How do I meet SABRINA?

19 11 2009

How do I meet SABRINA? That’s the question that’s occupying my mind at the moment.

Not the Teenage Witch – well not especially. No, actually it’s SABRINAs (plural) of either gender. By which I mean Spiritually Active But Religious-Institution-Non-Affiliated. Another way of putting it is SBNRSpiritual But Not Religious.

I hope that’s a self-explanatory term. I’m looking to hook up with people who are interested in spirituality or actively engaging their spirit, but who – as some of my publicity for my Sunday night pub conversations says – don’t do church.


Well first off, let me state clearly and categorically, not to convert them. It’s not my business to convert anyone. That’s not because I don’t think ‘conversion’ can happen in the conversational space I’m trying to create. But if, as I believe, the mystery we call ‘God’ is going to be active in that space then conversion is something that can and will happen for all and any of us. To put it more simply, I’m not trying to meet people and open up a conversation in order to persuade people to become christians. I’m not trying to gather an audience to hear me preach. This isn’t backdoor Alpha. There’s no programme or agenda that includes a vision of moving people from one place to another along a particular route. I just want to open up a conversation and see what happens.

So that’s why not. It still leaves the question of why?

My answer is to do with the mission of the Church but also something more personal. As you’re reading this, you might discover that what I’ve said so far seems more designed to answer the question for people who don’t have explicit christian faith than for those who do. I’m trying to reassure SABRINAs that I’m not out to get them. I’m genuinely interested in their experience and to create a space for genuine conversation.

That’s because as I’ve said before, what I’ve often encountered in churches is that people can be infantilised by learning a language that shapes and to a degree controls their world view. It’s very difficult to articulate in that space real doubt or struggle or, perhaps more subtly, to celebrate real moments of grace. I think we often miss them because we’re conditioned to look for them in very specific, structured ways that doesn’t help us to recognise the Spirit blowing where she pleases. Speaking personally, I find conversation with people who haven’t been conditioned in that way more stimulating, challenging and real. So one aspect of why is, to be honest, for me. It’s part of the attraction of working outside the bounds of what normally constitutes church.

But I am being paid by the Church. This isn’t just about me having the sort of conversations I enjoy and want to stimulate. So if it isn’t about getting bums on pews, what does it do for the Church’s mission? Well, it is possible of course that some bums might find their way onto pews through this. I’m not setting out to make that happen, but that doesn’t mean it can’t. I would celebrate if someone who was regularly part of the conversation found faith where they wouldn’t have said they had it before. I would celebrate too if there emerged from this a little community of people who were wanting to take a Jesus-shaped life more seriously. But again, I don’t think it’s even possible for me to make that happen, so I’m certainly not seeing it as my job. That allows me to relax and let God do whatever God does in the midst of that. I hope it allows others to relax too and not worry that they’ll come under any sort of pressure to adopt any particular belief system.

So do I bring anything to the table other than creating a space for this sort of conversation? I think so. Because the church isn’t all bad news as far as spirituality is concerned. That’s the great shame of our (somewhat deserved) bad press. The christian tradition does have a wealth of resources to offer those pursuing a spiritual life – particularly one earthed in real, everyday experience. What I can do, therefore, is to put those resources, indeed christian faith itself back on the agenda in the broader conversation about spirituality. At least for those who join me. There’s also a gentle challenge that I can offer to people to think about the value of being in the stream of a broad tradition, rather than simply being a free-floating individual. There’s something about the ‘bigger-than-usness’ of faith that means there’s value in negotiating faith in the midst of a community that includes not just those immediately present but those who have gone before too. (In the language of the Church: the Communion of Saints.)

So far, the group, being mostly people I know already, is numerically dominated, by people who would call themselves ‘christian’. (As I’ve said before, that’s a descriptor that is not always helpful.) I say numerically, because I don’t think that so far, those people are dominating. They have got it when it comes to the attitude to different viewpoints that I’m attempting to cultivate. And I value them all being there. But if I’m just gathering interesting/ed christians together, then it does kind of defeat the object.

So I’m going, somehow, to try and make contact with SABRINA and her friends. Perhaps a website, perhaps some cards to give out, perhaps some media stuff. And just some of that providence sort of stuff that can happen when you just hang about and meet people. I’ll let you know how it goes…

Why does it always rain on me?

