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.’

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.

New directions

23 06 2010

I know someone who got themselves in a right pickle by blogging about what had gone on in a PCC meeting. PCC? Parochial Church Council – it’s a Church of England parish’s very own baby church parliament. In other church traditions the whole membership of a local congregation takes decisions about the deployment of resources. In the Anglican setup, at least in England, these decisions are delegated to a small, elected, representative body: the PCC.

The Church of England is episcopally led and synodically governed. Basically that means that clergy have all the responsibility and none of the power! Which is a good thing, I think. No really it is. I aim to give away power and pursue influence instead.

Except tonight, the PCC gave genuine leadership itself I think. And I don’t think it will be a problem to blog about it – I’m bigging them up, not dissing them!

We finally, after a few days’ delay, met to kick start the process of discerning a way forward for our main activity. I was going to say, our main Sunday morning activity, but one of the options to emerge was that we should change the time when we meet. That suggestion came from me (and actually, initially from my colleague Alex, so I’ll steal no credit there).

After a short devotional introduction, and a bit of business, we began the process of examining where we’ve got to and where we might be going next. I was surprised by how positive we were about the first of those. There was no desire to roll back in terms of location or engagement or to attempt to work with a different ‘client group’. Young families are still the focus of our presence in Wilmcote House and Somerstown more generally. Measuring ourselves against each of the five values of a mission-shaped church, there was much to encourage us.

We all know, though, that there are frustrations for some of our number – the lack of opportunities to encounter God in sung worship, the lack of extended Bible teaching and opportunities for corporate prayer, the relentless hard work required to do what we’re doing now and the smaller numbers we’re seeing on Sunday mornings these days.

I don’t share many of these concerns personally, but is undeniable that they are very much in evidence among us and that these have the potential to break our communion. Sorry if that phraseology sounds too grand. This is not on the scale or intensity of the things threatening to break the Anglican Communion. But it is clear that we cannot carry the unresolved tension any further without people feeling compelled to walk away.

So, we try and move forward together; to preserve all that we have invested in each other. At the same time, we were keen to preserve the relationships we’ve established with our new friends in Wilmcote House. I was concerned that in our desire to reinstate some aspects of worship as we have experienced we might be loading people up with some unhelpful ‘baggage’ or, worse (is it worse?) put them off completely so that they never darken their door again.

We had an involved, and at odd moments, difficult, conversation. But we managed to conduct it in a spirit of honesty, humility and compassion. At the end of that discussion, we formulated three options:

  1. Integrate more familiar elements of worship throughout the morning.
    We would shorten our opening times. Instead of opening at 10 am, we would open at 10:30. As now, the first half hour would be set aside for welcome, breakfast and conversation. The next hour would incorporate singing, preaching and prayer alongside some more all-age focused activities.
  2. Add a ‘service’ at the end.
    The start and finish times would remain the same, and the time between 10:30 and 11:15 would remain predominated by all-age focused activities, but the time between 11:15 and 11:45 would be a more concentrated and structured service of worship including the elements identified in option 1.
  3. Move to the afternoon.
    Given that research suggests family activities are most successful in the afternoon, we thought we should consider as one of our options moving our activity to that time. This would involve an hour focused on hospitality and storytelling between 5pm and 6pm and then a contemporary music style service at 6:30 pm.

The master stroke that came out of our discussion was that the Wilmcote House families who are part of ‘us’ now should also be invited to participate in our discernment process. We could have invited them to come to our Tuesday evening gatherings that we have set aside for this purpose. But the suggestion that we should instead move our communal discernment to Sunday mornings for the next few weeks was recognised by all as the best way forward. It allows all ages to participate and allows the broadest possible participation in terms of residents, more longstanding members of the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s and some of that latter group who don’t normally make Tuesday evenings.

I am troubled by the possibility that we might be becoming more worship-shaped and less mission-shaped, slightly more stale than fresh expression, but I have to recognise the reality of where people are, what they’re able to give and what they need to receive. I just hope and pray that, whatever the final shape of what we do together, this is a necessary corrective to ensure we grow and develop as a pioneering community and not a withdrawal into more safe and familiar territory. That way lies our demise, I fear.

He ain’t heavy; he’s my brother.

