Higher and hire

26 03 2009

One of the ongoing conversations I’ve been having finally reached a conclusion at the beginning of this week. Some weeks back I asked a council housing officer about running some sort of workshop in one of the high rise blocks in the northern part of Somerstown.

I had asked about using the community room on the ground floor in this block for some activities in Holy Week and the week preceding.

As it turned out my contact was not able to come back to me in time to make this timing work. But he has now responded. I can use the room but I will need to pay to hire it. He has also refused me permission to hang about in the entrance area.

At first I was very disappointed at this outcome. I had anticipated that the social benefit of my presence and the sessions I was planning to run would be obvious and so my offer would be welcomed. It wasn’t unwelcome. But I think it was viewed as just another potential hire of the community room. And even then, there was a question over whether it was an appropriate use.

And now I think about it I wonder why I ever thought it would be otherwise. I am finding, to my surprise, that I — for all my protestations to the contrary — am still in the grip of Christendom thinking. I think I was still operating under an unconscious misapprehension that as a local priest, I could just walk into any social space.

But society has retreated from the Church just as much as the Church has retreated from society. If there was ever a presumption of open access for the clergy of the established church it has now gone.

And why shouldn’t we have to pay to hire someone else’s space — we charge everyone else to use our church buildings no matter what the community benefit might be. That could hardly be said to be in the spirit of generosity I think the early church modelled.

And why should I have thought it appropriate that I should be able to hang around in someone else’s home?

Having got my head round all that, I am once again excited about the opportunity that has opened up. This particular tower block has been in my mind a testbed for the possibility of St Luke’s becoming a ‘seeding’ congregation — a church community that moves into a space for a while in order to found a new congregation in that place. That possibility remains open but I will need to persuade the congregation to put its money where my mouth is…

Retreat! Retreat!

23 03 2009

I spent last week travelling to, being at and returning from an organized retreat for pioneer ministers at Lee Abbey in North Devon. It was a time for deep spiritual reflection. It was hard work. There was no raucous singing round a beach fire and definitely no late night card playing or whisky drinking. Honest.

There were 24 of us involved in all kinds of projects. I was particularly in awe of Paul and Jo who are running a pub in Coventry. You’ve got to admire anyone prepared to live in Coventry. Only joking J+P. Coventry’s lovely!

Quite a few of us were in ‘mixed economy’ appointments — part pioneer, part parish. Others were struggling to pioneer new forms in conventional appointments. There was a good deal of experience of frustration and misunderstanding being shared. I’m thankful that I have experienced such strong support this far in the Diocese of Portsmouth. I just have to cope with the pressure of expectation!

Soul space
The retreat programme included ‘soul space’ groups. We met in small groups with a facilitator. Each person who wanted to, shared something of what was going on for them each day of the retreat. The others in the group just listened in silence without comment. We kept silence after each speaker. We maintained a sort of double confidentiality. Anything shared in the group was kept private and we agreed not to approach each other to speak about anything that had been said. There were a few skeptical murmurings, but my experience of the group I was in was positive. I thought this was powerful and helpful. I think it could work in an adapted form with children as well as adults. You’d need two adults present for accountability and need to be careful about the degree of confidentiality that was guaranteed. You’d have to make it clear that you’d pass on anything that the school, for instance, needed to know. Children might find it more difficult to maintain the ‘no further discussion’ rule.

Prophet of boom!
Former President of the Methodist Conference, Tom Stuckey led a Bible reflection each day from Acts. He interpreted the current state of the world and the Church in prophetic terms. We’re in an in-between time, he said. We’re on the cusp of a Pentecostal explosion of Sprit. He didn’t mean Pentecostal in terms of Pentecostalism or charismatic renewal. He was speaking more about an explosion of missionary enterprise and the growth of the church in new forms (fresh expressions).

I’d love to go with his interpretation. It was certainly an exciting vision. I recognize absolutely his portrayal of where we are now as being in a liminal space. It definitely feels like we’re in uncharted territory. And it’s not comfortable even for those of us who spin ourselves as adventurous.

Sound the retreat
But ‘retreat’, ironically, feels like quite a good analogy for where the Church is at present to me.

There is a strong drive to retreat into forms of church and worship that make us feel safe or as I keep finding myself saying at the moment — like we’re on the winning side.

