A beautiful failure

22 11 2011

20111122-172653.jpgIt has been two years since the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s in Somerstown (in the heart of Portsmouth) moved out of its building and began gathering instead in one of the nearby tower blocks. On Advent Sunday in 2009, with the Bishop’s permission, we ceased Sunday services and opened instead what we have called the Sunday Sanctuary. This wasn’t simply the relocation of our services to another place. We went right back to almost nothing. We had breakfast together and invited residents of the tower block (mainly young families) to join us. We imagined that the typical encounter would involve a bite to eat, a chat and maybe something a bit hands on and – with a light touch – spiritual. Maybe people would stop for 20 minutes or so.

We had no idea whether anyone would come. But come they did. And those who came did not come for a brief visit. They came in the moment we opened the doors each week, stayed with us all morning and before long, unbidden, got stuck in with clearing up at the end of the morning. This very different sort of engagement than we had imagined meant we very quickly had to give the morning more structure and shape. It threw us back on the liturgy. What we do together now has the skeleton of an Anglican Eucharist – we gather over breakfast; we set aside all that we regret from the past week; we collect our thoughts and prayers; we share a story and reflect together on its meaning for us today; we look out to the needs of those around us and the wider world; we give thanks; we share bread and grape juice and we ask God’s blessing as we go on. Though the flesh on the bones might not be so immediately familiar, there is a family resemblance with our sister churches in the Church of England.

As I reflect on the past two years, and what we’ve learnt together, I am bound to ask: has it been a success?

That, of course, depends on what you mean by success. I think we set out on this journey with a little bit of a Field of Dreams mentality: ‘if you build it, they will come’. (That’s a misquote I know but I hope you’ll excuse a little creative license there.) I think we set out with the idea that if we changed what we do together; changed where we do it and changed who we invited to come, that we would make some sort of breakthrough in Somerstown and in particular in the block of flats (Wilmcote House) to which we had relocated.

In those terms, the Sunday Sanctuary has failed.

We have failed to make a big breakthrough in Wilmcote House or in Somerstown. We have engaged with a small number of families in the block, some who have stayed with us and others who have moved on after a little while. But most of the young families in the block pretty much ignore us.

Maybe our ‘offer’ is wrong. We insist on children coming with at least one grown up. We are running a family gathering in a place and at a time when a significant number of parents just want their kids out of the way or off their hands. We had a suspicion from the outset that a kids’ club would be overwhelmed. We had neither the people nor the resources to sustain something like that. So we set ourselves the parameter of barring unaccompanied primary- and pre-school age children at the very beginning. That has proved very difficult at times. I have hated having to turn away kids that are desperate to come in.

But even more fundamentally, I think, the biggest flaw in our thinking is that we were still ultimately operating an attractional model of mission. We were still creating an event that we expected people to come to. We made it as easy as possible for people to come – especially by moving ourselves much closer to where they live. But it still relies on people responding to an invitation from strangers to come to an event they know little about.

So though we took a massive step out of our comfort zone, I still don’t think we fully inhabited Jesus’s radical sending of his disciples to be guests, reliant on the hospitality of others in hostile territory.

As an initiative, then, in terms of measurable outcomes, it has failed.

But what a beautiful failure.

I write this a couple of days after we baptised five members of our community. Of those (four children and one adult), only one came from a family that I think would have explicitly defined themselves as Christians a couple of years ago. And as I write this I am looking forward to seeing six more members of our community confirmed at the cathedral. People whose connection to Christian faith has been very basic and tenuous have discovered a lively faith for themselves.

We have grown in numbers in a small way. We’ve also lost some more longstanding Christians. Some were not able to cope with being so far out of their comfort. Others have simply relocated. So we are not much bigger.

That is so often the measure by which people – consciously or otherwise – judge whether something has been a success. I hinted at it myself earlier by talking about a ‘big’ breakthrough. And on those terms, we have just about stayed steady. We have failed to achieve numerical growth.

