A Wilmcote House Nativity

22 12 2009

On Sunday 20th December, we hosted a ‘Wilmcote House Nativity’. I posted the cards shown above through the door of every flat in Wilmcote House. I also produced posters and put them up on the noticeboards in the entrance hall and on the doors and windows of the community room. Actually it was the posters that I put up first, and it was as I was putting them up that I realised that nowhere on my cards or posters did it say where this event was happening! So I spent an hour handwriting it on 180 cards and the posters. Unlike previous weeks, I didn’t put the publicity up in any of the other tower blocks in the area. It just seemed right on this occasion, given who had been coming and the focus we were giving it to concentrate on Wilmcote House itself.

We thought if anything we were going to do was likely to be a big draw it was this one, so we catered for 50 people (including the members of the mission community formerly known as the congregation of the church of the parish of St Luke – catchy ain’t it?!)

One thing that came out strongly in our discussion at our Tuesday night gathering was how good it had been at our coffee and carols event the week before that there were moments where everyone there was invited to do the same thing together. It someone had suggested that to me at the beginning, I might well have viewed it as a bit of a step backward; a bit of an adulteration of our very clear intention to be a drop-in, not a church service. But inviting people to take a pause from whatever activity they were involved on and sing a couple of carols did seem to bring people together.

This week we again had the mix of individual and communal activities. We had presents to choose and wrap for someone. We had a ‘random act of kindness’ station where guests could fill a gift bag with chocolates and a satsuma. The idea was that you’d then take it away with you and give it to a stranger or a neighbour. That did seem to get a bit blurred with the presents in the end as I was given more than one of those bags by some of the children who had come. We also had a station where people could make a ‘stained glass window’ with black card and tissue paper. We had prepared two designs – a Christmas star and a candle.

We also had a station where people could decorate a gingerbread Christmas tree that one of our number had lovingly baked the night before. This was a very popular activity.

There was another table where people could cut out and decorate a shiny star. AT the same table, people were invited to write a prayer or reflection on a shiny strip of paper and add it to a paper chain of prayers.

But in the midst of all this, we invited everyone to come and join a circle as I told them the Christmas story using a story box with little felt figures. One child had told us the week before that they didn’t know the Christmas story, but I’m guessing they’d been hearing it at school as not only were w they ell engaged with the story but they also seemed to know what was coming next. Indeed it seemed to add greatly to the enjoyment for the children there that they knew the story and were able to interject with what was coming next.

Maybe there’s something in there about how oral storytelling works – maybe the greater the familiarity the greater the engagement, if the storytelling is handled right. I was just nimble enough to recognise this as I went on and so I created more and more opportunities for the children to feed me the next event in the story as we went on.

We followed this ‘circle time’ with a more familiar nativity presentation in which the children took the roles of the different characters. One of our number – a primary school teacher – had prepared and delivered a nativity for her school. She had written an excellent simple narration script which was conveniently broken down into small chunks, so that I could turn it into cards which we distributed so that lots of people there had a chance to tell a bit of the story. We interspersed the narrative with four carols which we sung along to a backing CD that had very child-friendly versions of the carols we were singing.

So in some ways, it was more like a service of worship than I had envisaged our Sunday mornings would be. But I still don’t think this is worship-shaped church. For one thing, I always made it clear that it was an invitation and that people could carry on with what they were already doing if they preferred. And it wasn’t how the whole of the time was spent. There was a good combination of activities for people to take at their own pace and things that we did all together. There was spiritual ‘content’ in both types of activity but in neither did it make demands on the people who came in terms of belief or commitment.

And the people who came who haven’t been regular members of the congregation when we were meeting in the St Luke’s building seemed to cope with the all-together stuff just fine. That should be no surprise really. In school and nursery settings there’s the same combination of all together and individual/group work and in parent and child groups too the same pattern pertains. This is what people are used to. There’s perhaps even a certain naturalness to it.

Interestingly, I think the one thing that isn’t well developed yet is the thing that I said would be the defining characteristic of this venture: conversation. I’m not worried about that, though it’s worth making and holding that observation. I’m not worried because on the one hand this is a grand experiment. We’ve approached this with ideas of how it might be, but also hopefully with enough flexibility to respond to the real people who really come and what will work best with and for them. And on the other hand, it’s still early days.