21 06 2010

So in the end it is the Tuesday homegroup that has given way for the PCC. I didn’t reinstate Sanctuary in the pub. I was knackered after camping with two sons plus lively borrowed friend of #2 son. Then early start Sunday to ensure I was ready for the Sunday Sanctuary, which involved me eating habanero chilli flavour ‘Death Rain’ crisps and real, live (actually dead and cooked) locusts. We were doing the plagues of Egypt, Horrible Histories style.

(Every time I try to type son on the iPhone keypad, it comes out as ‘sin’ — is there a message there?! And while we’re on stuff that’s got nothing to do with anything, someone nearby is playing Michael Nyman — my favourite composer. That’s apropos of nothing, by the way, thought you might like to know. 8-] )

Now my brother is coming to visit from the States next week. I will probably have to cancel Sunday night in the pub again as he, his wife and daughter are arriving that night. And then I’ve got an issue with our Tuesday evening. I set a discernment process in motion that includes these next few Tuesday evenings. But my brother and his family are coming to visit immediately following my step brother’s wedding. Do I:

  1. Cancel Tuesday completely
  2. Ask someone else to host a normal homegroup (cancel discernment gathering)
  3. Ask someone else to run discernment process in my absence (gulp)
  4. Tell my brother to amuse himself and stick to the plan (pretty sure anyone else in the group being visited by globetrotting sibling would cry off homegroup!)
  5. Something else. Over to you, dear reader…

Best laid plans

18 06 2010

With two members of the PCC at the last minute unable to come for what would have been a very significant discussion, I felt I had not choice but to postpone the meeting last night. So no options for a way forward yet. I am trying to rearrange something before Tuesday when the wider congregation meets to look at the first option.

Interestingly, I am prepared to put aside the pub conversation this week to enable the PCC to meet this Sunday evening.

What does that say about the relative importance of that gathering?

Gimme five (although four will do).

17 06 2010

The PCC have been considering a review paper that I wrote for them. On the basis of that paper and PCC members’ responses, the PCC will try and produce three options for a way forward at its meeting on Thursday 17th June, 2010. Three is more of a guideline than a straightjacket, so if it turns out we need two or four options, that’s what we’ll do. Over the course of the three weeks following that meeting, at our Tuesday evening gatherings, we’ll be looking at each of the options in turn and entering into a process of spiritual discernment.

That process, much like the way we approached it at our weekend away back in March, comprises 3 broad stages:


This process is adapted from Victoria G Curtiss’s Guidelines for Communal Discernment, available here.

Our usual habit of eating together and sharing Communion will function as the first of those stages but perhaps to ensure the rest of the process doesn’t feel too confined, we might forgo having a pudding for these weeks! We will also try to start the meal promptly at 7:40, giving 10 minutes for people to arrive, say hello and get a drink. I will try and ensure we have finished at the table by 8:30. At the end of our Communion, we will hear the option being considered and be given a printed copy. We then move into the main exploration.

I have suggested we proceed as follows:

  • Letting go
    I want to invite us all to approach our discernment prayerfully, letting go of any barriers to being receptive to the Holy Spirit’s leading. To do that we need in a moment of quiet to ask for the grace to lay aside our ego, preconceived ideas, biases, and predetermined conclusions that may limit openness to God. What we’re looking for is ‘holy indifference’. That means being indifferent to everything except God’s will. It doesn’t mean, ‘I don’t care.’ And it doesn’t mean we lose our values and convictions. It simply means we are called to be open and focused above all on what God might be calling us to be and do. (Much of this is word for word from Curtiss)
  • Reflecting on the Bible.
    It would be tempting to select a text that offered some support to my own point of view! Or at least for people to feel that I had. I suggest therefore that we make the set gospel reading each week our text for that week. I think it would be helpful too to hear an initial reflection on that reading from different people each week. I am therefore looking for three people who will be willing on one of those weeks each to bring a short reflection (5-10 minutes) on that reading. It will require a little preparation, of course but I already have two volunteers.
    We’ll follow that with a few moments in quiet, during which I’ll ask each of us to write down the one word or phrase in the reading or what was said following that spoke to us most immediately or seemed to capture the essence of what God might be saying to each of us. We’ll then swap those papers and read each one in turn.
    Examining ourselves
    We then take a few moments in quiet to ask ourselves the question: what might God be asking of me as I approach this process of discernment?
  • Sharing our stories
    Again, in quiet, on one side of a slip of paper, we each write down one thing that concerns us about the option before us and one thing that concerns us. We share our concerns in turn. We all listen in silence. We share our excitement in turn. Again, we all listen in silence. One person records all the things that are shared.
  • Pause for reflection
    We keep a moment of quiet for reflection on what we have heard.
  • Discussion
    We take time to explore our response to the option put before us in conversation.