But our growth in depth has been marked. Those longstanding Christians who have been able to stick with it have grown in faith as they’ve engaged with new people in an unfamiliar setting. Newer members who had only the most nominal faith have reached a point where they are making a public commitment to live as a Christian. We’ve all grown in the breadth of our spiritual experience as we’ve moved closer to becoming united with our sister parish of St Peter’s.

But above all we’ve grown in the depth of our relationships. The newer members aren’t people who’ve joined us any longer. They are us. We have become one family.

There are lots of things we’ve learnt through this whole experience.

First, I think we’ve been reminded of something we already knew, even explicitly remarked upon. People in this place don’t come to stuff. It’s not a matter of tweaking our event to get it just right and then people will come. They won’t. They’re not interested. They don’t care what we have to say. Maybe we could cast our net a bit wider (leaflet all the tower blocks instead of just one) and maybe we’d get one or two more families like the lovely ones who found their way to us and became part of us. We will probably do that. But the fundamental and stark reality still holds. If we build it, they will not come.

Second, we can’t look to the handful of local families who are part of our community to reach their neighbours all by themselves. That’s because they are not the hard to reach, troubled families. Those who have joined us are really nice, together people. If that sounds judgemental on the rest of the families around, I’m sorry. But most of us know what we mean by ‘nice’ people. These are they. Sunday Sanctuary really was a sanctuary for them from the troubles and menace around them. It would take incredible courage, confidence and faith for these brand new Christians to reach out to the most challenging of their neighbours.

Third, that means this is no ‘hit and run’ sort of ministry for me. The idea I started out with that I could spend about three years here and, during that time, get something off the ground, train up local leaders and then move on to the next place (I really thought this!) – well that just seems laughable now. I am going to have to be here for the long haul.

Finally what has dropped like a great big penny is that ministry here has to be relational. Again, I’ve said that before. Right at the outset. But I’m only just beginning to understand what that means. What we’ve discovered, because this is what’s actually happened, is that if we’re going to make a difference in Somerstown, it will be one family at a time. It will be about investing in real friendship – giving time, attention, love and practical support to a small number of people at any one time. It’s like the old story of the little boy throwing starfish back into the sea after a storm. The beach is covered in starfish as far as the eye can see. A man says to the boy: ‘how on earth do you hope to make any difference?’ Picking up another starfish, and casting it back into the safety of the sea, the boy says, ‘made a difference to that one.’

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Enjoy the silence

26 01 2011

So yesterday I wrote about listening to the radio less. This is essentially about reducing the amount of background noise, both sonic and intellectual. But toning down the wallpaper is not the same as knocking a hole through to the other side.

So what have I done to actually make time for silence?

Well I think it’s fair to say that I’m working my way into a daily and weekly rhythm that includes time to be intentionally still. Each morning, my colleague and I spend twenty minutes in silence as part of our morning office. And before Christmas I was more and more reliably including a midday office with ten minutes of silence and night prayer with a further twenty minutes. Over the Christmas break, I let it go. And it’s been more difficult to reinstate since coming back. I’ve been struggling more with another old habit – staying up late.

So it’s a work in progress, but I think there is real progress.

I’m realistic about where I’ve got to, but I’m approaching this with a sense of joy and freedom. I am not experiencing a ‘hardening of the oughteries’! It’s in response to a sense of invitation and call that I am engaged in this journey, not duty.

So what difference does this make?

Perhaps first I’d better reflect on what the experience of reasonably frequently (I can’t quite yet truthfully use the word regularly) spending time in quiet has been like. I know this is a well worn path. Many have been this way before. And my experience has been very similar to the little I’ve read of others entering into a contemplative way of life.

The first word one has to speak is ‘distractions’. We are so trained by our lives to live either in the past or the future that the mind very quickly wants to inhabit that territory. It’s difficult not to go over some incident that has been. Or to start to plan something that is to come. The ironic thing is how often those thoughts are about how I will share with others the beauty of silence and stillness!

