One step forward…

11 10 2010

I posted at the weekend about the hugely encouraging breakthrough that there had been in forging one community among those who gather Sunday by Sunday in Wilmcote House, despite some clear differences of approach to what that gathering should be about. I wanted to celebrate that, and I still do. I hope not to lose sight of that in what follows.

But it does often feel that renewed challenges follow hot on the heels of every ‘win’.

It was a relatively simple matter for the PCC in the end to complete the review of the Sunday Sanctuary and gather all the fragments of our discernment process together. Because there had emerged at the same time as that was all going on, between my colleague Alex and myself, a desire; an intention to create a new evening service, that would offer a different sort of space from both Sunday mornings in Wilmcote House and Sunday mornings in St Peter’s. More of that in another post.

The upshot, though, was that there would be an outlet for the more established members of the Sunday Sanctuary to express their spirituality through contemporary sung worship and quiet contemplation. Thus it no longer felt necessary, or appropriate (given the response to the suggestion from our newer friends) to try and shoehorn those things into Sunday mornings at Wilmcote House. So far, so positive.

It was clear from our wider discernment that we didn’t need to persist with keeping the Sunday Sanctuary open for two hours. Residents of Wilmcote House liked the idea of a slightly later start and others were finding the long morning hard going, especially those working to keep the kitchen open.

We had been moving towards closing the kitchen at about 11:00 and I had often notified people of that with ‘last orders’ announcement; which, unfortunately, frequently had the effect of creating a rush and making it more difficult to gather people for our all together time. (It made it virtually impossible for kitchen workers to join the all-together time as they had to clear up a new batch of dirty plates, cups and so on.)

So we decided that the Sunday Sanctuary would open at 10:30 instead of 10:00. The kitchen would close at 11:00 and be followed immediately by our all-together time. 11:45-12:00 would be tidy up time, which we would all share together, not simply as a clear up after the real activity but an important part of the expression of our life as a new community. (Kitchen clear-up was to wait until then too, so that kitchen helpers could join the all-together time.)

We also thought that the time between 11:30 and 11:45 might involve differentiated activities so each age group got the sort of stimulation that reflected its unique needs.

As I write this, I think this all sounds right and good. But we haven’t perhaps been as good as we might have been at sticking to that schedule and that may be at the root of some of our problems this half term.

Because it hasn’t felt to me as if we have really been hitting the mark since our restart. There have been lots of good things. The barbecue our first week back was a really good way to come back together. And of course it was encouraging after something of a break that we did all come back together. I think taking a break in future might seem a little odd. It felt odd, actually, during the summer. Projects take a break. Communities – churches? – do not.

Somehow, in between making a clear choice not to include sung worship and an ongoing effort to avoid cutting and sticking (for those who hated the ‘Sunday School’ feel that it had on occasion) we have ended up with a lot of up-front talking. Storytelling has been and remains an essential part of our shared identity. And I’m a firm believer in storytelling as an art form in its own right. There is a place for a variety of ways to share stories – story sacks, puppetry, pictures, film clips – but above all I think a really engaging storyteller simply speaking a tale can hold the attention of a group. But somehow our style (mostly delivered by me) has become flabby, unengaging and drawn out. Instead of being punchy and exciting, the stories and most especially the reflection following have become long-winded and talky.

In the past few weeks I have noticed that nobody has really been engaged. The youngest children are gravitating back to the Lego, which in a very echoey room is very distracting. The parents and older children are trying to draw their children/siblings’ attention back and the adults without children there are distracted by all of that going on. And on occasion when I’ve been speaking, I’ve been wondering who I’m actually speaking to!

It has brought me for the first time in ages to question my personal commitment to intergenerational community/church. Is it really possible to hold the attention of a middle-aged professional at the same time as you’re engaging a pre-schooler from a refugee family with next to no English? If your comparison is with school, then you’d say: ‘Of course not!’ Vertical teaching groups can work, but the age span is not normally more than two years. But if your comparison is not with education but with, say, a family meal, especially a special celebratory meal like Christmas dinner, then it’s not nearly so clear cut. But maybe I have confused the idea that ‘we only do apart what we cannot do together’ with some notion that we do nothing apart.

