The Red Queen, Tribal Dance and Nit Picking

‘Well, in our country,’ said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.’

‘A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place…’

(From Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll).

I remember a wise priest remarking to me a few years ago that the work of the parish clergy seemed to be rather like travelling in the land of the Red Queen in Looking Glass. One had to run hard, and fast, to stand still, and it can be exhausting. At times I sympathise with this view!

I was talking recently with a colleague who told me of an American anthropologist’s remark that in certain tribes which have their own specific tribal dances, research shows that as the tribe diminishes the dance gets faster and more frenetic. Partly, I suspect, because the tribe is trying to keep the same dance movements and actions, but with fewer people.

And a third story. Many years ago at a Diocesan Synod in Durham Diocese which I was attending Bishop David Jenkins, reflecting on the state of the Church of England, told us of how when a band of Gorillas is experiencing an outside threat they huddle closer and begin picking fleas off one another – they start nit picking.


Why do I tell these three stories? Quite simply because I want to share them! I find them helpful as I reflect on church life today – both in the parish and beyond. I’m sure many of the insights they suggest would apply to other institutions too.

What do I learn from the stories? Different things, at different times. Today they suggest to me it’s wise not to be too frenetic, to be selective about initiatives, and to look outwards from tight church circles and not huddle in.

What do they say to you?

Fr Ian

About stchrysostoms

St Chrysostom’s is an Anglican (Church of England) parish church in Manchester, UK. We’re an inclusive, diverse and welcoming faith community rejoicing in our Anglo Catholic tradition, where people of many differing backgrounds make friends. Find our Facebook group at
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2 Responses to The Red Queen, Tribal Dance and Nit Picking

  1. Sandra Palmer says:

    We think of nit picking as being pernickity, and a negative attribute, Gorilla nit picking is a form of mutual care, grooming. Perhaps both meanings are relevant when groups get smaller.

  2. A good point, Sandra. And yes, both meanings probably relevant – as groups get smaller, and feel outside pressure they become very inward focussed.

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