End of a (very brief) era

28 06 2009

This Sunday morning was the last of the four in June that the St Luke’s congregation have spent in the community room at the bottom of Wilmcote House — one of the high rise housing blocks at the centre of the northern strip of Somers Town (an area of concentrated social housing in the centre of Portsmouth). It has been an amazing and exhausting experience.

The headline for me is that in the third week a new family joined us. And they came back again this week. And mum is saying that they’re going to keep on coming when we return to the church building. They found us friendly, relaxed, informal and unintimidating. But the thing that clinched it for them was the trouble my wife took to recognise the step they’d taken in coming along and to explain everything that was happening as the morning progressed. How do I know that? Because that’s what mum told me.

So is that job done? Not really. I know from the feedback sheets I’ve been giving out each week that for some members of the existing congregation, this has been a worthwhile adventure in *outreach* but a real test in terms of a satisfying worship experience.

I recognise that. There are practical problems with the room we’ve been using. It’s a visually and aurally noisy environment. It’s hard to ‘be still and know that I am God’. It’s hard too to engage in the sort of deep reflection on the Bible that some people quite reasonably expect to be part of their experience when they participate in Christian corporate worship. That reflects the wider concern that some people are expressing when I ask them to give their regular gathered worship time over to mission: ‘how are we to be fed?’

Partly my response is that as adults — both literally and metaphorically (by which I mean having a degree if maturity in our faith) we are ultimately responsible for feeding ourselves. We should be dependent on God, the source of our life, and interdependent on each other but not dependent on a ‘parent/priest’ to spiritually spoon feed us. Our own spiritual life through the week should be nourishing us. I have to set that against the authority that is conferred upon a Christian priest in the context of the Church to teach. But, much as with teaching in schools, though there is knowledge to be imparted, the ultimate aim is to equip people to be active, self-motivated learners in the world.

But maybe a bigger problem is that I am confusing mission and worship. Maybe in a new way I am falling into that old trap of just trying to get people ‘in church’. So often that has been the be all and end all of mission. We imagine that if we can get people to come, some strange magic will work upon them and they’ll just suddenly get what we’ve got.

If all we’re doing is attractional church in a different building, then we might as well give up and ‘run home to momma’. But I don’t think it is quite that. I’ve been trying — and succeeding and failing in equal measure — to change the shape and content of what we do so that it is less about asking people to come and join our party and more about a sort of party that is new for all of us.

It’s most important that we build relationships, have fun and begin to share stories, personal and communal. So we could just run fun activities in this place — do ‘outreach’ in effect — probably mostly among and with children to begin with (there have been loads of them hovering around and peering through the windows). And then save *worship* for the explicitly Christian community at another time.

My problem with that is that we’re still trying to get people to another place — our place. We’re laying on things for people where they’re at. So in one sense we have gone to them where they are. But we have made no inner journey towards them. We are only befriending them in order to get them ultimately to be like us. ‘We will come to you and give you fun. But God is for us. If you want some of that you’ll have to become like us.’ And people don’t yet — may never — know that ‘God’ is what they’re searching for. But they might be looking for *G-d*; that ineffable mystery at the heart of being that is bigger than the god named by any particular faith tradition. We have some pretty substantive truth-claims about the shape of that mystery. But we haven’t got it all worked out. Dare we risk the adventure of saying: ‘We’ll come and be with you and find *G-d* together in ways that will belong to us all and in a place that will become home for us all and that will continue to be open to transformation as each new person comes to share the adventure.’ Spirituality is for all or it’s for no-one. Just having fun is something that I would absolutely want to hold up as a spiritually enriching experience. But there should be something about what we do in Wilmcote House (it’s my hope that we’ll soon return) that provokes deeper reflection in the light of the Christian story for ALL.