You might notice, though, that I haven’t used the words ‘struggle’ or ‘frustration’ in reflecting on that. It seems to me that so much of our lives is cramming stuff into our consciousness (and in me thereby fermenting this sense of near dread that there’s something I’m missing). It’s not unreasonable to expect that given a bit of space, some of the excess of psychic noise will begin to bubble up and out. (I use the word psychic here in its psychological rather than parapsychological sense.) So I actually see this as a positive thing. That doesn’t mean I let the reviewing or planning instinct take over. I try to acknowledge it and draw myself back to simply searching for stillness.

The way that I do that is again very well known. I repeat a simple phrase or word in my mind, in time with my breathing. Mostly I use the Jesus Prayer: ‘Jesus Christ; Son of God; have mercy on me; a sinner’ or occasionally: ‘in God I live and move and have my being’ or as in Advent: ‘mar-a-na-tha!’ (one of those deeply mysterious Aramaic words we generally equate with ‘Come, Lord Jesus!’). That does allow me to re-centre when the mind wanders.

It’s out of that experience, partly, that I have sought to reduce the level of ‘noise’ with which I surround myself (hence listening to the radio less, watching a bit less TV).

The other thing to say (again?) is that stillness is a better word than silence. It would be difficult to achieve with huge amounts of external noise, but on the other hand, true silence is not possible. There’s always the noise of the rain, or the hum of the fridge, or the sound of a car door being slammed, or birdsong. The essential thing is not to tune it out but to gently suppress the sort of categorisation I’ve just done. To be present to the unique sonic qualities of each vibration, without naming what it is. It’s about the unique gift of each sound actually being a doorway to being present to the immediate present moment.

And sometimes, just sometimes, I am brought into a deep sense of inner stillness, calm and presence.

So what difference does it make?

It doesn’t make me one of those annoying, superhuman, people who never lose it, are never phased or upset or worried. But there is a just emerging sense for me that there is a still centre to my being and that in that still centre I connect with Being and that there I am loved; utterly constantly and faithfully loved.





What difference does it make?

25 01 2011

According to Mozza, of course, it makes none. But I’m a little more positive than the mercurial Manc. Only a little ;-). I’m not talking about some dark secret revealed to a friend, but the thing what I blogged about yesterday – my desire to enter more deeply into a contemplative rhythm of life; to live a life permeated with silence.

So what difference does it make, this strange new sense of calling? I have responded in some practical ways. I have taken some real steps.

First, I will reflect in this post on one seemingly tiny thing that is actually, I think, quite significant.

I listen to the radio less.

Great, you might say, so now you’re less well informed. Well you might think that (unless you thought I was listening to Radio 1 or local radio). No. I was listening a lot to Radio 4. So I was, even if I say so myself, incredibly, magnificently well informed. But this was my routine — I would get up and put on the radio, then go downstairs to make breakfast, and put on the radio, then get in the car for the school run; and put on the radio.

So the upshot of all that was I was stupendously, fantastically well-informed. And that during those mornings with my family my head was somewhere else. At times I even shushed my children because there was something so interesting, so informative that I wanted to listen to on Radio 4. I was so concerned with the big world out there that I missed the entire universe of wonder right in front of me, every time my wife and children sat down together to eat.

I was not present.

So I took a decision. I turned the radio off. I listen to it much less. I am somewhat less well informed and somewhat more present.

How wonderful! Well, yes and no. Being present is hard. It’s scary, actually.

Being confronted with the reality of ourselves in the present moment can be mightily uncomfortable. That’s why most of us avoid it.

And I have been astonished to discover how addictive a simple thing like listening to the radio can be. There are times when it takes a conscious mental effort to leave it off. I don’t always manage it.

Why does it matter? Surely it’s okay to listen every now and again? Well maybe, but I feel that until I can actually manage to do without it, that I must do without it.

Does this sound mental? Maybe it is, a bit. But I do feel that it’s spiritually significant –this little skirmish with this little habit. It’s about how much I am truly prepared to truly embrace the gift of discipline.