Church people always look at me askance when I say that. I’m sure they’re thinking (because sometimes they say so) ‘of course we’re on the winning side’. That’s the eschatological promise that Julian of Norwich spoke of when she said ‘all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well’. It would be difficult to carry on if I didn’t have hope that in the end justice, peace, joy and love will overcome (underwhelm?) the forces arrayed against them.

But that is not the same thing as the triumphalism that characterizes some churches — the sort of churches that others want to retreat into. And to be honest, at times, I feel like retreating into. When I’m involved in a tiny, struggling church and we’re surrounded by mega church on every side, it can feel like you’ve got it wrong. Those closest to me aren’t wholly persuaded by my analysis that big church isn’t the way forward.

And when there’s pressure from within the congregation to try and emulate that soft rock style of gathered worship, perhaps with the idea that we too will become mega church somehow — it can be discouraging. Because in giving in to that pressure a bit we’re ending up with something that satisfies no-one and affirms our death rather than our life.

I think the future of the Church is as tiny, struggling congregations. But not struggling because we’re trying to recover past glories or copy someone else’s admittedly impressive present ones. Mega church is, I think, the last gasp of Christendom. It marshalls impressive resources and fosters a particular form of committed discipleship, but it fails, I believe to incarnate the gospel in the plethora of cultures around us. It expresses the gospel in a sub-culture that’s often more sub than culture. And in the end it doesn’t always provide the depth of spirituality people need to bear life’s complexities in faith. That’s my experience anyway.

I think if we take seriously the call to mission as a way of life and not just something we do ‘out there’ then it will shape our whole life — including what sustains us spiritually, individually and corporately. If we can’t find God in the forms of our immediate culture how on earth do we imagine we’ll help others to?

Personal mission statement

10 03 2009

I’ve just got back from a weekend away with some members of the St Luke’s congregation. We had a mixed programme of sharing meals, simple acts of prayer and some sessions beginning to map the personal trajectories that have brought us together and the shared direction we might find for the future. Some of the material I prepared worked well, one or two bits didn’t work quite so well. That’s to be expected. But the most important outcome was that I think we had fun, got to know each other better and drew closer together as a result.

One of the sessions that my colleague, the Revd Alex Hughes (Priest-in-Charge of St Luke’s) ran was about preparing a personal mission statement. You can find the material here. Now generally speaking I’m not in favour of mission statements. Particularly for a parish church. I think it’s much better to work from a set of values and be open to all kinds of possibilities, not close them down. But on this occasion, as a personal exercise, it was a really inspiring. It helped me to clarify what I’m about.

Here’s what I ended up with:

My mission is to promote human flourishing by playfully and creatively encouraging the search for meaning, connectedness and community.

It’s a snapshot, or distillation, of where the conversations I’ve been having about working in other people’s space have taken me.

But what does it mean?

I hope ‘human flourishing’ might speak for itself. I believe in the unique and irreplaceable value and potential of every human being, no matter what limitations they face. To flourish we must each find a good degree of satisfaction at each level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This would include his late addition of the realm of ‘self-transcendence’ (what I would want to call spirituality). I think there’s a lot to be said for those critics of Maslow who find his hierarchy spurious whilst accepting the range of needs he described. In fact I often find myself saying to people that spirituality isn’t an add-on or something for the leisured and monied classes alone. It goes to the heart of our humanity. In other words, it’s not the thing you attend to once all the other ‘lower level’ needs have been met.

Our current economic and global situation suggests the reverse. Material abundance for many in the West has not led to human flourishing. Our spiritual poverty in comparison to much of the Global South is now evident. We must be careful of romanticising the Global South, of course. Its people suffer more than their fair share of violence and injustice.

A robust spiritiality can be seen to enable people to bear privations in some other areas of need. That doesn’t mean that it should anaesthetise people to their own suffering or that of others. (Marx called religion the opiate of the masses.) Quite the opposite. Spiritual flourishing will help people give voice to their suffering and to protest injustice and so inspire people to strive for peace, justice and well-being for all.

That’s implicit in that idea of ‘connectedness’. It us takes beyond seeing ourselves as an isolated individual, at odds with the world. It’s a recognition that our existence and worth is connected to other people, to the environment we share with other creatures and to ‘transcendent reality’. That’s what the theist calls God but something I think an atheist might recognise in their experience of awe and wonder in the face of the universe. An agnostic too will also recognise the experience of moments of connecting with something bigger than ourselves without wanting to be explicit about where the experience comes from.