9 11 2009

travis‘I’m seeing the tunnel at the end of all these lights.’

I was delighted at the positive response from the manager of the pub to my request to host my Sunday evening conversation there. I was delighted that such a good number joined me this week (9+me). I was delighted at the quality of the conversation on our topic. I was delighted to be able to enjoy a decent pint. Abbot Ale.

Those are the lights. Now what about the tunnel? Hmm. The slightly fuzzy head this morning? The fact that overwhelmingly those who joined me are churchgoers and not spiritual explorers? The fact that I am going to have to bin 1,000 postcards with the wrong venue?

Last night’s conversation went really well. Our skinny ritual was to take a sugar cube and drop on red food colouring with a teat pipette (representing something we regretted) and then to watch it dissolve in a bowl of warm water. The subject, as I explained, was something I had come up with rather on the hoof. Trying to be clever, I had chosen a series of song titles that were also questions. I thought I could work out what each would actually mean as a conversation starter nearer the time.

Last night’s (Sunday 8th November) was Travis’s 1999 track ‘why does it always rain on me?’. (Whatever happened to Travis, by the way?) I was inspired by the line ‘was it because I lied when I was 17’ to invite discussion on the whole idea that rubbish things happen to us in life and that we get to feeling a bit victimised by that (why does it always…) and that religious faith has often suggested to people that the rubbish stuff might have something to do with being bad (or good). My own view (one that I shared during the discussion) is that sh*t happens and it’s how we deal with it that is the means for our growth or diminishment. I don’t agree with the proposition – that I’ve heard in some church settings – that sh*t happening means that there’s a cosmic agenda behind the detailed events of our lives. That’s often put, in pop-evo language, in terms of attack/test.

It goes like this:

Something bad is happening because a) you’re a bad person and you’re being punished, b) you’re a good person but God is testing you or c) you’re a good person and the NME is attacking you. Obviously that last one only generally applies if you’re a great rock band that is inexplicably being slated in the music press.

Personally, I don’t buy it. As I say, I think life happens and God travels with us through the circumstances of our lives, whether they be good or bad, inviting us to grow in faith, compassion, goodness and peace through them all. I think that was generally the view that those sharing in the conversation last night shared too.

Oh. If you’re wondering about the picture this time round – it’s Travis. But not Dave Lee. The hairy cornflake. What a lovely image that is. I’ll have a bowl. If you’re offering…

Getting all arty-farty

9 11 2009

anomie1The day I came back from the consultation in Salisbury, my colleague Alex and I went to see an avant garde theatre production at the New Theatre Royal in the centre of Portsmouth.

‘Anomie’ combined music, dance and video to weave together the narratives of alienated individuals living in an urban environment. It was presented by Precarious – a company from… actually I don’t know where they’re from. But they seem to have generated some interest at the Edinburgh festival with this one-act piece.

The first surprise was the theatre itself. Though Alex and I had spoken with the theatre director about our work in the city and explored possible connections, I hadn’t been before. I think it’s a great venue with a real intimate feel to it. It struck me as a place with a lot of potential, though I’m not sure I can say for what. I can just kind of imagine doing… stuff… there… I’ll let you know if anything more concrete occurs to me.

The second surprise was the performance itself. I really expected to like the mix of multimedia and dance. It was well done and imaginative but I think it was actually at its strongest when it was just the movement. And that applies to the speech in the piece too. The words reminded me of artist’s statements I’d heard – artists statements I’d written – at art college. Just trying a bit too hard to be meaningful. Again, the scenes where the movement was allowed to speak for itself were the strongest.

I think they’d invested quite a lot of effort in the intellectual content. There were layers of symbolism that I think I was supposed to engage with at a cerebral level. But trying to figure all that out got in the way. When I abandoned that mental effort and just allowed it to engage me at a more visceral level, I got much more into the performance. I think some of that content crept back in, but in a more subconscious way.

The narrative strands were drawn together in such a way at the end that I think I became more consciously aware of them retrospectively than I had been during the show. That struck me as an interesting metaphor for our own lives – individually and collectively. Do we only find narrative integrity in retrospect? Or is this something we can experience or expect along the way?

