Bigger on the inside

30 04 2009

Today [Wednesday 29th April] was my second day in the primary school in the heart of Portsmouth. It was in some ways a marked contrast to yesterday. There wasn’t quite the same range from the pupils, but there was still a range of experience for me.

One thing I didn’t say about yesterday, was that I wasn’t invited to lead a session on spirituality for the staff as my programme suggested might be helpful on my first day. This was a deliberate decision on the head’s part who felt it would be more appropriate for me to offer this on another occasion. Now that I’ve been in the school a couple of days, I think it was the right decision. To have tried to do that immediately would have been to set myself up as an expert in an area in which there may be specialists (am I one?) but there are certainly no experts. I think I would have handled it sensitively and with humility, but I think it might still have appeared a little arrogant for me to try to tell these people how to support children’s inner selves. 

I have so much more to learn from this experience than I have to give. That’s what I anticipated. That’s what I’m finding. And it’s constantly surprising. Yesterday, after seeing what a constant effort it was for experienced and talented teachers to keep the children’s attention, I had begun to think, particularly in the morning, that the sessions I was going to be leading were going to be a disaster. Maybe I hadn’t thought enough about those moments I reported in the afternoon that were more quiet and reflective. But I had thought: ‘How on earth are these children going to cope when I ask them to sit very still and effectively meditate for several minutes?’

The answer turned out to be: brilliantly. They responded absolutely beautifully. There was a bit of sniggering at the beginning, but the whole class, every last one of the children that were there today, engaged with the activity with attentiveness, openness and positivity. I think they genuinely enjoyed it too. <– that right there, that’s the most important outcome.

The sharing time was profound. When I asked them how they felt, they used words like, ‘calm’, ‘peace’ and ‘harmony’. I told them that what they shared there was just for the group, so I’m being careful to ensure that what I’m reporting here is a general impression rather than individually attributable comments. That does show up though the difficulty of capturing and celebrating the value of this time together whilst at the same time protecting the ‘specialness’ of these moments for the children. It’s their experience, not mine and I need to tread carefully. I am on sacred ground.

In that sharing time as each of them received the ‘sharing stone’, I gave the children the option to respond with silence. A few took this option but what was interesting was that towards the end of that sharing time, all of them bar one asked for the stone back so that they could share after all. I didn’t offer the adults (teacher, LSA and myself) a turn. There was no good reason for that and afterwards I discovered that the others would have valued the opportunity. I thanked all the children for their contributions. It would have made more sense to do this as another contribution to the sharing circle.

One magic moment, just for the sheer sense of humour on display, came when I asked the children to shape a partner into a human sculpture representing what they loved to do best. One boy, who is dealing with some emotional difficulties in his life and as a result absconds from the classroom, put his partner’s hand on the door handle and put the other arm in the air to make a waving hand. His favourite thing to do, it seemed, was to leave the classroom.

That time when I gave some of my prepared input to the class was actually a small part of the day, even if a significant time for me. But there were other things that happened. Again, I was privileged to be able to offer a little bit of help to some of the children who are more challenged academically. I wasn’t specifically invited to by the class teacher but neither have I been asked to desist! And it’s not because he hasn’t noticed. This man is alive to everything that’s going on in his classroom. I hope that so far I have been able to strike the right balance between supporting children’s learning and leaving space for them to work independently. Basically I’m very conscious of the need to avoid doing their work for them, as is so often the temptation with my own sons’ homework.

I wish I hadn’t had my nose buried in my iPhone as I completed yesterday’s blog entry at lunchtime. It would have been a great moment to get to know some members of staff a bit better. They seem a lot of fun actually. Senses of humour are very much intact and absolutely vital to survive emotionally in this environment.

A PE lesson this afternoon (the session before the one I was leading) was intriguing too. The children responded well to the chap who’d come from outside the school to lead a touch/tag rugby lesson. It offered some of the children who struggle a bit more in the classroom a chance to shine in a different way. I really enjoyed just playing a bit of catch with one child who is frequently disruptive in a low level way and seeing him respond with apparent enjoyment at getting a bit of positive attention. I’m not saying he doesn’t get that in the classroom. His teacher and other staff work hard to remark on all the children’s successes, however small. But it’s fair to say that some of them find themselves more often than others ‘on the wrong side of the law’.