‘Meaning’ is about finding a sense of personal and communal identity, worth and purpose. It’s about how we find and derive our values. I was talking today to someone responsible for the housing, care and education of socially excluded young people. I was suggesting to her that ‘spirituality’ is not peripheral for the young people she’s working with but that finding a sense of identity, purpose and worth is absolutely fundamental to their finding a place in the world as much as any practical skills they might need.

‘Community’ is perhaps already implicit in the other two words, especially ‘connectedness’. But it helps me to focus on the most important context in which that sense of connectedness can be realised. I don’t just mean community in terms of people in our locality but in the sense that we all need to find ourselves in a close-knit group. We are relational creatures. We need community. ‘Connectedness’ returns here as an important value if that close-knit group is not to become claustrophobic and tribal.

Those are all things that I believe are inherent in our common humanity but there are other drives and structures in the world that conspire to crush the human spirit.

It is therefore not irrelevant for there to be people who work to awaken and encourage each person’s latent spirituality. That’s what my faith motivates me to do and that’s very much my personal sense of vocation. I’m increasingly convinced that this search requires a significant degree of cognitive openness and imagination. That I see most evident in children and in the creative arts. Adults have then, so much to learn from the open, exploratory, learning and playful way that children approach the world. I want to work with children both to enable them to flourish as human beings in their own right but also because I have so much to learn from them for myself and on behalf of others.

So what. Why should you be interested in my personal mission statement?

I am a big old show off but even I feel a little embarrassed about parading my values in this public space. But this is about recording the process of discernment and that must surely include any developments in my personal sense of vocation. In fact I think it would be hard to separate the two. Writing my statement had been for me a moment of crystalisation of what I think I’m all about and so what I think my work might end up being all about.

Some Christian colleagues and friends reading this might find it a bit vague and woolly. It says nothing about wanting to preach the gospel or grow the Christian church. Partly that’s a result of finding myself increasingly drawn to arenas where proselytisation is expressly off the agenda. I don’t think the Church should withdraw from engaging in those public spaces — that’s what pioneer ministry is about (as is chaplaincy often too).

But have I completely given up on any desire that people would hear Jesus’s call to follow him and so become part of the community of his followers? No. But that doesn’t mean I have a covert agenda. It’s following Jesus that motivates me to work for human flourishing and spiritual awakening. I will not be hiding the fact that I’m a Christian priest. The resources I have to draw upon are the riches of the Christian spiritual tradition. And I can’t imagine (though this makes me think that I haven’t actually asked) that people responsible for the places I’m asking to work in would object to me honestly responding to questions about my own spirituality or even helping genuine enquirers to discover more.

I do think it can be a good thing to find Christian faith. I don’t think it automatically makes you a better human being. History tells a different story. But maybe that’s because Christianity hasn’t always been very true to Jesus, as the Church’s many casualties throughout the ages and today can testify…

Emerging opportunities

4 03 2009

I think I’ve probably been thinking of the placements I’ve been trying to arrange as the first stage in the process of exploring possibilities for pioneer ministry in the city. But the conversations I’ve been having about setting things up have themselves been a rich source of material on which to reflect and broadly very encouraging too. It may be that it is not possible to set everything up as a short-term placement as I had hoped, but the process of dialogue with secular agencies has been hugely helpful in terms of actually clarifying not just how I describe my mission but its shape and content too.

Here’s an extract from a message I sent recently on the subject of setting up a placement in a housing unit:

I would envisage running some form of spirituality workshop on each weekday morning. This would be for adults and perhaps pre-school children in the first week and then adults and pre-school and school-age children in the second (as this would be in the school holidays). The sessions would be open to people of all faiths and none. I would be seeking to encourage and enable people of all ages on their own spiritual journey, however that is expressed, through imaginative engagement with play, art and craft activities and storytelling, as well as, possibly, some simple ritual and more reflective activities.

These sessions may well draw on stories from the Christian tradition, but I would be seeking to draw out from those stories how people find meaning and a sense of  ‘connectedness’ in their lives. I hope that we might conclude with the making of an an indoor Easter Garden on the morning of Good Friday with perhaps an Easter egg hunt in the play area (weather permitting). I would hope to finish each session with some light refreshments. I would then like to spend the next 2-3 hours meeting people as they come and go and continuing the conversation. I could just hang around or we could advertise my availability for conversation as a sort of  ‘surgery’ – perhaps in the community room or maybe in an office or empty flat if one was available. I’m happy to be guided by you on that.