I would have liked to have seen it with my wife, Barbara. She’s less pretentious than me. I would have been interested to see whether she would have loved it or whether she would have thought it was all a bit affected. For me, it was both. I haven’t seen much dance in my time, but I think the human body in movement is one of the most profoundly poetic art forms. But there was a sense in which this was trying a bit too hard. It had the feel of a student piece that hadn’t been edited enough to find a pure and profound voice. A work in progress/development, rather than something finished. But then maybe that’s more appropriate for a postmodern audience. Maybe that gives the audience to be part of the performance, to continue to form and process the ideas-in-formation that we’ve encountered.

It has set me thinking about liturgy for postmodern worshippers/spiritual explorers. Alternative worship that I experienced or that I have been involved in creating has that sense of trying too hard, of throwing too much in, of words that are stretching for profundity. But maybe again, that’s okay, because in its failure and its self-indulgence it opens up a space for those engaging with it to find their own voice…

…or am I now trying too hard?! 😉

Alex suggested that my Sunday night conversations could be enriched if the people taking part were sharing experiences together in this sort of arts space. I have to say it set the juices a-flowing. Watch this space…

Inspired to mark changes

9 11 2009

Victorian poet Matthew Arnold coined the phrase ‘dreaming spires’ when describing Oxford. But there’s something dreamy about Salisbury Cathedral’s spire. That’s the effect it has one me, anyway. There’s something strangely insubstantial about the Salisbury Cathedral – as if it were made out of paper instead of tons of solid stone. This was the impression it made on me over many visits to Sarum College between 2002 and 2005. The ordination training course I attended for those three years – STETS – had its home in that college, itself located in the Cathedral close.

I had occasion to return there last week for three days of a ‘consultation’ for Anglican priests in the region who have in recent months taken up their post of ‘first responsibility’. I think in the past it has been mainly for those who have been appointed vicar or rector of a parish after completing their curacy. In the ‘mixed economy’ church, there are a greater variety of shapes of ministry than would once have been the case. In fact those who were just straightforwardly vicar (or rector) of a parish were in the majority. Three of us had pioneer type roles. The majority were ‘junior‘ ministers in a team ministry. ‘Junior’ here does not necessarily imply an inferior role. It simply means that they weren’t the leader of the team (who would be styled ‘rector’) but a member of it.

Anyway, it was a good time to get away and share experience from a wide variety of settings and reflect on our own practice. We reflected on shaping roles, leadership styles, change processes and management and working collaboratively.

It was interesting to see just how tired most of us were at this early stage in our ministries. That wasn’t necessarily articulated in the discussion. But you could see it in people’s eyes and demeanour. Some were clearly dealing with some significant stresses. It should be a matter of concern, I think, that people only a year or so into their new posts should be finding it so exhausting.

One of the personal learning points for me was to do with handling transitions. Being a bit of a change monkey, I enjoy new things happening – especially if I’m leading the change. The discussions brought home to me the importance of properly marking endings and beginnings and supporting people in the liminal spaces in between. I was reminded that people (including me) move at different speeds and may be at different points.

That’s difficult for a temperamental pioneer. (It was encouraging to me that this came out as my leadership style.) You might think irrelevant for someone working on the edge where there’s nothing there to change. But there are two reasons why I think I need to work especially hard to pay attention to these nuances. First, my role involves leading what has been a parish congregation into a new future. As obviously necessary as that process of change appears to me, there are still big emotional investments that need to be acknowledged if I’m going to stand any chance of carrying people through that change. Second, even if my role was purely about starting new things, I’d be wanting to encourage any new community I helped to bring to birth to have openness to change as one of its founding values. Change would still be part of the future experience of that community. And even becoming a community to start with would be a personal transition for each of its members. Even for change monkeys like me, there is unexpected emotional fallout from change that must be taken seriously. It requires that we acknowledge and mark moments of change and give people time to grieve, adjust and celebrate.

Relocation, relocation, relocation.

7 11 2009

7f6205373f78c1ee18955feba695ec3bI visited the Wetherspoon’s pub in the Guildhall Square. I was in the square to work out a site plan for the climate change vigil I’ve been arranging with the Diocesan Environmental Adviser.

Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve mentioned that before here. The Diocesan Environmental Adviser called me a few weeks back to ask about using St Luke’s as a venue for one of a series of vigils he was arranging to coincide with the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. I asked who he wanted it to impact. If just Church of England Christians then a church venue would be fine. But if we wanted to open the possibility of other people being involved, then why didn’t we go for a public venue. I suggested the Guildhall Square. He was very excited by the possibility.