[Editor’s note – and I’m the editor! – this post has well and truly now broken the short post rule. Commitments are dropping like flies all around. 😉 ]

Of course, we are rather stuck in that we are in one room. There are not alternative spaces except for outside in the good weather (we have taken children outside for a game or activity). But when it’s getting colder, it becomes much more of a challenge to create discrete spaces – especially with the awful acoustics that this room has (very echoey).

The lesson I’ve learnt from being married to a teacher and being involved in a local primary school is that if we are not engaging people, children especially, it’s because we’re not engaging not because the people are not responding appropriately.

So what to do?

Funnily enough, the thought that has occurred to me is to go back to the liturgy. To look back into the shape of the Eucharist and see how the moments and movements of that might be reinterpreted in our setting. It may be that we need to make the occasional simple sharing of bread and wine into a more regular feature.

That might seem like quite a conceptual leap from talking too much not working to let’s have a simple sort-of-communion each week. But there’s something about the way we’re having to reinvent the wheel each week that I think is giving us a bit of a headache. And actually to start with sharing a meal: breakfast; and to conclude with sharing a simple commemorative meal: bread and wine (grape juice actually) gives the whole thing something of a shape that maybe it’s lacking. Within that, there are moments for gathering, self-examination and reflection, hearing and reflecting on one of our inherited stories, looking out to the wider world and giving thanks, that might just give us the structure that will keep things moving along in a much more dynamic way. It might also help us to express our newfound community-ness more wholeheartedly in the content and shape of our mornings together, not just in the sheer fact of our coming together. And I think the times that have worked best have been those occasions when we have shared food that has some symbolic, nay sacramental, significance – a high point for me, was the simple passover we shared when we were journeying through the stories of Moses.

I’ll let you know how things develop…

[If you’ve made it this far, thanks for sticking with me. I’d welcome your comments. 🙂 ]

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!

Canvassing opinion

2 09 2009

1021125_under_canopies_3It was a bit longer than a week or so wasn’t it! It’s been a busy summer with a real variety of experiences. And now I am looking down the barrel of a very challenging autumn.

The summer started with the family at ‘New Wine’. This is a week long christian event run by the New Wine network.

This isn’t the place to dis’ other people’s spirituality, so I will refrain. But this was not a happy experience for me. I have been before so I wasn’t surprised, but I am so far away from this sort of muscular christianity. We only went again because the children enjoyed it last year (when I went with my then training incumbent). When they enjoy it and ask to go and when the rest of the time they have very little contact with other children in a church setting, it feels mean not to take them. I was concerned at times about the level of indoctrination my children might have been subject to, but actually, they seem to be able to make quite mature judgements about what’s being said to them. And we’ve got the rest of the year to give them a broader range of experiences.

A friend and colleague recently gave me (mischievously I think) a copy of an article by John Milbank called ‘Stale Expressions: The Management-Shaped Church’. As well as critiquing the fresh expressions agenda, Milbank gives the managerialism of evangelical Christianity a bit of a going over too. This article is uncomfortable reading for people like me who have adopted an emerging/missional ecclesiology and I will return to it as I grapple with it in the coming weeks (because he makes a lot of good points).

The managerialism of evo Xty is very much evident at something like New Wine. Milbank’s analysis is quite persuasive but when you’re at a big event away from home with your children, you notice when it’s well run. So in that regard alone, I was appreciative of evo managerialism.

It stood in stark contrast to the frankly shambolic nature of Greenbelt. This was my third time at Greenbelt (a christian arts festival over the Bank Holiday weekend). I had been in ’06 and ’07 and really enjoyed it. Both times previously I had been without children. The laid back feel had been part of the attraction on those occasions. But this time around with kids in tow, I didn’t find it quite so amusing.

The contrast was all the more stark because not only had we been to the (well run but bonkers) New Wine conference at the beginning of the summer, but also because we had been only two days previously at EuroDisney (or Disneyland Resort Paris as we must now call it). Now that is well run!

We’d been there to meet up with my brother and his family, whom we hadn’t seen since last summer. Good times. If a little tiring.

