28 January 2020
By Clive Marsh
Thankfully I haven’t (so far) lost any lanyards this year. I have, though, forgotten them a few times. I use four: three belonging to my employers – the University of Leicester, Queen’s Foundation in Birmingham and Wesley House Cambridge – and one for Methodist Church House. I forget them because remembering my rail-tickets is usually the top priority. I’m not yet the kind of rail-traveller that entrusts the task of being a ticket to my smartphone (what if the phone dies while I’m on the train, and I’ve forgotten my charger?). So I’m still a ‘I need a hard copy ticket’ traveller, even if I’ve printed it off myself.
Lanyards, though, are lower down the list (after ‘change of clothes’ and ‘wash bag’). But it is a bit of a faff when you forget them. It’s not the lanyards as such, of course, but the magic pieces of plastic contained in the see-through packet that the lanyards carry that matter most. They get you into places! Beth, at Wesley House, for example, ‘updates’ it every time I go there, and it not only opens all the doors I need to get through to do teaching, or go to meetings. It gets me into whichever room I’m in if I happen to be staying overnight. That’s seriously good technology.
Lanyards, then, mean all sorts of things: status, access, identity, power, privilege, wealth. They’re a bit scary. But they are very useful, even if they do also ‘big you up’ at times, and make you feel a bit taller and prouder than you might want to be. With a lanyard you feel like a ‘somebody’. Not having one means you can feel like a lesser person, an excluded person, an outsider.
I’m not sure lanyard was a word I used very much in my youth. The term seems mostly to have been used in military contexts first, and had specific meanings in a naval setting. Even though one of my grandfathers was a merchant seaman, I don’t recall the word ever cropping up round the Saturday tea table. But now, of course, every conference you attend and every large-scale event you’re at, you’ve got to have a lanyard! So as well as the four I need to do the four roles I have at the moment, the Vice-Presidential Cupboard is full of those that I either forgot to give back at the end of conferences, even though I was asked to (sorry!), or those that I was I was never asked to return. Some have nice colourful straps.
The stuff about status, access, identity, power, privilege and wealth is, though, important. Whether lanyards symbolise temporary access and importance – to get into a building for a conference – or more permanent access, they contribute to one’s sense of worth and well-being. They cause us to ask, too, what the ‘invisible lanyards’ are that are at work all the time when we relate to people, especially those who are different from us. We must not beat about the bush here, or pretend this doesn’t go in in church life. It does – all the time – simply by virtue of the fact that we’re human. It can work in many different ways, of course.
A well-dressed, well-groomed person might look reliable. That’s like having a lanyard on in a well-to-do suburban church, as if all are lanyard-wearers. In a less well-heeled church it could mean the person is distanced from the majority of regular congregation-members. The way we all respond to ethnic difference can be like wearing invisible lanyards too. Unlike the social and economic differences between people, ethnic difference can be much more apparent – as can also the responses that we make, and the way we relate to each other.
One of the things that has been striking me a lot this year is the relatively recent emphasis, and public awareness of, hidden, or invisible, disabilities. I think it was in a library where I saw a helpful sign urging anyone with a hidden disability to ask to use a sunflower lanyard (if they wanted to) to signal that they might need some assistance in their use of the library, and to enable other people around them simply to be aware. This is a positive approach to the important recognition of difference, and of different needs, in a public place. It is now a scheme which public buildings and companies can all sign up to and make use of.
Lanyards invite us, then, to think deeply about how we relate to each other, what assessments and judgments we are making of each other all the time, and what signals we give about who we are. By way of positive response we could, of course, remind each other that every single human person on the planet is carrying the lanyard labelled ‘Child of God’! That’s all they need. True though that is, we also have to do some work to reflect on the other lanyards – actual and invisible – which come into play as we relate to each other. Perhaps New Year is a time to clear out the cupboard of the old lanyards and ask: which ones do we need and not need? Which ones are the most important for us? Which ones that others carry are the ones we take most seriously? Where should our responses to the hidden lanyards which others are wearing be challenged?
This article first appeared in the Methodist Recorder on 3 Jan 2020.