We’re still just getting to know people. It isn’t that we aren’t talking to them, it’s just that it can be quite a busy space and we’re grabbing snatches of conversation. There’s plenty of time for that to grow and for us to invest in some new furniture and try some new configurations that enable and facilitate some more adult engagement alongside the fun, learning and reflection that all ages together are enjoying.

So from Wilmcote House and the Sunday Sanctuary, I wish you all a very happy Christmas and a peaceful, joyous and blessed New Year!





Climate change vigilance

17 12 2009

Several weeks back, I was approached by the Diocesan Environmental Adviser to see if St Luke’s parish church could be used as a venue for one of a series of prayer vigils that were going to take place across the Diocese. These were timed to coincide with the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, meeting in Copenhagen. Andrew (for that is his name) was looking for a venue for a centre of Portsmouth vigil. I asked him whether he was aiming at just Anglican christians in the city or whether he wanted this to be something that could take in people across the spectrum of faiths or no faith. I suggested a gathering in the public space of the Guildhall Square in Portsmouth would offer a greater opportunity to connect with more people.

It was a steep learning curve for me in what you need to do to get an event approved by the city council’s events team. They were helpful and friendly at every turn, even if, after multiple requests for the same document, I was left wondering on occasion about their internal communication. Insurance requirements and available time also left us with a rather strange placement for the event.

In the end, after a week off sick, I ended up putting the event together in a very frantic day – the day of the vigil: Monday 14th December. The content of the event was as I had hoped it would be, though. In that regard, it was successful.

I created three stations. The first of which was a large map of the world which I chalked out on the pavement with some help from some of the first arrivals. Participants were invited to light a tealight in a glass jar and place it on the map. The guidance notes then invited them to pray this prayer (in its shorter form), written by Brian McClaren and Tim Costello. At one point, a member of the Cathedral chapter (at the request of some others) led some of those attending in this prayer.

The next station, invited people to take a ‘bauble’ – essentially a view of the earth from space, printed on card and trimmed to a circle – write a prayer or reflection on it and hang it on a ‘prayer tree’. The guide invited people to quietly say the words of the 104th psalm, either by themselves or with someone else. Some of the prayers I retrieved from this tree at the end included the following:

Dear Lord, we are making a mess of your world – please come and sort us out before we ruin your Creation. Thank you.

The first gift of Christmas was a child. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son to save the world. Help us to save the world for our children.

Only one earth.

Lord, save the rainforest in South America.

Let there be life on earth – and forever not spoilt by me.

Lord, yours is the world, and all that is in it.

Lord, let selfishness be overcome; may justice prevail, that the rich nations will help the poor so the world can be saved.

Father – give courage to our leaders and embolden them to take the right decisions.

The third and final station had materials for people to make a windmill and add it to our ‘windfarm’. The guide leaflet I had created invited people to use a kyrie confession from New Patterns for Worship:

We confess to you our lack of care for the world you have given us.
Lord, have mercy.

We confess to you our selfishness in not sharing the earth’s bounty fairly. Christ, have mercy.

We confess to you our failure to protect resources for others. Lord, have mercy.

Finally we offered those attending a cup of soup. There were three varieties, no less. Just as an aside, getting enough flasks to keep enough soup hot for enough people was quite a challenge!

It’s tempting to measure the success or otherwise of this in terms of numbers. We had about forty people on the night. On one level, it didn’t achieve what I had hoped it might. We didn’t create an event in which a big mix of people from within and without the church participated. I didn’t know everyone so I’m making assumptions about some, but I’m guessing that most of the people who came were from Anglican churches. We catered for 100 people. That is, we had enough individual items at each station, enough guide leaflets and enough soup for that many. So the turnout was on the face of it disappointing. I think that’s more down to how we marketed the event than any problem with the event itself. I think with a bit more media work we could have generated more interest and attendance.