Now you’d think after 3 days in Disneyland, we’d be used to queueing. But in Disneyland, you queue for 30 minutes to share a thrilling ride with excited children. At Greenbelt, we queued for an hour for a plastic token to get our children into an activity session. At the end of the queue, there were tokens for only one out of three. The venues for our two junior age children were already full. And they wouldn’t give us tokens for the afternoon session. We’d have to come back and queue again for that (for an hour and a half as it turned out). But even before that queue, when we came back an hour after collecting the morning session token for the actual session, we queued to get through the front gate, and then again at the venue inside the children’s compound and then the same again when we came back 2½ hours later to pick her up.

Now I’m sure the properly spiritual response would have been to have appreciated the unexpected downtime and to just chill enjoying the view of ominously gathering rainclouds overhead (It never did quite properly rain – unlike New Wine where we had a monsoon). But after a night of shivering in the tent, I was having a bit of a sense of humour failure, to be honest.

That all said, Greenbelt was enjoyable. The children did have a good time and did get to see a very different expression of christianity from what they’d experienced at New Wine. They loved watching Shlomo and the Vocal Orchestra on the mainstage. But Athlete on Monday night was just a bit too late for them to really enjoy it without needing to ask after every song: ‘is it finished now – can we go home?’

So now, back home, and back to work, I face the challenge of needing to write a proposal for an extension to my licence in the autumn of next year. When I started back in October, I knew this point would arrive. My job for year one was to explore possibilities and suggest a focus for ongoing work. A licence extension wasn’t exactly a foregone conclusion, but it seemed like that’s what everyone expected. But the situation has changed. The bishop is retiring this month. The diocese is facing some pretty severe financial constraints. So the question I need to answer is no longer merely, ‘what will I do?’ but ‘why is it necessary?’ I need to answer that question not just for the locality but for the whole diocese, which is facing all sorts of cuts. I’m confident I can make a strong case for why this work is needed here and why an investment should be made here particularly. I’m also confident I can demonstrate how this is vital for the whole diocese. But it’s a big piece of work. If you’re the praying kind. Pray for me. If you’re not, and you don’t feel like giving praying a go, touch wood or do whatever you do to send out your positive encouragement!

The pilgrims progress

12 06 2009

Tuesday 9th June. Today I took a group of year 7 children for a day’s ‘pilgrimage’ along the seafront from Eastney to South Parade Pier. I had been assigned a group of 15 children but on the day only 13 had returned permission slips. Having thought I would have only one LSA (learning support assistant) to accompany me, I actually had two on the day. On one or two occasions in the sessions where I have been working alone with the group I have found it difficult to ensure that everyone is as engaged as I would like them to be. Teachers have to manage larger groups on their own all the time, of course, so I feel a bit pathetic admitting that. But I was relieved that I had the extra help taking a group outside the school.

The initial walk down to the spot at Eastney I had selected beforehand took about an hour and 20 minutes. These children, being slightly older than those at the primary school where I ran this programme before, were not asking so much ‘are we there yet?’ But they did ask it, nonetheless. On a pilgrimage it is the experience of making the journey that is as least as important as the destination. So I wanted the journey to be significant for the children, to take them beyond a ‘utility’ walk that was just about getting to somewhere we needed to go. I think they got that, perhaps more than the last group to go on this trip. Getting to the lunch break was a lot more significant for the younger ones last time round!

This group responded well to the King Cnut story and the reflections that followed. After skimming some stones, I asked them all to choose a pebble that they would carry with them to symbolise themselves. I talked them through the incredibly long processes of erosion that created their pebble and would turn the pebbles into sand and then back into rock again and talked about the number of stones on the beach as a way of trying to comprehend the world’s human population. (Basically if it is correct that there are about 600,000,000 stones on the beach, then there are approximately ten times as many people on the earth as there are stones on Southsea beach.) This seemed to be as profound a reflection for the adults accompanying the children as for the children themselves.

After a further walk, the next stop was lunch. I asked the children to think about where their food had come from and the range of people who had contributed to them having food to eat.

IMG_0179After our lunch stop, I divided the group into two and got them to sort black and white stones into buckets and then collaborate on a monchrome pebble picture. They didn’t find this quite so easy, but I think they were actually running out of steam a bit by now. They found it a bit difficult to stay on task and not to just get distracted by what they wanted to look at. But eventually with a bit of cajoling, enough of them concentrated on the pebble pictures to produce two quite nice designs. We left them on the pavement for passers-by to enjoy.