And it’s interesting that when I do manage to be firm with myself, other things take the radio’s place. Like games on the iPhone. I had to delete one before Christmas because I found myself playing it in every spare moment, and even in some moments that weren’t spare.

But in the main, sticking to this small commitment is making a difference. I actually manage to complete things like preparing the breakfast in a reasonable time. And so I am not quite as much of a source of frustration for those closest to me in the mornings. And I give those closest to me much better attention than they were getting before. I am more present to them. They and I feel more valued, appreciated, loved.

And so I am just beginning to experience, in a small way, how simultaneously rewarding and challenging is giving up something good for something better. I suspect this little skirmish is going to lead me into others. I’ll let you know.





Got religion?

24 01 2011

Quite apart from my deliberations over my Sunday night conversations in the pub, I have been in the grip of something of a crisis. I don’t mean I’m having a breakdown or anything like that. Or maybe I am, of a sort. I think it’s more like what I understand the Swiss theologian Karl Barth to mean when he refers to a ‘krisis’. It’s a moment of realisation, a sort of existential confrontation with a bigger reality.

I have been feeling increasingly like I am playing at being a Christian. And that far from working as a priest being an expression of my discipleship, it’s actually a hindrance. Because being a priest can make you feel like ‘of course I’m following Christ’, whilst simultaneously evading the all-consuming implications of a life of discipleship. But this cognitive dissonance can’t persist indefinitely without reaching a moment of krisis. That came for me late last year.

I found myself increasingly troubled by the same insistent question:

Am I really prepared to live my life as if God is at the centre of reality?

That’s scary on a number of levels.

First it sounds like I’m a religious nut. There are people, I know, who read this blog, who don’t share my faith who are probably feeling a little worried, scared or disappointed. Maybe you thought that despite my faith, I was at least in other respects fairly sensible. But no, turns out I’m just as much of a nutjob as the rest. To those friends I say bear with me, it’s not going to make me into a relentless and annoying preachy sort who talks about nothing but God. And you might even find a point of connection with what I think this all means in practice.

The other level on which it’s scary is that I don’t wholly know the answer. I’m not sure I am prepared to live like that. What might it mean for my family? Will it be another thing drawing us apart, or might it be something that draws us together? On the other hand, the alternative is not particularly attractive either. I am finding it less and less tolerable to be a sort of nominal follower of the Way (I wouldn’t have said I was before this). But giving up and embracing a materialistic lifestyle isn’t much of a draw either.That seems to me to leave people exhausted, broke and broken.

But what does it mean in practice? What am I actually talking about if not that I will just bang on about God the whole time?

Well what it comes down to is a call to embrace discipline as a gift not a burden; to live in a rhythm of life that makes prayer the centre of everything. And I’m not talking about prayer in terms of nagging my invisible magic friend to give me what I want, not even what I want for MIMF’s sake over my own. No this is prayer as contemplation. This is about making proper time at set moments each day to be still and silent — that sort of deep and intentional silence and stillness that opens up the possibility of a real encounter with the Divine. I am hungry for that experience for myself and I am increasingly persuaded that it’s the most important thing I can do for the people of Somerstown and the city centre.

It’s good if there are effective managers and leaders of organisations and projects around. It’s good (but rare!) if Christian clergy are similarly ‘effective’, but I am finding myself more and more taken with the view that what people need me to be, whether they are members of the local Christian community or not, is a deeply spiritual person. They need me to be someone who has sunk deep wells into the Greater Reality, the Mystery of Being, the Wellspring of Life or if you prefer — God. Because people here, as pretty much everywhere, are so caught up in the daily grind and rush of life, of living in the painful past, the uncertain future or anaesthetising themselves with extremes of experience; they are so caught up in that that they cannot be truly present to themselves or the present moment or to the Eternal in that present moment. And most of the time, neither can I. But what people need is not someone with a load of good arguments and ideas about how that’s all wrong, but someone with a genuine and compelling story of a different sort of experience — the sort of experience that seems to be available to anyone who takes silence seriously.