And as it was, there were some really worthwhile encounters along the way that might have been difficult to make count in the same way with a bigger event. There was the small group of teenagers who made windmills right at the beginning and seemed fascinated to discover what was going on. There was the gentleman who wanted to light a candle to remember his wife whom he’d lost recently. There was the young mum who chatted for 45 minutes with my wife and a friend over a cup of soup. And there were the city wardens who enjoyed a cup of soup and a friendly chat for some time too.

And there was also the value of the event for those who did come. From the things they said, I think that value was real. It made a difference to those participating. It helped them to feel that they were making a difference. Not a huge one. We didn’t change the world. We just stood in solidarity with those who are the most affected by climate change, who are, as ever, the poor.

There were some strange inconsistencies about the event. There was the not insignificant amount of driving around that my wife and I did that day as we rushed from pillar to post to get everything ready. There was the waste of soup and the gas burned to heat it as we overcatered. Using polystyrene cups to serve the soup was not exactly environmentally friendly.  There was even something a bit incongruous about burning something (candles) as part of an event that was expressing concern about CO2 production. And there was the use of paper (that now needs to be recycled) to make the windmills.

But overall, I think this was a another step along the way of creating a presence in the centre of the city and that presence expressing the full range of the marks of mission. I learnt a lot doing it and will (hopefully) be better prepared for the next event and more able to maximise its impact for individuals and the life of the city as a whole.

In the midst of all that, I don’t want to lose sight of the difference it made to the people we encountered on that cold Monday night. I was shattered, but I slept a satisfied sleep. Not because I’d got everything right – far from it – but because I had the sense that it had made the right difference to the right people on this occasion, whatever I’d do differently next time.





Bums on pews

15 12 2009

The wisdom out there – and it probably is wisdom of the wise type – is that we’re not and shouldn’t be into a numbers game. We don’t judge our success or failure on the basis of the numbers of people we attract to whatever we’re doing. In fact faithfulness might well be a lot more important than success. So we’re not about bums on pews. Well in our case, we can’t be as we’ve left the pews behind.

I agree with all that. As much as I strongly desire to see the Church grow, I’m not about growing ever bigger individual churches. I’m about growing new, small churches. Lots of ’em.

So why is it, despite all that, that I should be so encouraged by the numbers of people we’ve seen in our first three weeks of running the Sunday Sanctuary in a tower block in Somerstown in central Portsmouth? Week one, we saw six new people. Week two, three of those came back and they were joined by six other new people. Week three, five from week two came back. They were joined by twelve others. There is an extent to which numbers of people must be an indicator of how much of a connection you’re making. To be honest, I’m quite chuffed that over the course of our first three weeks we’ve met twenty-four new people. I’m also really chuffed that eight of those have come more than once.

I take completely the point made by a colleague in his frequent references to his experience of running a youth group. There can be a point at which you’re into crowd control rather than being able to build real, quality relationships with people. I guess my response is recruit more helpers, don’t wish for fewer guests!

Another colleague in the Diocese this week was encouraging me to share the story of the numbers we’re seeing. I’m happy to do that. The even more encouraging story that the numbers don’t tell is the openness of the people we’re meeting. We could just be entertaining a bunch of people who grab the free stuff and run. But it’s quite different from that. The people we’re meeting seem genuinely open to being gotten to be known, if that makes sense! I think we stand every chance of making friends with them if they continue to come.

The challenge will be, as I was reminded today, that the population of this locality is so transient, that people might well be moving on just at the point where we’ve established some kind of genuine relationship. But that challenge doesn’t mean we can just wash our hands and walk away. Here we are. Here we are staying. Maybe we can in some small way be a stabilising influence on the locality and help edge it towards becoming a true community.





Finding sanctuary in a tower block

6 12 2009

Two weeks into our great adventure, it’s time to bring you all out there in blogland up to date.

Maybe you don’t know what I’m talking about. So I’ll tell you.

On Sunday, 22nd November, 2009, the tiny congregation meeting in the parish church building in the Church of England parish of St Luke, Southsea, said goodbye to that building. In a special service, we moved around the building, stopping at various points — the main entrance, the font, etc. At each ‘station’ we marked some feature or character of the church’s life, symbolised by the piece of church furniture at which we were stopping. We committed ourselves to carry that aspect of our common life forward into our new future.

