Well almost immediately after posting that last entry in the pub (via my iPhone), I was invited over by someone it turned out I had met before. (I was a welcome guest!) W had been on an Alpha course at St Jude’s (where I was curate). She was meeting her dad for lunch. It turned out that we had met before too, though completely independently of my knowing his daughter. We had a good chat about what I’m doing and what was going on for them. It was a gentle lead back into conversation for me. And it sort of helped me with a question I had in my mind as I walked to the pub.
When I had been doing some research in preparation for the Friday Fridge, I had gone into one or two of the pubs in Southsea wearing a dog collar. Then too I had invited myself into other people’s conversations. But I had also experienced being approached by others. Normally the conversation began with someone asking: ‘Are you a real vicar?’ (To which the technically correct answer would have been no, I was assistant curate. But what people meant was, ‘Are you a real church bod?’, not, ‘Are you really the incumbent of a Church of England parish, enjoying the right of Freehold to the Living of the Parish?!’) Now that was at a different time of day and in a different place. Lunchtime drinking is generally a more gentle and restrained affair than in the nighttime. People are probably more reserved during the day than when they are a little more ‘refreshed’ in the evening. But I wondered whether hanging around might lead to people asking me who I am and what the hell I think I’m doing! Well not quite, but it did remind me that building relationships with people is what it’s all about. I must state again that there’s no instrumentality in that. I’m not building relationships so that… Building relationships is what it’s all about.
After speaking with the people I found that I knew (a bit), I approached three people sitting together – G, C and L (one man and two women). We had a very interesting conversation. We shared some common experience as they were mature, part-time students and I have twice now been a mature, part-time student. (Actually now I come to think about it, I’m doing that a third time with my MA.) But we quickly got on to talking about my role and into a conversation about belief and how we shape our lives. Two of them had had negative experiences of church. G had recently left a new church, where he had for a time been a youth worker, because he found that church to be too judgemental. And C had devout family members, including a mother who had at one time been in a religious order. L was currently attending a church with her children.
I reflected on my experience that conversations about the deep questions of life are often of a better quality outside church settings because people don’t have the sense that they knew what answers they are supposed to give. Often, my experience of church is that there is a lack of honesty. People feel constrained to say the right thing, rather than what they really think. This was a reflection that was expressed at a clergy and church worker gathering I attended in October last year.
G expressed skepticism that I didn’t have an agenda. My agenda he suspected was to convert people and get them into my church. I understand why he felt that way. In fact, as he said, he had had that agenda when he had been a church youth worker in the past. I told them that I honestly don’t have that agenda.
I wonder if that worries some of you who are from a church and are reading this. I’ve thought about it since yesterday and I think I can honestly stand by that statement, as far as it relates to my role as city centre pioneer minister: I don’t have an agenda to convert people and get them into my church. Even in relation to my role as associate priest of St Luke’s, I’m much more interested in getting the church out among the people than in getting the people into the church – especially if church means the building. I would like to see the Christian community grow but not through presenting people with a bald choice and pressurising them to jump one way.
As I’ve said before on this blog, I want people to hear the invitation of Jesus to follow him. But I’m really not interested in trying to tell them what to think. I can’t convert anyone. If God is real (sorry if that ‘if’ offends – but that’s not a closed case for everyone reading this) – if God is real – then it’s up to God to reveal God’s self to people. I think I’m invited to be part of that process of revelation but not through beating people over the head with what I think! It’s much more about what sort of person my faith makes me. Who I am is more important than what I say. If my words badger and berate, then people don’t encounter the loving invitation of God through me. If my words, my manner and my whole being express a depth of respect, love and dignity, then maybe they will begin to wonder at what it is that makes me that way. (That’s a big if for a flawed human being!) But I am released and relaxed by the thought that it’s not my job to make anyone believe in God. It’s up to each person to make their own mind up. And as I’ve said, I don’t think belief is nearly as important as how we choose to shape our lives. I want to live my life as if God is real (mostly I fail) and quite a lot of the time I have a strong sense that God is. I think it can be a positive and transformative thing for an individual to live as if God is real; for themselves and more importantly, for the rest of the world.
I say ‘can’ because it rather depends on what you think God is like. Basically I’m with Adrian Plass: ‘God’s nice and he likes me’. (Though I would have preferred it if Adrian hadn’t used a gendered pronoun!) I don‘t think convincing people by force of argument leads them into a living relationship with God. I’m fairly convinced that if I try to force or push a response it does nothing other than turn people off.
When I asked those people whether this couldn’t be church (‘this’ being the conversation we were having in the pub) C asked if people wouldn’t need to believe in God for that to be so. I said I didn’t think so.
It wasn’t a question that Jesus ever seemed to worry about. That’s of course because almost everyone he spoke with, did believe in God. But he didn’t seem that hung up on doctrine. He had the odd theological run in with people, like with the Sadducees when he challenged their denial of the possibility of a general resurrection, but mostly he was concerned about people’s faithfulness being expressed in mercy, love and inclusion. Following him didn’t mean saying a creed. It meant laying down your life for your friends.
So I think it would be entirely possible for an emerging community in the pub that was exploring the questions of meaning together to be *church* without all of that community’s members being able to say that they believed in God. In fact for one member of that conversational group, the church she attends does feel like a safe place to be as someon uncertain of God’s reality. I didn’t get the impression that there was open conversation in that setting, but at least she didn’t feel pressured to become something she’s not.
If that all sounds vague and woolly, well probably you’re right. But again, if God is real, God can bring something out of that conversation. And I do bring something to the table. It’s not being the one with all the answers. As I said to G,C and L, I don’t think I’ve got what they need, any more than they’ve got what I need. I think it’s the space between us and within our conversation that’s really interesting. That’s the thing that offers an opportunity for us all to grow. What I bring comes back to something I said in response to a comment on a previous post: a willingness to open up a space for dialogue that is not bound by the niceties of being in church. I also think I bring a deep engagement with the story of Jesus as the church tells and experiences it. Through living that story, I have found a depth of personal encounter with *God* experienced as ‘immanent transcendence’: the Something-Bigger-Than-Ourselves-or-This-World encountered in real, everyday life – through wonder, joy, suffering, beauty, hope and human relationships and community.
That conversation yesterday was a very inspiring and exciting encounter. The parting comment from the little group I spoke with was, ‘We’re here most Thursdays.’ It suggested that they were not averse to continuing the conversation. It raised for me the possibility that yes, this pub or another like it, could be a place where *church* could begin to happen. Not as we know it Jim, but still in a fragile and emerging way, church. Let us boldly go…