After an ice-cream stop (having checked their medical forms for allergies!), we moved on to our final stop where we decorated our stones and left them on the beach in a small cairn. This was interrupted at the beginning by the children finding a pigeon in the water that was obviously in serious difficulty. In order to stop them handling it (and catching who knows what) I had to rescue it myself. The children were very appreciative of my rescue efforts as the pigeon’s plight had concerned them. Whether this was an indicator of pre-existing compassion or of elevated fellow-feeling following our day’s reflections, I wouldn’t like to say! The day ended when the school’s minibus driver collected us for the trip back to school.

It seemed to me that the activities on this day did affect both the children and the adults accompanying them. The discussions I had with individual members of the party as we walked along suggested to me that they were chewing it all over in their minds and reflecting on themselves and their place in the world and especially their unique value as a human being.

They also had fun! They were appreciative and expressed the desire for similar trips with me in the future. I’m sure this will be the beginning of a relationship with the school, not its end. So they, and I, may get their wish.

[This post has been cleared with one of the school’s assistant headteachers.]

Going up to big school

12 06 2009

IMG_0148After the fortnight I spent with a primary school in the centre of Portsmouth, I am now running virtually the same spirituality programme in a secondary school in the city. This is a church school, but I have not modified the programme to make it explicitly Christian. I have retained the open and accessible ethos of my last placement. By spirituality I mean ‘relational consciousness’ – a term coined in David Hay and Rebecca Nye’s ‘The Spirit of the Child’. On the basis of their research into the spirituality of children, they defined spirituality as a deep cognition of our relation to ourselves, to others, to the world and to the ‘transcendent’. I have said that before on this blog but it bears repeating so that you, dear reader, may know what it is I mean when I am talking about spirituality.


The programme.
In brief, my programme is as follows:

EVERY DAY: Brief meditation derived from Ignatian prayer but stripped of explicit Christian reference, sensing the body, awareness of sounds around, breathing in and out. Sharing stone group – children in a circle may share a brief reflection on the experience they have just had. No other children may comment either within or outside the group.

DAY ONE: Getting to know you
DAY TWO: Matroyska doll – who we are inside and out. Movement to music. Body sculptures in pairs
DAY THREE: Necker cube & EC Escher pictures –opening our visual perception
DAY FOUR: Andy Goldsworthy nature art – reording our world to reveal its inherent beauty

DAY ONE: Seafront ‘pilgrimage’ with stops for King Cnut story, pebble mosaic-making, decorating a stone and building a cairn
DAY TWO: Small group pebble mosaics
DAY THREE: Whole group pebble mosaic
DAY FOUR: Footprints story told in Godly Play style but stripped of explicitly religious content, whole group feet printing picture

I run the above sessions in one period of the school day. As much as possible I am around for the rest of the school day to build relationships with the children in the class. I am mainly assisting them with their regular work.

I have completed my first week in this secondary school. It has been impossible for me to reflect on this experience without reference to my previous primary school placement. Comparing and contrasting has proved useful for my own thinking and so I am to some degree presenting it in those terms. I recognise, though, that this may introduce some distortions that may not have appeared had I started here rather than there.

I have received a warm welcome in this school. The staff who work with the children in year 7 have been very friendly. So have the children. There has been some cheekiness, of course, but they have responded to me positively and, in their way, respectfully. When I have needed to be firm in order to regain their attention they have responded appropriately. And they have been happy to receive my help and attention in the classroom. Other children around the school have been happy to exchange greetings too in a genuine way. Other staff have been happy to chat to me, and have made me feel very welcome. To hear some people in the city speak about this school, you’d think you were going to be entering a warzone. But though there are some real challenges here, I have found it a good place to be.

Social background
The age group I am working with is not disimilar in age. Previously I was working with a combined year 5/6 class. Now I am working with a year 7 class. They are largely from the same area and so the social profile of the children is identical. This includes a higher than average proportion of children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, a first language other than english and learning difficulties. This school operates a unit for year 7 children that is like a primary school in that the children spend much of their day with the same teacher in the same classroom. Other teachers come to the classroom to teach some subjects and some lessons are taught in different parts of the school, for instance PE, geography and drama. So mostly, as in the previous school, I have been working with the children (as I have accompanied them during their regular curriculum sessions) in the same space. But I have moved about with them too. Working with an older year group that was more acclimatised to the secondary system would be quite a different experience and could be worth pursuing at a future stage.

