New Year’s resolutions

10 01 2010

It’s amazing how often a break from work gives you the opportunity to think more clearly about work. So it was in the Christmas break for me. I took the week after Christmas off.

I was in the shower… actually it’s remarkable how often these soughts of moments (epiphanies?) occur in that small cubicle. I’m not a utility showerer. That bathroom is a bit of a retreat for me. I do often catch myself sort of on pause — you could call it daydreaming — while the water streams over me. Anyway it was one of those moments. It occurred to me that if I am to stand any chance of completing my MA dissertation by the 11th May deadline, I really can’t afford to take on any new projects.

And I did have some plans forming.

I was planning a sort of rolling guerrilla happening for Lent. I had it in mind to make a kind of portable sacred space with a shed on pram wheels — it would be part soapbox go-cart, part outbuilding and part mobile confessional. The plan forming in my mind was that that I would tow the thing around the city centre behind my bike. It would pop up each week in unexpected places, like the Guildhall Square, the train station concourse, in front of the law courts, on the footbridge by the university halls of residence and the car park of the city centre academy school.

As I write now, I’m still gripped by the romance of the idea. It would be fun. It might generate a buzz. It would be arresting. (Actually without the right permissions in place, I might be arrested!) It’s a good idea (even if I do say so myself). I would feel very satisfied if I managed to make it happen.

So too would I if I managed to create some sort of weekly drop in – dare I say sanctuary – kind of sacred space in the city centre academy school. It’s a great moment as the academy establishes itself. It could work. It’s a good idea. I would feel very satisfied if I managed to make it happen.

But any satisfaction I experienced would be inevitably spoilt by the constant nagging feeling that something else significant I had already committed myself to was being left behind. Namely, my unwritten MA dissertation.

Now my own personal satisfaction isn’t the final arbiter of what I should and shouldn’t do. But that’s not to say it doesn’t come into it at all. Of course it does. I’m a human being. I can’t honestly pray the prayer for generosity of St Ignatius of Loyola. Can you? And St Ignatius himself, describing the process of discerning God’s will talks about doing what brings you consolation and not doing what brings desolation. Again, that’s a much deeper question than what brings satisfaction or dissatisfaction. But neither is it wholly divorced from all that.

What seems clear to me is that there are moments when you have to say no to good ideas – other people’s or your own. You have to leave aside things it would be really good to do, at the moment that might seem in some ways the best moment to do them, because you simply don’t have the capacity to take anything else on without giving up on commitments you’ve already made.

That’s what I, with some degree of regret, am resolved to do in the first part of this year. It’s tough for a pioneer – a natural initiator – to move into a holding pattern. But the MA dissertation has to be my primary project if it’s not to be abandoned altogether.

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Spiritual discernment in pioneer ministry.

3 10 2009

1187877_pile_of_books__1As well as the million and one other things I have to do this Autumn, I am finally making some substantial progress with my MA dissertation. I am studying for a Master of Arts in Theology for Christian Ministry and Mission with STETS.

Originally I had planned for my MA dissertation to track and evaluate the process of discernment I had outlined before taking up my post. The research aspect of the dissertation would have come from the ethnography I was planning to undertake in each of the potential mission contexts I identified. The trouble was firstly that I struggled to find time alongside this work to make progress on the dissertation. And secondly as I spent time in each setting, it was decreasingly recognisable as research and more like the raw stuff of mission. I don’t approach these places as a research student but as a christian priest. I’ve written elsewhere on why that might tend to make one a poor researcher.

There is a proper place for listening and observing as one enters new realms of human experience, but I have also felt the need to attempt to bring something real and positive into each place I come to – to make a contribution to the life I encounter from the outset of that encounter.

So as I pick up my dissertation again after summer break, I need to rethink how I might attack it. I still want to focus on discernment as it seems to me that this is a key charism for pioneers as they found and lead new missional communities and embark in new forms if mission. If our task is to participate in the mission of God in the world, we need to be able to discern what God might be doing where we are. And we need to be able to discern how we are being called to participate.

It just so happens that this coincides with the St Luke’s PCC taking a decision on my proposal to relocate our Sunday gathering in one of the nearby tower blocks and to change the nature of what we do. With the encouragement of my colleague, I introduced some Ignatian style prayer to the proceedings. Each participant was given a sheet that invited them to write down what excited them and what concerned them about the proposal. We then took a turn to share our concerns, and then again to share our excitement. Writing first meant that we were more likely to listen to each other instead of mentally preparing our contribution while others were speaking. Then we went away on our own for a few minutes to silently reflect and pray on what we’d learnt. I suggested people might want to imagine themselves in the scene of Jesus and the woman of Samaria at the well from John 4. They could imagine themselves as the woman or as an observer. I asked them to focus on the moment when Jesus says ‘true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth’ and hold a conversation with him in their imagination about what that means for us now.

There are deep, deep wells in the Christian tradition, offering spiritual practices of discernment. The Jesuit (Ignatian) tradition is very strong on this, but it occurs to me that there are other approaches too. There are more ecstatic approaches to discernment in the Pentecostal/Charismatic traditions for instance. I have begun to delve a bit deeper to see what else there is in the tradition. I am looking at the Desert Fathers and Benedict. I will take a look at Richard Hooker and perhaps the more recent experience of Indaba groups at the Lambeth conference.