I got an insight into why that is for some of the children in this class and in the wider school through being invited to attend a Learning and Pastoral Support (LAPS) meeting.

I have sat in on meetings before where, though I’ve been invited by a senior person, I’ve been painfully aware that my presence is at best a curiosity and at times unwelcome. I have to say that there was no such feeling this evening. The deputy headteacher went out of her way to welcome and include me at the beginning and thereafter every member of the meeting treated me like a trusted colleague; going out their way again to explain things to me and include me. I was humbled by the experience.

I was also heartbroken. I don’t think that was because of naivety. But maybe. I’m not saying I’ve seen it all or I’ve got nothing to learn. Far from it. It did become emotionally tough to hear the extreme circumstances that some of these children have to endure. Abusive doesn’t even cover it for some of them. And I don’t think the amazing staff in this school have become inured to the desperate nature of these children’s experience. They have simply had to develop strategies to cope.

One of them is to mark and celebrate the achievements and progress they’ve been involved in, so despite the relentless tragedy, it was a positive meeting. And that‘s not because of any sense of unreality. There are real ways in which this school is making life a little better, a little more tolerable for these children. There are setbacks, frustrations and disappointments to be sure and daily affronts that no-one should have to put up with. But they do all the same, with good humour and deep compassion for the vulnerable and, at times, deeply unpleasant, people in their charge.

There were stories that deeply challenged my Christian commitment to forgiveness. It’s not my place to offer my forgiveness to some of the adults who are hurting children so badly, but even to begin to reflect God’s forgiveness would have an edge of obscenity about it.

None of those small steps register for the system that measures everything in terms of academic attainment. It will be interesting to see what comes out of a ‘mock’ Oftsed inspection at this school in the next couple of days and later to compare that to the early days of one of the city’s secondary schools’ new management as it attempts to overturn low attaintment. I have recently heard people talking about schools in tough areas being resigned to failure. On the evidence of what I’ve seen so far, I am less persuaded by that argument than I may have been. I am also beginning to suspect that any turnarounds in attainment in these sorts of school might be at the expense of inclusion; something this school is working very hard at, perhaps to the detriment of their reputation (we’ll see) but absolutely for the benefit of those very children who present the most extreme challenges.

[This post has been cleared with the school’s headteacher.]

If music be the food of love

29 04 2009

It has been my contention recently that the last thing that most people outside our churchy world want to do is ‘sing to Jesus’. It was actually put to me recently that way by someone who has been on the fringes of my former church but doesn’t feel able to be a more regular attender because singing is just not what he wants to do. I don’t think he’s alone. I don’t think he’s alone amongst people who actually do go to church. And I certainly don’t think he’s alone as far as the vast majority of the population who don’t often darken the door of a church are concerned.

Now it’s a complicated picture. There are clearly plenty of people who like nothing better than to belt out a good song on a Sunday. Witness the trouble a local colleague is having because his morning service has recently struggled musically. And the big conferences like ‘New Wine’ are packed with people who want to sing contemporary worship songs. Children do like to sing it seems. The local SureStart (entirely secular) runs a ‘come and sing’ event for preschoolers and their parents at some of its centres. And there’s certainly a constituency that do like to sing the old carols at Christmas. (Woe betide the vicar who substitutes a new song for Silent Night!) And whenever I got to Fratton Park, there’s no shortage of singing. Not all of it edifying, but all very enthusiastic!

But, I still think, when it comes down to it, that the people in the area St Luke’s church serves, on the whole, would not want to come and sing anything that we currently sing as a church. I’ve got no scientific basis for saying that. Call it a hunch.

I do have a bit of a thing at the moment about the style of music. If the church is going to ape contemporary music, why does it go for American soft rock? Why not house? Gangsta rap? Jazz? Nu-metal? Of course that style (soft rock not Gangsta rap) is more prevalent in more evangelical churches. There are plenty of churches singing hymns every Sunday. But I don’t think people are flocking to that either…

But that doesn’t mean music isn’t important to people. Most people love music. They love to listen to music. There are songs that make us cry. Music touches us deeply. It sings to our spirit.

So last night, I kicked off a bit of an experiment. In a tiny way.