How big a group?
Where previously I was working with a single group that constituted one class, though they included children from two year groups, I am now working with a smaller group taken from the class. Selecting a smaller group has been a practical necessity as it was apparent from the first day that the day trip in week two would not be conducted with a teacher (as previously) but with a learning support assistant (LSA). We therefore needed to keep the group small. I was also keen that, after a long walk on that day, we should collect the children in the school minibus and not make them walk back to school. It’s good that the walking should stretch the children but my previous experience suggested that the walk back was probably a bit too much of a stretch for some children. The minibus seats 17. So with the driver and an LSA (I could walk back) the group for the pilgrimage could not be larger than 15 children. In order that the programme should make some sense and that each session could build on what had gone before, I have been working with the children who will accompany me on the trip out plus the reserves for my sessions.

Just the nice ones?
It appears that the group that has been chosen to work with me has been selected on the basis of behaviour. To an extent then, it appears that the opportunity to work with me constitutes a reward for good behaviour. This, of course, has made for an easier time for me than might otherwise have been the case. But I must confess to being disappointed on behalf of the more challenging members of the class. Of course, this is a matter for the school, and it may have been a very different experience for everyone concerned had I been given a different group to work with. I have been slightly uncomfortable with the potential issues around equality of opportunity (though I understand that overall, these things balance out) but also with the possible implication that spirituality is reserved for well-behaved children when actually it may be that those more challenging children have more to gain from a programme designed to stimulate their relational consciousness.

The class as community
It has been hugely encouraging to see the degree to which the children in the group I’m working with take care of each other and are very at home with the diversity in the class, to the extent that it is not really noticeable. This class functions to a good degree as a community where everyone seems to be valued for who they are. Of course there is banter and sometimes individual children become the object of their peers derision or hostility. That’s true in any school. But there is a sense of being ‘in it together’ that does stand out here compared to, say, my own children’s school. This is something I would point to as an indicator that spirituality, at least in respect of consciousness of the other and the existence of community, is very much alive and well among these children.

The staffroom as community
By contrast, the staff room here feels very different to the staff room of the previous school. That’s not to say that there is any atmosphere or tension that I have detected. it’s simply that a lot of the time it feels deserted in comparison to the primary school when I was there. Breaktimes and lunchtimes were a time when it seemed the staff as a community, a family even, gathered together to share their stories and their humour. All this over food and drink. I have not found a similar sense of a community gathering here. With my researcher’s hat on, I think it would be interesting to probe that a bit further. With my ‘guest who knows nothing’ hat on, I think that might appear a bit upstartish. It may be that there are smaller groups of staff gathering in different places, but I regret that the ‘in it together’ feeling I saw in the class was not so apparent to me in the staff room. That doesn’t mean it’s not there. it just means I haven’t seen it yet.

The school as an institution
The primary school where I completed my last placement was a very well-organised institution. Everyone seemed to know that I was coming and why I was there. It may well be true that a secondary school is a very different operation and that means that it is more difficult to run or needs to be run in a different way. But it does seem to operate more ‘loosely’ than the primary school I worked with. The first thing that struck me was that where previously I had been clearly told I would not be left to work alone with any children, I have regularly done so here. In fact, on my first morning, I was asked to supervise a group of boys changing for a swimming lesson. I did, but I’m not sure I should have.

And we actually missed my first session on day two (and so ran a double session on day three) because both I and the classroom teacher were expecting the other to ask the selected children to join the activity. That’s not entirely the school’s fault and I am skating on very thin ice if I make remarks about organisation!

IMG_0186How have the children responded?
In terms of the children’s response, they have actually responded better to the meditation than in the previous school and perhaps ever so slightly less well to the art based activities. That latter point is really quite marginal, and the children have all repeatedly expressed how much they are enjoying the art activities. I think it may well be that I am not leading those sessions as effectively as I may have done last time round, though of course, where I have been working on my own, I have needed to manage behaviour without intervention from a teacher. That’s fine, I can do that. It’s just a bit different to last time around. They have not, so far, been so comfortable with the group sharing exercise, though they have frequently expressed their gratitude for my presence and the activities I have been running.

