Nowhere to run to?

15 07 2009

418898_hiding_-_2Is there any place that’s just for ‘us’? That’s the issue I’m grappling with just now.

I’ve been asking the little congregation I’m with to effectively give up our Sunday gathering. Not to stop coming. I’m asking if we can do something else with the time together. I’m asking them to give it over to mission. Some are really up for it. Others are struggling to let go of something that has sustained them spiritually and that they have worked hard to sustain through some difficult times. I understand that.

But I think this is a push worth making for the sake of mission.

But maybe it was a step too far to ask those who were there at our Tuesday night gathering if they would be willing to give up those Tuesdays as we do them now in order to be part of something new in the week too. I had thought they’d be up for it. They really weren’t. And actually, though I was a little taken aback and disappointed then, I can empathise. Because this isn’t about hanging on to a worship style that suits. It’s been about building relationships and conversation that can really be safe space.

A number of us are, in one way or another, refugees from more conservative churches. A common thread that emerges in conversation is how often people didn’t feel able to be truly themselves. We have felt under pressure to say or do the expected thing. Where we have said what we really think, we have been made to feel, by well-meaning people, that it is not acceptable to either hold or express a particular viewpoint. We have managed to create in our Tuesday night gathering a place where people can be themselves; where they can be real and genuine without being slapped down with a quote from the Bible. That’s not to say there’s no Bible in our gathering. There is. It’s a partner in our dialogue. We find it embraces, encourages, challenges and frustrates us in equal measure. We don’t spend our time necessarily looking at a particular text, asking setup questions and then finding the answer where we’ve been told to look. Instead, we can draw on those parts of the Bible that have seeped deep into our souls and shaped us, as well as confronting and grappling with those parts that we find it harder to reconcile with our experience of life or our knowledge of the world. Our conversation is honest, compassionate and enlightening. We all grow and are fed through it. We’ve got something precious — space to be ourselves and to grow in faith and discipleship in a grown up and honest way.

The issue with conservatism is not conservative theology per se, but how some of us have experienced it. There would be plenty of space for a conservative viewpoint in our conversation as long as that viewpoint was expressed in a compassionate way that valued the relationships in the group above the ‘right’ view prevailing.

There’s not really a fear of engaging with people who wouldn’t consider themselves to be ‘christian’. In the experience of most of the members of the group, conversations about faith are often more real in this setting than in the churches we’ve known. The fear that was expressed was because my invitation was to be part of something else with some other christians we don’t yet know so well. People understandably were reluctant to risk a return to unreality or disapproval. And, given the relaxed, conversational feel of our gathering, they were reluctant to have to do something that felt very much more structured or formal or to have to do heavy Bible study as they’d experienced it in the past. There is also a feeling that if the intimacy of our small group is lost, we would find it hard to have the same quality or depth of conversation as we currently enjoy.

So I think all that is good. It’s encouraging to me that people value so much where we’ve got to as a group. What I find harder to reconcile is the potential exclusivity that might foster. We invite new people on our terms.

But actually is that so bad?
What are our terms?

  • Be real.
  • Don’t judge others.
  • Be compassionate in conversation.

These are not things, having achieved them to quite a degree, that we should recklessly give up. At the moment, this is a gathering that includes some people who don’t call themselves ‘christian’ or who are less certain about what that might mean for them. This offers a safe place for them to explore without any pressure. There is a growing sense of commitment, one to another. The challenge is how we can continue to reach out and be inclusive, perhaps to some who would find the views expressed at times difficult.

It has been helpful to me to consider the gospel for this coming Sunday as I’ve prepared to share my reflections on it on Sunday morning. In that episode, the apostles Jesus has sent out on mission come back excited but tired and hungry. Jesus invites them to come away with him – to find some space just to be with him. It doesn’t quite go to plan: they don’t even find the space to satisfy their hunger. But these twelve hungry men are the ones who serve bread and fish to the enormous crowd that gathers. And at the end, there are twelve baskets full of scraps left over. This suggests three things to me.

  1. Jesus does invite those who have responded most fully to his call to spend time alone with him. But…
  2. That time is snatched along the way – they get a bit of time in the boat with him before they’re right back in it. And…
  3. Their needs are met when they are stuck into mission; when they’re feeding the crowd, they get fed.

What does all that mean for us – this little group of pilgrims on the way? It suggests to me that I’m right to ask this bunch to give up Sunday for the sake of mission. And it suggests that they were right to refuse to give up Tuesday so that they preserve their special, intimate time away from the crowd: a place to share our stories and be with the one who calls and sends us.




6 responses

16 07 2009
mervyn cowdrey

I find these views fascinating and challenging and exciting and……
Question: Where do those who are not ready to leave their comfort zone go? How do they deal with your disappointment in them?

16 07 2009

Really good questions Mervyn. There’s part of me that wants to turn your first question around. Is it my job to sustain and preserve a particular comfort zone?

Of course I have been sent into a situation that was previously, for all practical purposes, though not officially or theologically, other people’s space. So it could be seen as a sort of ecclesially violent act to demand change. I don’t think I’m demanding change though. Instead I think I’m giving voice to an inescapable need for change. In terms of what shape my ministry might take, I made it clear before arriving that I am an innovator and that I will be mission focused. In parishes where there is a viable congregation but a need for greater missional engagement, there is a proper place for a meticulous and long-term change management process, but we’re way beyond that, in fact. I think it’s change or die. It might even be better to see it as already dead, so it’s about what needs to be its new form if it is to experience resurrection. Not resuscitation (bringing what was before back to life) but resurrection (a new form of life for a new realm of living).

So my hard nosed answer to your first question is: somewhere else. If people are looking for the same old same old, they’ll get it done much better at one of the churches around us or wherever they might live (as so few of our current congregation actually live in Somers Town).