And so prayer (or if prayer sounds too narrowly religious for you, think: stillness and silence) is not merely the thing that will sustain me in the primary work of Christian ministry. It is the primary work of Christian ministry. Because people see through bullshit. They’ll know if I’ve really been there or if it’s someone else’s story I’m trying to pass off as my own.

So I am in the process of attempting a re-ordering of my life. I am trying to get more religious; religious in it’s best sense: a commitment to a rhythmic life. Because the experience of monastics and mystics alike is that the reconnection (another meaning of religion) I desire is not achieved casually but through persistence. Have I ‘got religion’? Not nearly so much as I hope to yet.

There’s more to say on this, but for now, I think I need to stop. And be still.





Seventy times seven

3 11 2010

I am on a quiet day today, reading ‘Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense’ by W.H. Vanstone. His reflections on the ‘phenomenology of love’ — the title of his third chapter — have set me thinking in the nature of forgiveness and fidelity.

What does forgiveness mean? I guess I would start by saying that it is a willingness or a decision (of the heart) to cut out an offence. I use that metaphor deliberately, as I think talking about brushing aside or sweeping away, for instance, would not do justice to the pain or cost involved in forgiveness. It is surgery. Without anaesthesia. It restores a relationship as if the offence had not happened.

But what if the offence is the utter betrayal of infidelity? Would we consider a wife who responded to her husband’s adultery with forgiveness seven times (let alone seventy times seven times) a heroine of love or something else?

I am trying to be careful here as there may well be people out there reading this who are tolerating a serial adulterer, perhaps even people known to me. I do not pretend to have any right to comment on your decisions.

But we might be more inclined to say that such serial forgiveness might be a failure of that other sort of love, implied in the traditional summary of divine law: love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbour *as yourself*. It might be said to be a dereliction of one’s duty to love one’s self to allow such betrayal and abuse to be perpetuated. And it is the same Christ of the gospels who both sets such a high standard of forgiveness and appears to accept that infidelity invalidates the covenant of marriage. Is it possible to have both forgiven and divorced an unfaithful partner? Surely it must be so. Otherwise we ask that forgiveness robs us utterly of our dignity and self-esteem. I am not saying here that there is no way back for a relationship when there has been adultery. But I am saying that I think that living out the demands of the prayer that daily asks us to forgive others as we are forgiven does not mean that we must endlessly tolerate betrayal.

But what does forgiveness mean if the broken relationship is not restored as if the offence had not occurred? Perhaps it means that we do not place that person in a category other than ‘person’ in our own heart and mind. That we continue to view them as a person of unique and infinite worth, even if we have concluded, with sadness, that it is not healthy for either of us to remain together. And perhaps it means that we do not allow that experience of betrayal to so distort our understanding of ‘persons’ that we can no longer trust or love. Perhaps it is a restoration of innocence, if not relationship; something that is for our own benefit and for the benefit of others, as much as it is for the benefit of the one who has betrayed us.

That is all very well if we are talking about the utter betrayal of adultery. That sort of betrayal is not ‘all very well’. What I mean is that this understanding of forgiveness does not touch my experience as I have not needed to offer it or ask it in those circumstances.

But what is infidelity? Is ‘marital unfaithfulness’ merely a question of adultery or should we draw its bounds more broadly. I have lived up to my vow to ‘forsake all others’ but have I loved and cherished in times better or worse? Or have there been times when I have been indifferent, unkind or even cruel? I confess that there have. And not merely as that perhaps understandable sort of sulking or lashing out in the emotional heat of receiving offence, but through prolonged periods of self-absorption. It is clearly a deeper betrayal to withdraw one’s love and give it to another. But simply to withdraw it is on the same trajectory. What sort of forgiveness can I ask for in those circumstances? Is this not a sort of infidelity — a lack of faithfulness?