Teaching and learning
I have seen some excellent teaching while I have been here too. The regular class teacher has led some whole class sessions that have managed to keep the attention of most of the children, most of the time, that’s despite some occasionally disruptive behaviour from one or two. I was privileged to sit in on a geography lesson with a very engaging and dynamic teacher. And how I wish my own secondary school education might have included drama as a distinct subject rather than as an add-on to English literature. The children have an excellent facility and an engaging teacher who managed to draw out some cracking work from these children.

Father Mark
On a final note, I have very quickly got used to being called ‘Father Mark’ – not because I have airs and graces; I was quite happy to be called Mark – but because it seems appropriate in a school where the regular staff are addressed as sir or miss. I think my relationship with the children is different but they do need to be able to maintain (for the school’s sake, not mine) a proper degree of respect for adults. So Father Mark is both properly formal and informal in this setting. I don’t think I’ll be insisting on it anywhere else though. Come to that, I won’t be insisting on it here. It’s what the children want to call me and that’s all right with me!

[This post has been cleared by one of the school’s assistant headteachers.]

Back to school

9 06 2009

I’m currently in the midst of another placement in a school running a creative spirituality programme. This time it’s a secondary school in the centre of Portsmouth. I’ll update you all on that once I’ve written it up and cleared the posts with the school’s deputy headteacher.

A rapidly developing parish?

9 06 2009

I don’t think I posted after the first ‘Rapid Parish Development’ workshop in April. We’ve just had the second (on 2nd June) as well as a workshop for the congregation in mid May. Rapid Parish Development is a programme developed by the Diocesan Social Responsibility Adviser in conjunction with a development consultant. Although I think it was kind of targeted at parishes needing some sort of building project, it asks deeper questions than that. The development consultant who runs the sessions unapologetically uses the language of the market to talk about how churches can engage.

It’s difficult for church people to get along with that, and all of us would have reservations about it, including, in fact, this consultant, but if has proved a helpful way of cutting through a lot of our flim-flammery to the reality of who we’re trying to reach and how.

The answer to the first of those, of course, is everyone. The Church of England is for everyone unless they choose to opt out. In theory. In practice, we’re not reaching people as effectively as we might by focusing our energies down on our ‘market’. That just means, given that we have limited resources, which group/s in our immediate area are we going to target next and what does that mean for the deployment of our resources and the development (or maybe abandonment) of our built assets?

Members of the congregations, as well as the clergy from parishes in some of the tougher areas in the diocese (what would once have been Urban Priority Area [UPA] parishes) have been asked to pilot this programme.

It’s been very helpful. Two things particularly have stuck with me and have become key thoughts in approaching our developing strategy.

  1. Don’t try to address a deficit. That is don’t base your strategy about trying to fill a need, or to put it another way, you can’t turn a negative into a positive. Need is an all consuming black hole. You need a positive offer.
  2. Einstein’s definition of madness: ‘to keep doing what you’ve always done and expect a different result’

Out of our most recent session we are working on two quite clear strategic possibilities for the parish of St Luke (and in conjunction with the parish of St Peter, we hope). The first is that we could spend a significant chunk of our money throwing a big party for Somers Town. We want to get Winston Churchill Avenue closed and to put on an event that will celebrate Somers Town and help people to feel positive about themselves and where they live. This area is relentlessly disparaged, but there is life and vitality and we think it’s worth celebrating. If we can ‘Love Albert Road’ as a nearby festival in the city suggests, we can love Somers Town too. We kept hearing ourselves using the Loreal strapline: ‘because you’re worth it’. We would love to start a new and lavish festival for the people of this area – because they’re worth it.

The other thing is a refinement of the idea of starting with Wilmcote House which is basically, and very simply, that since children are the most likely to be around at the sort of time in our week that we have already carved out as ‘church time’ – Sunday morning – that some sort of kids’ club could well be the way forward. We will see how this conversation develops as we broaden the discussion again for the whole congregation.