Why did we do that? Because from then on, we would be ceasing to hold our 11 a.m. Sunday service in the church building. Instead, we have since been gathering in the community room attached to one of the nearby tower blocks. But it’s not just a matter of geography. We haven’t moved our Sunday service of Anglican liturgical worship. We’ve ended it.

The time for the intentionally Christian community’s worship is now on a Tuesday evening as part of our home group. Each week we share a meal, a Eucharist and prayer and engagement with the Bible in my home.

On Sundays, now, between 10 a.m. and midday, we open what we’re calling the Sunday Sanctuary.

We provide breakfast and refreshments all morning and some sort of craft-based activity. Alongside that, there’s one or two light, reflective activities on offer. We’ve been describing it as a family drop-in in the publicity material. Is that what it’s been?

In the first week, six people we hadn’t met before came: a brother and sister, a child who came with one of our members who lives in the block, and three young teenage boys. So all of our guests were children, without their parents. This isn’t what we were aiming for but it is, to a degree, what we expected. We have tried to avoid becoming a child-minding service by insisting that children below secondary school age should be accompanied by a parent, another adult or an older sibling.

In the second week, we had nine guests, three of whom we had seen the week before. The brother and sister returned and brought their younger brother with them. One of the teenage boys from last week returned and brought a friend with him. One of our members who lives in the block brought a different child with them this week and in the second half of the morning a mum and her two children joined us. I hope, dear reader, you can understand that when I say that we were encouraged by the presence of this family (at our family drop-in) it doesn’t reflect any sense of disappointment with, or devaluing of, our other guests. We have been encouraged and pleased to meet, serve and share with all those we’ve met. But meeting this family this week has suggested that our ‘model’ might just work; it might be the right one.

Already, we have experienced a steep learning curve. I anticipate that our Tuesday night gatherings will include some lively conversations from now on. The first surprise was that people are staying all morning. In fact this week, we had a job on our hands dissuading two people from coming in before we opened at 10. That job lasted for nearly 50 minutes. We had been working on the assumption that people might come for 30 or 45 minutes and then go. One or two craft activities can sustain that but not if people are there for 2 hours. So we are rapidly having to think about creating a broader range of things for people to do. This requires more work from us, which presents its own challenge for a community where there is not an evenness of either commitment or capacity.

Some of those we’re engaging with have somewhat chaotic lives. Just being able to provide some decent nutrition and some positive adult contact and attention is more, I suspect than some are regularly getting. That all presents its own challenges, as I’m sure you can imagine.

There are so many sensitivities here that it’s difficult to say too much more. It might sound as if all these reflections are practical, rather than spiritual. But at the forefront of our minds is the need to ensure that all we do is intentionally spiritual. It would be easy in lots of ways to respond to our challenges by resorting to entertainment. Just (as we’re frequently asked) to get the pool table and other games out. But we aren’t a youth club or a kids’ club. We’re a church operating a family drop in. We’re not about forcing anything on anyone. Everything is optional. But everything we offer comes from who we are.

That’s the unique contribution we bring: ourselves and our faith. That’s not an imposition, I believe, it’s a positive gift. It motivates us to love each and every person and to believe in everyone we meet. Other people find different motivations and end up in the same place. But this is our motivation. So faith has a positive contribution to make to the extent that it provokes us as a community to draw alongside people living in this difficult locality.

But I’m also excited about the positive contribution that finding faith can make for each person we meet. Faith brings positive transformation. What I’m trying to say is that if people discover faith for themselves through this, that is an outcome I would celebrate. (I think it’s at least as likely that those of us who consider ourselves to have faith already will rediscover faith.)

The difference between what we’re doing here and a regular church service is that we’re not expecting people to come to us and do what we do without space for question or doubt or just exploration in conversation. The activities we offer share some of the things that we have found meaningful. They invite others to imaginatively enter into that world of meaning — to ‘try it on for size’. But we will always respect people’s freedom and if people find themselves taking a different point of view, it will not affect our welcome of them.