I am fortunate indeed to have been forgiven this more than seven times. Slowly perhaps, this forgiveness is transforming me; making me better able to love in a truly faithful way.

And perhaps this is a way too to understand the relationship at the heart of faith. Time and again in the Hebrew Scriptures, the nation is ‘hewn by the prophets’ for their spiritual adultery. They literally engaged in the ritual worship of gods other than Yahweh. As a follower of the Way, I am not, I think, drawn off in idolatrous worship of false gods. (Though I do lust after the idols of consumer capitalism — iWant.) My infidelity is more along the lines of that self-absorbed indifference. Even the work of a priest, pioneer or otherwise can be a way of avoiding the call of God. So today I am taking time to reflect in silence; to be still and allow myself to be found; to experience and receive forgiveness and perhaps grow in faith/fulness.





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. 🙂 ]





We’re one, but we’re not the same

9 10 2010

So what do I need to tell you to bring you up to date with all that’s going on in the world of pioneering in Pompey? I suppose if I am going to stick to my new short post rule, it had better be one thing at a time. I think the last thing I reported (ignoring for a second my musings after a home communion) was that we, the Sunday Sanctuary, were about to embark on a process of discernment. We were going to try to work out the best way forward for us as a whole community — former members of St Luke’s and newer members from Wilmcote House. And by working out, I don’t mean just figuring it out for ourselves. I mean that through our reflection and sharing, we are intentionally looking to participate in the emergence of God’s future for our community. (I’ll unpack a bit more of what I mean by that in a future post.)

But just to explain how we actually went about it… On two consecutive Sundays, we gathered as usual and shared a welcome and breakfast together. Then, when it came to our circle/all-together time, we explained the three options that the PCC had come up with. These were meant to be a basis for conversation, not a straightjacket. We approached the process with an openness, an expectation, even, that something else could emerge that we hadn’t considered yet.

So after explaining the options, we encouraged people to spend some time in quiet, reflecting on each of the options. Adults and older children each had a sheet that invited them to write down one thing that excited them about each idea and one thing that concerned them. The younger children each had a sheet with smiley faces. They needed an adult to help them, reading the options to them and showing how to use the sheets. We then followed that with a time where everyone, of every age was encouraged to share in turn. We set some boundaries for this sharing. We went round the circle twice; first sharing our concern and then the second time around sharing what excited us about each idea. There was to be no comment from others as each person shared. Each person was to be listened to and their contribution allowed to stand. We followed that with a time of more freeflowing conversation.

I had intended to conclude this time by describing what I perceived to be the mind of the group and then inviting people to participate in a five-finger vote on what I would be suggesting. There was a little bit of disquiet from one or two of the church council members when we mentioned voting. I think I had not explained clearly enough what this meant. It wasn’t about taking a decision that properly belonged to the council, but simply a way for people to express their support or otherwise for what I would have been suggesting as a distillation of the conversation so far.

As it was, there wasn’t enough unanimity to formulate a single expression of the mind of the gathering. But that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t unity. I don’t think that unity is the same thing as unanimity (and this isn’t what you’re looking for in a discernment process anyway). But on what basis can I claim that there was unity? I can’t give you a concrete moment. It’s more a sense that I have, and others shared, that it mattered to everyone what happened; that our newer friends viewed themselves as belonging to the Sunday Sanctuary, not merely people who come to something.

I think I probably can identify a couple of explicit things that are signs of that. First, there was the fact that our newer members fully participated in the discernment process and were not embarrassed or reticent about sharing their responses. Second, those same newer members were concerned about making our time together more churchy and in expressing that, it became clear that they really value the way we do things together on a Sunday morning.

When you put that together with the desire from the more established members to share the discernment process with our newer members, I think it’s evident that we are well on the way to becoming one community. We’re not of one mind. But we are one body.

I’ll tell you more about how it has all worked out practically in another post, because this is already too long! But for now I think I’m happy to celebrate this moment. I am blown away that we have come together in this way so soon after we started.