It was the night that our little home group meets. I shared three tracks with that group that sing to my spirit. Three tracks that actually give me a ‘spiritual moment’ when I listen to them. Whether I listen to them on iTunes at home or on my iPod while I’m (occasionally) running, these are songs that make me feel in touch with God. In case you’re interested, they are:

  1. Faithless: God is a DJ
  2. Lamb: Wonder
  3. Massive Attack: What your soul sings

Now there are many more tracks that do something similar for me on different occasions, but those are the three that consistently blow me away. I experience a visceral sense of encounter with the divine. I experience a moment of immanent transcendence – to use theological language. And they connect with me because they say something about what I think is at the heart of being a Christian. The first speaks about real community: ‘this is my church/this is where I heal my hurts’. The second speaks about open pondering at the wonder and majesty of the world: ‘don’t know if God exists/but there’s some magic out there’. The third speaks about becoming our true selves, releasing who we really are: ‘Don’t be ashamed no/To open your heart and pray/Say what your soul sings to you’.

So I shared these tracks with the other members of the home group last night. I don’t know how they all found the experience, it’s a bit raw to open your heart up like that and then hear that someone else thinks your most significant music is awful. But when I asked who might be willing to share their three tracks, two people volunteered straight away. One was a good friend of ours we’ve known for years and who I know loves music. She is, to be fair, a lover too of contemporary worship music. She plays her guitar regularly at St Luke’s. The other was one of only two people we see regularly who actually are really residents of the area. And she is the one who is the least immersed in the culture of the church, the one I think who would be least likely to call herself a Christian. I don’t know about that last one. It’s not a value judgement on my part. Except maybe it is on this occasion, but in her favour. I wonder whether she is the one person who most represents the constituency I think we’re hoping to reach out to. And she was the one who’s imagination was most immediately gripped by sharing her music as an act that might be something spiritually significant. 

Food for thought as well as love, I think.

All of life is here

29 04 2009

What an exciting first day [Tuesday 28th April] I’ve just had in the heart of Portsmouth school where I’m spending the next couple of weeks. Today was a sort of ‘getting to know you’ day so I wasn’t giving a lot of input. We had  a brief Q&A session for half the class at the beginning of the day.  The questions ranged from ‘what’s your favourite colour?’ to ‘what  made you want to be a priest?’ I think I answered the first much less clumsily than I answered the second. The first gave me an opportunity to speak as an artist about my love of colour. The second I tried to answer in a more accessible way than ‘God called to do it’ but I’m not sure I succeeded.

I was also asked at various points in the day: ‘Are you a bishop?’ ‘Do you believe in Jesus?’ and ‘What’s that funny thing round your neck?’

From the moment I joined the class I’ll be working with, I was confronted by the breadth of the emotional and academic spectrum this school is dealing with each and every day.

On first impressions it appeared to me that this is a class where holding attention is an ever-present struggle. That’s probably true of  any class in any school but there was a relentlessness here that must require huge amounts of emotional labour from the staff. Despite that, this was, on the whole, a class I found to be full of bright and sparky  children. They are a real bunch of characters, hugely likable and engaging. I warmed to them instantly.

It was good to be able to help some of the children with their work and see the ability and potential they have. Some of them seem to me  to have confidence and self-esteem issues but when they can be  persuaded to apply themselves there is an underlying desire to learn.

One boy has complex emotional issues which manifest themselves as challenging behaviours. He simmered away in the morning and required some intervention from the behavioural/pastoral team. In the afternoon he really kicked off and we had to leave the  classroom for the safety of the other children and, given the size of  this lad, the adults too! I don’t mind saying that I was not sorry to be out of the way. I did feel awkward about hanging back myself  particularly when he laid into another boy but there were plenty of  appropriate adults that knew what to do. 

It raised the question for me about the nature of my presence and involvement. Clearly I am a visitor and not a temporary member of staff. I have intervened on a small scale verbally in the classroom in response to localised disruptive behaviour. But when what I’ve said has been ignored I have not removed items from children as I have felt it inappropriate to intervene physically. So I’m working out what the boundaries are.