I am obviously a Christian minister and I have a concern to see the Church more fully engaged with the community. But that does not mean that I am only interested in people with some sort of Christian affiliation. I am convinced that everyone has a spirituality and that it is an important facet of our common humanity. By that I mean that it’s not just an add-on for people who have the leisure time and resources to explore it. As one of the community’s clergy, I am keen to help people in this area where there are some distinct social challenges, to nevertheless be encouraged to explore some of these deeper questions of life. Spirituality is about the whole of our lives and includes how we can improve communities as well as inspiring individuals.

As City Centre Pioneer Minister I have a special commission to explore new ways for the church to engage the community and to foster new forms of church. Over the first half of this year, I am hoping to spend time in some different settings to see what possibilities might emerge for these new forms of engagement. So this placement would be something of an experiment. But even if this location did not end up being the primary focus for my city centre work, my colleague and I are keen to build long-term relationships with the people of the community and others working on their behalf. Clearly any activities we are able to put on in the housing centres will help with this process.

Another discussion just this afternoon was also hugely encouraging in terms of the positive response to the offer Alex and I made of input. There was some understandable nervousness about offering access to vulnerable people. The next stage in this conversation will be talking with a parents’ forum. This is great. It would be very easy to operate in a very paternalistic way and just tell people what they need. But this organisation appears committed to really consulting with its users. This slows things down, sure, and I’m always keen to get on with things. But this sort of empowerment is something that the Christian gospel must surely commit us to. This organisation is secular, of course, but I wholeheartedly applaud their inclusive approach in dealing with our approach.

Given my background (in fine art and new media), commitments (inclusive spirituality and the centrality of a childlike approach for all generations) and the opportunities that are arising, I would be very surprised if a substantial part of my work going forward wasn’t in this area of creatively engaging and enabling the spirituality of children and encouraging adults to re-awaken their imaginative delight in the world through playfulness and creativity. That has always been a massive struggle in *trad* church settings as people (read adults) have quite set ways of being ‘spiritual’. But perhaps there will be a greater openness in other settings. So far it seems so. I think I’m in the right place.

A doorkeeper in the house of the Lord

4 03 2009

Interesting time last night as our home group gathered to meet in the Fleet. One of our number had no ID and the door staff wouldn’t let him in. So after some unsuccessful attempts at persuasion, we decided to move on. That’s the second time, by the way, that I’ve offered to vouch for someone. Both times, unsurprisingly, the offer has been shrugged off. I have to laugh at myself – as if wearing a dog collar carries any sort of status. It was a bit pompous of me to imagine it might! Actually I’m a bit embarrassed that I even entertained the thought. Certainly I think it’s a marker for who I am and what I represent, but if I ever get to imagine that any privilege attaches to it, then I’m something else than a follower of Christ!

We ended up in a pub called the Trafalgar. We played the FAST game. Which was kind of funny, because, as one of our number commented, it looked a little bit like a Ouija board. In fact I’m sure someone going past commented to that effect. It worked well as a way of engaging with a story and drawing out significance for ourselves in a light-hearted way. A friend of one of our more regular members who joined us for the night joined in and really enjoyed taking part. It helped him to think about a serious issue in his life too.

So after a wobbly start (which included me having to abandon half a pint of Guinness – never a good thing), it was good night for the group. But it didn’t take us a lot further as far as our/my involvement with the Fleet.

Preparations for the church community’s weekend away have meant it’s been difficult to get out much more than this, though I did have a good chat over coffee with another church leader in the city. He’s well connected in the council. I was talking about running a two-week pilot before the summer break of a temporary chill-out space in the Guildhall Square. He was encouraging and thought it could be a flyer. I need to do some work now on putting a more concrete proposal together. I also emailed a housing officer about spending some time in one of the Somerstown tower blocks. I’m meeting with the SureStart people today to explore possibilities there.

The placements are coming together and I have maybe taken a step closer to finding a supervisor for my MA dissertation.

That’s all just a bit of a report on what’s been happening – which I know some of you are interested in, but I don’t have much deeper reflection to offer this morning. Too many late nights watching stuff on YouTube have mashed my brain.

Dust and ashes

4 03 2009

I had an interesting exchange with Michael Volland down in Gloucester about the future of the church and its ministry/mission. You can read it here.