Given that discernment is so important, I wondered how well prepared pioneer ministers are for approaching those moments. I wasn’t trained on the pioneer track – I came to this mode of ministry later. But when you take a look at the guidance on starting a fresh expression of church, for instance, prayer is mentioned as something one would naturally want to do, but that’s where it stops. If we ask the question of the Christian tradition, ‘Are there ways of praying that will help us to discern our calling?’, then the answer is clearly yes.

There are of course, other important moments in the process of discerning a way forward. But if we are to go beyond something that looks a lot like market research, there surely has to be a strong spirituality component. I have a sense that the managerialism that John Millbank decries in his incendiary ‘Stale expressions: the management-shaped church’ is somewhat evident in the way pioneer ministers (including myself) are encouraged and so do conceive of the new form of church/mission that might be appropriate for their context. (His critique goes deeper than that, of course.)

So I am now working towards researching the question of the extent to which pioneer ministers reach their decisions by drawing on those spiritual practices of discernment from the tradition.

Here’s my working title:
Spiritual discernment in pioneer ministry.
To what extent have spiritual practices of discernment from the Christian tradition informed four Anglican pioneer ministers as they have engaged in the process of determining their response to their particular mission context?

And here’s the first paragraph of my draft proposal:

This author contends that those appointed ‘pioneer’ by the Church of England are not as well versed in the spiritual practices of discernment that the Christian tradition has to offer as might be helpful or appropriate in the exercise of their ministry. It could be instructive for the development of initial and ongoing pioneer ministerial training and formation to test this hypothesis. It may also yield insights into the appropriateness of particular spiritual practices of discernment for the particular situations into which pioneer ministers are sent. The proposed research could thus begin to indicate both the need for, and the content of, an additional component of ministerial formation.

I am proposing to examine my own practice and that of three other volunteers (victims?) and to test this hypothesis. I will make contact with as many of the training institutions as I can to see whether spiritual practices of discernment are part of their curricula and I hope to keep a conversation going here as I discover more.

If anyone out there in the blogosphere is interested in taking part – as one of my interviewees perhaps – I’d be really pleased to speak to you. If you just want to share your experience through commenting on this post or others that follow, I’d be really grateful to receive that input too.





Priests make poor researchers. Discuss.

1 05 2009

Part of my training for ordination involved being exposed to some social science and anthropological strategies for getting under the skin of whatever setting one finds one’s self in. Those modules encouraged us not to just trust our hunches and superficial impressions but to dig deep into the culture of the places in which we find ourselves exercising our ministry. In my current MA too there has been a substantial module on designing a research project. That partly informed my current strategy of immersing myself in different contexts for a concentrated, though short, period of time.

Ethnography (an anthropological discipline) is the technique that informs my engagement with these placements where I come as a participant observer. I haven’t come as an out and out researcher. I have come as a priest. And I have come into my current setting – a primary school in the centre of Portsmouth – offering some input that I have developed as I have reflected on the nature of spirituality and how people, especially children might be encouraged in their own sense of connectedness with themselves, each other, the wider world and ‘the transcendent’ (however they name that). I have also come as a learner – offering simply to be another learning and growing presence in the school.

I’m not here as a researcher in the official/explicit sense. That would have required a different conversation seeking permission to be here than the one I actually had. But I am here to learn, and to understand this community and maybe reflect a little how the church might celebrate, support, contribute to its life. So I am informally using some ethnographic strategies to help me in that process. That’s all a very long preamble to the point I want to make…

One thing that is identified in all the books about research is that ‘going native’ is something to be avoided, though it’s an ever-present draw in research settings. Basically researchers are supposed to avoid identifying too strongly with their research subjects because it distorts their findings. But as I said to the headteacher today, three days into this placement, I could very easily find myself being a passionate advocate for this school and its work.

So that probably means I’m a rubbish researcher. Well I can’t say as I care much about that, though it may make my MA dissertation a little more tricky!

Maybe it’s just down to my personality. I remember feeling similar feelings of admiration for the nurses I was interviewing for my pre-ordination placement. But maybe it’s also got something to do with the nature of priesthood too. Going native might be the bête noïr of the world of research but I wonder whether it might be precisely what a good priest should be about: identifying with people; celebrating with them; calling out the joy and hope that is evident even in the most trying of circumstances. These are certainly an aspect of the calling of a priest. There is also, undeniably, a call to relate the stories out of which that celebration emerges to the narratives of faith. How that works in this setting, I am a long way from working out. Certainly it would just be crass, arrogant and rude, to go round the place saying ‘it’s all thanks to God, you know!’ (That’s just so obvious it probably doesn’t even need saying.)

But maybe again it is just about who I am in this place and who I am known to be. Maybe my presence as a priest, subtly and gently raises the prospect that there might just be a bigger dynamic at work here than just the indomitability of the human spirit, impressive as that is. But it doesn’t force that interpretation down anyone’s throat. If anyone wants to explore it further they can ask me. If it unsettles them, they don’t have to be confronted with it in a challenging way. That leaves everyone’s dignity intact and makes no threat, I think, to the properly multicultural (and secular?) nature of this school.

I suspect this obsession with God is quaint and amusing for some who might now be reading this blog, but I hope you will allow that as a priest in the Church of England it’s a subject I might just be reasonably expected to think about!

[This post has been cleared with the school’s headteacher.]