That’s much more challenging and risky but much more exciting to me. It poses some questions to an Anglican priest and an Anglican community of faith that lives with some given criteria for what constitutes worship and authentic church. That can be both helpful and restrictive. But the deeper challenge is to us all to give up our desire to get what we want from church, especially as that has been conditioned by churchiness, and to open ourselves to newness.



8 responses

1 07 2009

So pleased to hear about a new family coming along!

1 07 2009
Richard Passmore

good thoughts stick with them, really like the stuff about adult rsponsibility, on the mission worship confussion my approach is to see mission as an expression of true worship the giving of ourselves to others and God, aligning our lives with the missio dei, and to paraphrase and add a bit to bosch theology and church has no other reason to exist that to accompany the missio dei.

2 07 2009

Tricky stuff here Mark, you ‘soul search’ well as always! I think you are right in that the journey to be like ‘you’….the collective, is not necessarily the journey that leads to what each individual is seeking spiritually. Deep stuff for four O’clock in the morning.


6 07 2009

Some interesting thoughts Mark. For me, the questions I would would like answered are, why did the “family” come to church ? Why do your existing parishioners come to church ?

What are they looking for ? What are they hoping to find ?

Not everyone is looking for fun. Not everyone is looking for a “party”. People come for different reasons.

For some folk, it will be a life changing event that spurs them into looking for God. For others it could be loneliness, frustration, anger. a need for answers. Fun may be the last thing on their minds

6 07 2009

Thanks Adam, perceptive as always, but I think you are offering a very ‘adultocentric’ perspective there, if I may say so. Which is fine if one is operating in a mainly adult environment. But we’re not going to be if we focus on Wilmcote House. And so enJOYment will be key – the fostering of joy in all ages.

The language of coming to church is also something I want to challenge. I’m more interested in the church coming together. People will bring all sorts of experience and needs into that gathering, including all the things you mention but I don’t think you can address every need at every gathering. There will be other opportunities to go deep in different ways. (I put it that way because I don’t think fun excludes depth.) And for too long in the church the needs of children have been sublimated by the needs of adults. Children are often physically put out of the way so that adults can do what we call ‘worship’. But I think it impoverishes us spiritually if we separate ourselves from those whom Jesus held up as what a person in the kingdom of God might look like. Joy is so often already present in children, even children living the bleakest of lives. So even if fun is not what is on people’s minds, that might be what they need. Even or perhaps especially, the vicarious joy of seeing children delighting in what they’re doing.

And joy is definitely something that is lacking in this community. Light and life and joy and hope. That’s what we can bring. Not glossing over the depth of darkness and stagnation and sorrow and despair. We will need to find ways to give voice to grief. But I don’t think parties is a bad place to start. Jesus, man of sorrows, was always at parties…

7 07 2009

Actually Mark, I wasn’t intending to be a “kill joy”. I was merely pointing out, that people come through the doors of a church for a variety of reasons. Often it is because their lives are spiralling out of control.

It take guts to open that door and walk in. Why would they do that ? Is the church sensitive enough to discern that ?

As a child, I remember a small boy coming to church. He was very quiet, always puntual and reliable. Always stayed behind to help clear up. I later found out that it was the only place he felt safe at the weekend. His stepfather was sexually abusing him.

As you say fun is so important. Golden moments are made of joy. But presumably, God has more to offer than this ?

7 07 2009

Adam. Thank you for sticking with this conversation. I think you are right to persist with this point. I think we will just need to be sensitive. And we will need to make sure that what people find when they enter the doors is not a service that asks everyone to be in the same emotional and spiritual space at the same time but something that is ‘zoned’ so that people can find quiet and reflective space as well as noisy and active space. That will be difficult to achieve in this space but not impossible. And they may find it if we are prepared to offer excellent pastoral care. That will require having people who are not directly involved in whatever the main activity is, but who are free to sit with those who need to talk or hold the hand of those who just want to light a candle.

8 07 2009

Thanks Mark

It is good to know the church is flexible enough to be both joyous and sensitive.

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