Several weeks back, I was approached by the Diocesan Environmental Adviser to see if St Luke’s parish church could be used as a venue for one of a series of prayer vigils that were going to take place across the Diocese. These were timed to coincide with the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, meeting in Copenhagen. Andrew (for that is his name) was looking for a venue for a centre of Portsmouth vigil. I asked him whether he was aiming at just Anglican christians in the city or whether he wanted this to be something that could take in people across the spectrum of faiths or no faith. I suggested a gathering in the public space of the Guildhall Square in Portsmouth would offer a greater opportunity to connect with more people.
It was a steep learning curve for me in what you need to do to get an event approved by the city council’s events team. They were helpful and friendly at every turn, even if, after multiple requests for the same document, I was left wondering on occasion about their internal communication. Insurance requirements and available time also left us with a rather strange placement for the event.
In the end, after a week off sick, I ended up putting the event together in a very frantic day – the day of the vigil: Monday 14th December. The content of the event was as I had hoped it would be, though. In that regard, it was successful.
I created three stations. The first of which was a large map of the world which I chalked out on the pavement with some help from some of the first arrivals. Participants were invited to light a tealight in a glass jar and place it on the map. The guidance notes then invited them to pray this prayer (in its shorter form), written by Brian McClaren and Tim Costello. At one point, a member of the Cathedral chapter (at the request of some others) led some of those attending in this prayer.
The next station, invited people to take a ‘bauble’ – essentially a view of the earth from space, printed on card and trimmed to a circle – write a prayer or reflection on it and hang it on a ‘prayer tree’. The guide invited people to quietly say the words of the 104th psalm, either by themselves or with someone else. Some of the prayers I retrieved from this tree at the end included the following:
Dear Lord, we are making a mess of your world – please come and sort us out before we ruin your Creation. Thank you.
The first gift of Christmas was a child. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son to save the world. Help us to save the world for our children.
Only one earth.
Let there be life on earth – and forever not spoilt by me.
Lord, yours is the world, and all that is in it.
Lord, let selfishness be overcome; may justice prevail, that the rich nations will help the poor so the world can be saved.
Father – give courage to our leaders and embolden them to take the right decisions.
The third and final station had materials for people to make a windmill and add it to our ‘windfarm’. The guide leaflet I had created invited people to use a kyrie confession from New Patterns for Worship:
We confess to you our lack of care for the world you have given us.
Lord, have mercy.
We confess to you our selfishness in not sharing the earth’s bounty fairly. Christ, have mercy.
We confess to you our failure to protect resources for others. Lord, have mercy.
Finally we offered those attending a cup of soup. There were three varieties, no less. Just as an aside, getting enough flasks to keep enough soup hot for enough people was quite a challenge!
It’s tempting to measure the success or otherwise of this in terms of numbers. We had about forty people on the night. On one level, it didn’t achieve what I had hoped it might. We didn’t create an event in which a big mix of people from within and without the church participated. I didn’t know everyone so I’m making assumptions about some, but I’m guessing that most of the people who came were from Anglican churches. We catered for 100 people. That is, we had enough individual items at each station, enough guide leaflets and enough soup for that many. So the turnout was on the face of it disappointing. I think that’s more down to how we marketed the event than any problem with the event itself. I think with a bit more media work we could have generated more interest and attendance.
And as it was, there were some really worthwhile encounters along the way that might have been difficult to make count in the same way with a bigger event. There was the small group of teenagers who made windmills right at the beginning and seemed fascinated to discover what was going on. There was the gentleman who wanted to light a candle to remember his wife whom he’d lost recently. There was the young mum who chatted for 45 minutes with my wife and a friend over a cup of soup. And there were the city wardens who enjoyed a cup of soup and a friendly chat for some time too.
And there was also the value of the event for those who did come. From the things they said, I think that value was real. It made a difference to those participating. It helped them to feel that they were making a difference. Not a huge one. We didn’t change the world. We just stood in solidarity with those who are the most affected by climate change, who are, as ever, the poor.
There were some strange inconsistencies about the event. There was the not insignificant amount of driving around that my wife and I did that day as we rushed from pillar to post to get everything ready. There was the waste of soup and the gas burned to heat it as we overcatered. Using polystyrene cups to serve the soup was not exactly environmentally friendly. There was even something a bit incongruous about burning something (candles) as part of an event that was expressing concern about CO2 production. And there was the use of paper (that now needs to be recycled) to make the windmills.
But overall, I think this was a another step along the way of creating a presence in the centre of the city and that presence expressing the full range of the marks of mission. I learnt a lot doing it and will (hopefully) be better prepared for the next event and more able to maximise its impact for individuals and the life of the city as a whole.
In the midst of all that, I don’t want to lose sight of the difference it made to the people we encountered on that cold Monday night. I was shattered, but I slept a satisfied sleep. Not because I’d got everything right – far from it – but because I had the sense that it had made the right difference to the right people on this occasion, whatever I’d do differently next time.