So I’ve been busy organising that event — specifically seeking permission from the City Council events team and producing all the paperwork they need: booking form, insurance cover and site plan. The Environmental Adviser produced the risk assessment. Anyway the plans are coming together for a vigil between 7 and 8 pm on Monday 14th December. As you might imagine, if you’re at all familiar with my work, my plans are for an event in which people of all faiths and none could participate. I have permission to chalk a map of the world on the pavement. We’ll be inviting people to place candle lanterns (a tea light in a jam jar) on the map. There’ll be a ‘message tree’ where people can hang a prayer or message to the leaders meeting in Copenhagen and a ‘wind farm’ where people can add a home made windmill to a field of windmills. Nothing too complicated. Keeping it simple as much as possible. Oh and there’ll be soup and hot chocolate to warm the people who come to express their solidarity with those most affected by climate change – which as we know, as ever, is the world’s poorest.

So. That organised, I visited the JD Wetherspoon pub: the Isambard Kingdom Brunel and wondered why I hadn’t selected this for my venue for my Sunday night conversations from the beginning. There’s no music. There’s decent beer. There was a spot in the pub that was just perfect for a conversational gathering. So I left my card for the manager and said I’d be back later that afternoon.

When I came back to speak to ‘Nat’ the bar manager, she couldn’t have been more helpful. She was enthusiastic about Sanctuary happening in this bar, was happy to set aside the table I wanted and for me to include the pub’s name in my publicity. She was even happy to welcome larger events, like ‘beer and hymns’ not just to a function room, but in the main pub.

So this will be my new base for Sunday evenings. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Who wants to live forever?

3 11 2009

The mess up over the venue for ‘Sanctuary’ last week rather threw my plans into disarray. Never mind!

As I blogged last week, it was a spirited conversation on the topic ‘how soon is now?’

This week I had billed as ‘who wants to live forever?’ I say billed. What I mean is that’s what I’d had printed on the now useless 1,000 postcards. It really is my intention this week to print up some labels with a different venue and hand some out to passers by in the Guildhall area.

But which venue to put? Clearly Drift in the City is not an option at present but it might be again once the promoters start packing them in on Sunday nights. In some ways it doesn’t look an ideal venue now I’ve actually seen it. But at least the owners were positive about creating space for the sort of group I am trying to get off the ground.

That’s not to say the management at any other venue have been negative. I just haven’t got around to discussing it with any of them. I did try to start a conversation with the manager of the Fleet but I didn’t manage to pin him down before I took a break for the summer. And though on the one hand I think no publican is going to object to some free advertising and potentially extra punters, I do think it’s only right and proper to ask permission before potentially creating an association between the pub’s name and some religious nutjobs — especially if I want to put the cards on tables in the pub.

But if I’m going to all that trouble, should I switch to Wetherspoons which doesn’t have loud music, but does have decent beer? Maybe I should just approach both and see which one comes off.

Anyway, I was joined this week by two Christians from Fareham who were interested in what I’m doing in the pub and wanted to sample it for themselves. They asked me before coming whether their presence would be unhelpful to others who were not Christians who might be there. I assured them that it almost certainly wouldn’t as they were quite likely to be the only people who joined me. Others expressed an interest in coming on Facebook but in the end, these two were my only companions.

We shared in this week’s ‘skinny ritual’ together. We each took one of the small, coloured, square card crosses I had brought. We wrote the name of someone we had lost on the card and folded it up. We chose the colour depending on how we felt about the loss of that person. I didn’t force any colour associations. I just left it up to each of us to make our own connections.

Then we placed the small folded square in a bowl. Each of us interpreted that act of placement in our own way. I invited whatever degree of sharing we each felt comfortable to offer. Actually each of us felt quite free to share openly what it had all been about for us.

We then talked about the idea of life beyond death — whether we liked the idea, what it might be like and so on. The conversation exposed some differences of approach and understanding on questions of salvation and broader theology. It was good and encouraging though that we three who don’t know each other very well were able to handle that with maturity and respect. That’s precisely the sort of character I’m hoping for in these conversations.