But I’m not by nature a hard-nosed person. I’d much rather continue to invite people to come with me. So the answer is more like: if you want the thing that looks like the thing you’re comfortable with that’s fine. Please go ahead and do it. But it’s not my job to give it to you. This is where I’m going, who wants to come with me?

Actually that still sounds fairly hard nosed doesn’t it! There’s a balance to strike here between the community finding its way together and its priest offering some prophetic leadership. Ministry means servanthood but that’s not the same as saying it’s the priest’s job to provide the religious product that the congregation wants. And I wouldn’t insist actually that people who came on a Tuesday for fellowship or the sort of open exploration we enjoy there would have to get stuck in with the more obviously missional stuff we’re likely to be doing on a Sunday. So there’s still a refuge there, even if much of the conversation is likely to be informed by the experiences some of us are having on a Sunday. So I think there is room for fellow travellers or even passengers but not necessarily all the space that absolutely everyone might want.

How do they deal with my disappointment in them? Hmm. Well I hope that our relationships are real and robust enough that people could come back to me if any disappointment I might express hurts them. And I am trying to give everyone as much opportunity as possible to express their view.

I am beginning to articulate a clear vision for our future. I can do nothing less. But I have done all I can to create the sort of environment where people can disagree. Strongly even. They did so on Tuesday night. On that occasion I think they were probably right. Offering prophetic leadership doesn’t mean you’re always right. Quite the opposite. It’s taking the risk of being wrong. I was probably most disappointed with myself that I hadn’t thought it all through or seen all the implications of what I was asking. Welcome to the human race, as my spiritual director so often says!

17 07 2009

Tricky issues you’re wrestling with here Mark………….If ‘religion’ is truly the heart of this discussion why does your disappointment figure so strongly?


17 07 2009

Thanks Jan.

If I understand your question, then I think it isn’t about ‘religion’ as a product that I (as a representative of the church) am responsible for providing for an ever decreasing constituency. It’s about real, honest, searching faith that inspires us to get connected, make a difference in the world and have the world make a difference to us. That faith isn’t about religious certainty but taking seriously the spiritual stream in which we swim and trying to make sense of it as it flows through the reality of life, with others – some of whom swim in different streams and others of whom might be wondering about what it might be like to get wet and still others who think swimming is a foolish activity!

It’s possible to make too much of the disappointment. It really was fleeting. But I will be really disappointed if we choose not to get involved with this locality. I think Christian faith is empty if it doesn’t inspire engagement with the world. Christian means literally ‘little Christ’. Jesus, the one Christians claim to follow, spent little time, as far as we can tell from the gospels, worrying about ‘religion’ as I’ve described it above, but a whole bunch of time down with ordinary people, especially the poor and marginalised. I would be disappointed with myself above all because it would mean that I had failed to enthuse and inspire this little Jesus collective with what I think being like Jesus might all be about. Religion as a set of privatised activities that make us feel better about ourselves or even superior is exactly what made Jesus cross with the religious leaders of his own time.

I know I’ve put that all in very christian terms but I think you will understand what I mean. It’s the same thing you’re about in lots of ways, I think, though your inspiration comes from a different source. It’s actually at root about being a decent human being: trying to live in the world as a contributor not just as a passenger. I put it in christian terms because that’s precisely what I think Jesus is all about.

Have I understood what your comment was getting at?

17 07 2009

With the greatest respect Mark, I think “comfort zone” is a little patronizing. These are christians, who spend their week in a secular world, trying to follow Christ’s example. Unlike yourself, their colleagues are unlikely to be christians. The other members of their family, may not share the same beliefs. If they draw strength from Sunday worship or Tuesday’s fellowship, is it so surprising that they are feel hurt when this is threatened ? You mentioned being supported by a “Spiritual Advisor” and also a close colleague with whom you work. How would it feel, if this support was no long available?

This probably sounds like a rebuke. It isn’t intended that way. I was just making the point, that we all need some form of support and encouragement to sustain us. Perhaps we take this for granted sometimes, but it helps to make us who we are.

17 07 2009

Touché Adam!

I think you’d be surprised how much time I spend in the secular world. I deliberately try to cultivate that. I think the secular world is so much more interesting than the churchy one. I certainly don’t live in a churchy bubble. My experience of Sunday christianity is that it can sometimes be a bit of a bubble. A bit of a retreat from the real world.

The point you’re trying to make I think is that if I operate in a supportive christian environment how can I deny that to others. My response would be to invite you to come and spend a week with me and see if that’s really what it’s like. I meet with my spiritual director once a term at most, I meet daily with my colleague for prayer but it’s in no way a back-slapping exercise. It’s supportive in that we spur one another on to greater missional endeavour. It’s a ‘discomfort zone’ but one I value highly.

We absolutely all need some form of support to sustain us. But in my experience the most stimulating environment for growth, support and learning to live in the resources God can provide is at the cutting edge of mission. I don’t find churchy church a particularly comfortable place to be but neither is engagement in mission comfortable. It is, however, exciting, stimulating and a place where we can deepen and broaden our discipleship and spirituality.

I was wrong to try and take away Tuesdays from our little community. We’ve achieved something really profound there. But there is something about Anglican missiology and ecclesiology that means that we cannot allow our coming together to just be about sustaining and supporting each if us individually in our own personal mission field. We must connect with our locality. ‘Our’ as in our corporate locality not just the sum of our individual localities.

The story of Acts pictures ekklesia as a corporate missionary enterprise, not a ‘bless me’ club. The Spirit’s coming pushes disciples out of the upper room, out of Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. I take that seriously not by telling them they ought to get out there from the safety of Jerusalem but, I hope, by inviting them to join me at the frontier.

Thank you for continuing to offer robust yet supportive dialogue…

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