’s lives both in the ignoring and unmarking of their achievements and the “whitewashing” of generations of oppression.
Ruth Wells explores related themes with a use of language designed to challenge, question and subvert. This at times reflects Walton’s observation that autoethnographic writing can be edgy and “in your face”. Ruth’s two poems formed part of an MA dissertation, wherein she reflected on her experience of formation and priesthood. The language is playful yet disturbing, challenging more sanitised, domesticated images of sacrament and priesthood while powerfully revealing both in the messy and broken realities of humanity and womanhood. Excerpts from Luke Larner’s poem “Drowning in the Barth?” similarly challenge some of our understandings of formation and illustrate the pioneering gift of not fitting in and the impulse to push boundaries and reject easy answers.
A number of the articles explore the issue of social class and the sense of dislocation, of being out of place. Typically, for the Church of England, they reflect middle-class experience in working-class contexts. In capturing a moment near her home in Falmouth, Amanda Evans takes the more anonymous statistics of poverty and social exclusion in that town and illustrates those realities in an encounter with a mother on the beach. As is a feature of autoethnography, the simple narrative captures a moment that illustrates the complexities of power, identity, belonging and the challenge to express authentic discipleship in the midst of social division.
Similar themes are explored by Sally Taylor, where the complexities of moving into a row of former miners’ cottages in Somerset provides the narrative around which issues of class, power, reconciliation and belonging are explored.
A very different sense of dislocation is narrated by Maria Casiero in an evocative piece entitled “Mortadella Sandwich”. Here a childhood experience of the sights, sounds, smells and taste experienced on a train journey to Italy become symbols of a deeper journey and of a reconfiguring of her own sense of identity. Within that journey she reflects on the symbolic power of the meal within the Christian tradition, and its capacity to unite people across cultures.
Walton notes the rise in interest in performed autoethnography, the transforming of sacred places, where worship and ritual can be disclosive and prophetic. With great candour Natalie Burfitt examines the obverse of that, reflecting how the performance of liturgy can become an exercise in concealment, and where sacred places, by their very architecture, exclude and marginalise.
In the final piece, by Sophia Popham, it is the ambiguous title of “Church Lady” that provides a unifying thread to her narrative as she reflects on her efforts to assist Jan, a woman caught up in a web of homelessness and brutal poverty. Heather Walton notes Norman Denzin’s description of autoethnography as using the words and stories people tell to imagine new worlds. In this piece hope begins with the imagination of a different future – the possibility of sharing a cup of tea on your own sofa. Yet it concludes with a deeper imagination of Church Lady and the church she represents.
In Writing Methods in Theological Reflection Heather Walton explores the use of autoethnography in theological reflection, seeing it as a way of conveying the complexity and ambiguity of our religious selves.1
The poems and challenging narratives in this issue illustrate something of that ambiguity, but hopefully also challenge us to more faithfully reflect on the stories that make up our lives and the lives of those around us.
 Heather Walton Writing Methods in Theological Reflection (London: SCM Press, 2014), 8.