So far though it isn’t doing exactly what it says on the tin. My postcards and facebook event describe it as ‘faith, spirituality and life for people who don’t do church’ A good number of the people who’ve been so far, do do church. But I’m not going to be exclusive about it. Everyone is welcome as long as they are prepared to recognise the testimony of the other to their authentuc experience and not reject or upbraid them because it doesn’t fit with their vision of reality. This should be a place where diversity, distinctiveness and yes, even disagreement is celebrated as the means for our growth.

I would say I hope to see you there, but I’m not entirely sure where there is yet!

BTW — I hope nobody asks me who’s in the picture this week. It’s obviously Farrokh Bulsara!

Commemoratio: a guerrilla happening

2 11 2009

Here are some of the promised pictures. Thanks Ben.

For someone you’ve lost.

1 11 2009

531444_daisy_in_the_sunLucky heather sir?

How do you normally respond? If you’re anything like me, I’m sure you normally refuse. There’s no such thing as a free lunch (or heather). We all know how it goes. It’s not a gift. The heather lady wants you to cross her palm with silver. None of us wants to be taken for a mug. So we politely refuse. We all have our guard up. And what’s more, we don’t like being approached by a stranger. Stranger=danger. Even for adults. So why on earth would I plan an event that involved stopping people in the main shopping street in the centre of Portsmouth and offering them a flower?

Well precisely because I wanted to break through that defensive barrier to connect with people — to connect with their spirit.

If there was one thing that came up again and again in my conversations with people late on a Friday night at the Friday Fridge, it was that sense of suppressed grief that we all carry. It was that, I think, that boiled over when Diana, Princess of Wales died. People weren’t really grieving for Diana. She was a proxy through whom they could connect with their own sense of grief. It comes up so often when you’re taking funerals. Not just in the obvious way that you’re talking to relatives about a loved one that’s just died, but also there’s invariably a personal tragedy that the deceased person carried, unspoken, for years. There’s a time after a bereavement when people accommodate our desolation; there’s a sort of permission to be demonstrably emotional. But there comes a time when grief becomes impolite, embarrassing. Especially in our culture. Because we don’t do death like we once did. I suspect that we want grief out of the way as quickly as possible as it’s a memento mori. So we push it down deep. But it’s there. Gnawing away. Inside we’re desperate for someone to just acknowledge what, no who, we’ve lost.

That’s what I think anyway. If you think differently, please share your experience or thoughts via the comments on this page.

Because I think that, I think that it is an act of compassion to acknowledge the grief of another. It connects with the deepest level of our identity and embraces our whole being, not just the ‘I’m fine’ persona we like to present.

So yesterday (because close to All Souls seemed as good a time as any), eighteen of us from around the Diocese gathered at the fountain in Commercial Road in Portsmouth. I described the event as a guerrilla happening. I called it ‘Commemoratio’ from the latin for All Souls’ Day: Commemoratio omnium Fidelium Defunctorum (Commemoration of the faithful departed). As for the previous guerrilla happening I pulled together, I sent invitations by email, text, facebook and twitter and just waited to see who would come.

We gave away 300 single stem white gerberas. It was a simple act. As we offered them to people, we said: ‘this is for someone you’ve lost.’

Lots of people — perhaps even a majority — politely declined. But a substantial number also received the gift in the spirit in which it was given. They seemed genuinely moved. And let’s not overplay the refusals. Within a quarter of an hour all the flowers were gone.

There was no agenda. We weren’t trying to get people along to something else or preach or sell them anything. The gift was free. It was a genuine gift.

We had attached small cards. They looked like this:

tag mock-up

And I think (from what they said to me) that those who took part experienced it as a moment of privilege. We all had powerful moments of human connection.

What right did I have to interrupt people’s Saturday lunchtime? None. What right did I have to attempt to make people reconnect with their grief?None. Who am I to decide that people’s carefully constructed protection around their grief should be penetrated? No-one. I hope you can tell, dear reader, that I have thought carefully about whether it was truly kind or fair to do this. In the end I thought it was kinder to acknowledge people and communicate a recognition of their loss and its validity. And I think the experience bears that out. I don’t think it threatened the defences of those who declined the gift. And the expression and frequently the words of those who did accept the gift communicated that they were grateful to have their grief and the one for whom they grieve recognised.

I hope to post some pictures here in the next few days.