I was privileged to observe some excellent teaching, behavioural management and pastoral care from the class teacher and a covering colleague. In terms of the more ‘spiritual” curriculum (to which I am here to contribute), I saw some excellent work in the afternoon. It was actually part of the social and emotional learning programme. The  lesson was about ‘loss’. The class explored what loss means and shared from their own experience. It was a privilege to be present as the children opened up and for one or two there were clearly some very raw issues that were being touched on. This seemed to me to be very much   
along the lines of the spirituality I’ve been describing. So it’s clearly already happening in this school and, from what I’ve seen, at a profound level.

So what’s the point of my presence? What’s my ‘offer’? In one sense: nothing. I am not plugging a gap or offering something by being here that is not already offered. That’s actually quite releasing. All I can offer in that case is just me: my unique presence and personality. And in offering some spirituality input I’m supporting success rather than responding to need. This is precisely the approach suggested by the Rapid Parish Development scheme that the St Luke’s congregation are engaged in. Its philosophy invites us to find life, light and joy and celebrate and support it.

[This post has been cleared with the school’s headteacher]

Pioneer congregation?

27 04 2009

I increasingly find myself describing the parish aspect of my role as part of my role as city centre pioneer minister.

Actually that’s exactly what I was saying at the beginning when I was first exploring this appointment. I would not have been interested in a role that was a half time straightforward parish job with another half time job as pioneer tacked on. For the sake of releasing the funds to pay my stipend, housing, pension, etc that’s how it’s legally structured, but I always saw it as a pioneer role that included leading a struggling parish congregation into new forms of mission and ministry. And that’s what I said to those who appointed me. The advertisement for St Luke’s said that the parish needed a fresh expression of church. So that understanding was there in the parish too.

However, it has been difficult to escape from familiar parish patterns and just the admin that goes with a parish church — especially one without even the minimum of parish officers. That’s all despite having an excellent colleague who holds the legal responsibility for the parish and who deals with as much of the crap as he possibly can. (All of which is incidentally holding him back from exercising the ministry of presence that we both think is vital in this area.)

So for a time, it did seem like I was being pulled in two contradictory directions. But more recently it has seemed to me that I could talk about two aspects of one role rather than two roles with more authenticity. The congregation of St Luke’s has seen some growth from the lowest point during the most recent interregnum. Some of that has come through people arriving of their own accord. Some of it has come through dechurched friends of ours wanting to be part our new work. What’s most exciting is that in all of those subsets: the old guard, the newbies and the groupies, there is a desire to engage in real mission in this area (Somerstown in Portsmouth).

People aren’t here for their weekly church fix. In a way it would be illogical if they were because whether they wanted trad Anglican or soft rock contemporary worship they could get better quality gear at almost any of the other churches nearby. I suppose that knowing I was a bit of an alt.worship ‘specialist’ (I really am biggin’ myself up beyond credibility right there), they might have come for that, but I genuinely don’t think that’s it. All the committed people (admittedly not a numerically large group but the overwhelming proportion of the Sunday congregation) want to bless this community and seem prepared to go to them rather than expecting them to come to us and do what we do. That has been expressed in a willingness to break out of familiar and comfortable ways of worshipping God and to genuinely, if not always painlessly, engage with new forms.

And this weekend, at the APCM (AGM for those of you unfamiliar with Church of England speak), we expressed a desire to begin a conversation that may well lead us in some quite radical directions as far as how we are structured. Part of that is a recognition that our current situation is unsustainable and there is inevitably sadness in that, particularly for those who have worked so hard to keep a presence here. But overwhelmingly I think there was a realistic enthusiasm for engaging with the people of our locality.

The enthusiasm is what I have been hoping for. The realism is something that I needed to hear. The people of this area have been repeatedly failed by agencies who have wanted to tell them what is best for them. The last thing they need is another bunch of middle class do gooders coming and interfering in their lives. Of course, there would be no Church at all if people hadn’t been willing to cross cultural and social thresholds from the very beginning of the Church’s life. But the serious point I took on board more than I had before was that we need to work out what our ‘offer’ is. We cannot imagine that we can come here as twenty (or fewer!) enthusiastic but already busy people and plug the gap of needs. The needs in this area are a massive black hole that will consume more energy and enthusiasm than a hundred little pioneer congregations could muster. But if we can bring something positive that generates light and life and hope, that seeks out those things where they are already to be found in this community and celebrates them with people, maybe we can make a difference and grow something new.

Parties. That’s what we need to bring. Jesus was always attending, throwing and generating parties. Celebration. Joy. That’s what I think today, anyway. We’ll see what happens because, thank God, I don’t have to have all the answers. But now that I reflect on it, I realise that I am truly blessed and privileged to be called to lead and enable this bunch of emerging pioneers and to share God’s future with them and those among whom we will find and celebrate the vitality of God’s all-pervading Spirit. We can determine and discover that future together. I just hope I can be the priest that these people need to help them on their way. That is my prayer. Amen.

School placement

27 04 2009

Tomorrow (28th April) I begin the first of two immersive placements in schools in the city centre. I’ll be in the school between Tuesday and Friday over the course of the next two weeks between 9:30 am and 2:30 pm.

In this school I’ll be working with a year 5 class (pupils aged nine and ten). Tomorrow is an introductory day where I’ll be meeting members of the school community and particularly the class I’ll be working with. I have offered to do a Q&A session with the class and an introduction to spirituality for the staff. I don’t know yet whether the school will take up these offers.

The Headteacher of the school is aware that I wish to reflect on my experience of these days on this blog and is supportive. A good deal of it will be anonymised to protect the pupils and the community as a whole.

I am excited about this time I’ll be spending with this school. The head is a lively and thoughtful conversation partner and the teacher I’ll be working alongside is a grounded and passionate person who is committed to the children on his care. It’s going to be a lot of fun!

Hanging out

27 04 2009

Last night was the second week of hanging out in the Fleet on a Sunday evening. Last week, I met with one friend. I later heard that two others had looked for me, but hadn’t been in the right pub. I invited people to come via Facebook, email and face to face invitations. This week there were eleven people who joined me for beer and conversation. It was an interesting group. There was another anglican priest from Gosport; a baptist church planter from Leigh Park and his sister; a Friday Fridger who mainly attends one of the new churches in Southsea; a chap I’ve been having some informal conversations with about life and faith and a group from the St Jude’s evening service. (St Jude’s is where I served as curate between 2005 and 2008.)

The conversation was wide-ranging, relaxed and informal. I had wondered about suggesting a topic for conversation, but I thought this week, I’d just see what happened. The conversation was largely about mission, but it also took in questions about the range of styles of church (my colleague from Gosport is Anglo-Catholic). I can’t determine who will come and be part of the conversation (I wouldn’t want to) or where this might be headed, but I do have a sense that if there is to be a mission with the pub culture in the city centre, there needs to be a group of people who are making sense of faith in that setting. I don’t just want to draw in Christians I know, but to connect with some of the people already in the pub, but this might be a way to make a start – to begin a conversation that others could be drawn into.

So really I am just trying to hang out here, week after week, invite people to share in conversation and see what happens. Maybe nothing. Maybe something new will emerge. And maybe that something new might be the heart of some more adventurous mission in the city centre. Only time will tell.

Please do join me on a Sunday night if you’d like to share the journey with me. I think this Sunday, I’ll see what happens if I invite people to share in a conversation around ‘heaven and hell’. Why? Why not…

Hairy ape worship

23 04 2009

That guru of all things alt.worship, Jonny Baker recently posted a link on his blog to this. I followed it and thought: what a fantastic idea!

Those crazy folks up at ‘Dream’ – an emerging church in Liverpool – mounted a brief guerrilla worship event. They got something a flash mob together, like those things you might have seen on YouTube when a crowd suddenly appears at a public place like a railway station, does something crazy (like freezing still for two minutes) and then disperses. Well this lot, at the signal, took off their shoes and socks (a sign that this was holy ground) and then gathered in the shape of a cross to pray silently. Then they let off a single balloon.

It rings all my bells. It’s in public space, it has a performance art vibe, it just gets people thinking and it’s viral. A buzz gets around via email, text, facebook, twitter, MySpace and the works, and people join in. Wouldn’t it be cool to do something like this in Pompey? I think so.

That’s why I’m going to send out a viral invitation for people to join me on the evening of Pentecost in the Guildhall Square. Anyone for guerrilla worship? Not the hairy ape type, obviously, but the urban subversive type. Be there or be… well, somewhere else.