  • Choose direction
    As ‘president’, I attempt to gather our collective response to the option before us and shape it into a summary statement. We express our support of the proposal using the five finger method, as follows:
    5 fingers      I am fully supportive.
    4 fingers       I am mostly in agreement 
and am willing to support the majority.
    3 fingers       I have questions or reservations
 but am willing to stand aside;
    2 fingers       I am somewhat opposed and have concerns.
    1 finger        I cannot support this at this time.
  • Rest with the direction
    We spend a few moments in quiet again, entrusting our exploration to God and praying for our continuing discussions.

Out of this process, the PCC, as trustee of the parish’s resources, will determine how we should proceed together, selecting one of the original options or another that may have emerged from our exploration. I’ll keep readers of this blog up to date with how this proceeds.

Which way(s) now?

15 06 2010

So enough of me and my angst (for now 😉 ). This week the PCC meet to kick of the process of reviewing where we’ve got to with what we’re currently doing and how we might develop. The discussion will be in two parts. The first part takes us through the values of a mission-shaped church, as we have been paraphrasing them. The second is about trying to determine what options there are for taking things forward.

PART ONE: Where have we got to?

Are our Sunday and Tuesday gatherings:

    Are we* all drawn closer to God?
    Are we* connecting with the locality and its culture?
    Are we* relating to the right context? (Are we where we’re being called to be?)
    Are we* making life better for the community we serve?
    Are we* making enough of a difference to enough people?
    Are we* active in calling and helping each other to become disciples of Christ?
    Is all that we* do characterised by welcome and hospitality.
    Are our* ethos and style open to change as new people join?

* To what extent should we consider newer members from Wilmcote House as being part of our community in these questions? Is it us/them, or we? That’s not an entirely straightforward question. The way we have responded to newer members needs in practical ways suggests the members of the Congregation Formerly Known as St Luke’s (TCFKASL) see these newer people as part of our community. And the way they have got involved in helping to make our Sunday mornings happen suggests they have a sense of ownership and investment in who we are together. On the other hand, these newer members have not yet taken the steps (such as baptism) that would allow them to officially participate in the governance of the parish.

Where do we go from here?

The original vision for TCFKASL, that I laid out last summer, is that we would become a mission community, spending a period rooted in particular places in order to found new, indigenous and eventually self-sustaining congregations in Somerstown. TCFKASL would be sustained in its mission spirituality by forging and living a shared ‘rule’ (in the neo-monastic vein) in our Tuesday gatherings and our everyday lives.

  • How does that look now that we have begun to engage?
  • Is the original vision still sound?
    If not, how do we go about forging a new vision?
  • How do we change what we do now in order to address its current shortcomings and to allow for the emergence/evolution of our vision for our place in this locality? This might include consideration of our target group, the location of our activities, their timing, format and frequency as well as how we make best use of our current resources and personnel.
  • Do we need to change what we do now radically or more gradually?
  • What different possibilities are there that we can agree to take forward into the discernment process with the wider congregation in the coming weeks?

Power to the people!

9 06 2010

Another 70s TV reference! Robert Lindsay as ‘Wolfie’ from Citizen Smith.

So when the PCC of St Luke’s agreed to relocate our main Sunday activity to Wilmcote House — one of the local tower blocks — it was, at my suggestion, for the period of one year. We agreed that we would review before the summer break.

And here we are. That review is about to take place. And it’s clear that some members of the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s are wanting to ask some pretty searching questions about what we do. Let me be clear: that’s a good thing. I should be welcoming it. I do. But I also feel somewhat nervous about it.

Why is that?

Perhaps there are two reasons.


It isn’t of course. This is not my church or my mission. But its current form is an expression of a vision I’ve been articulating – that we would become a mission community, spending a period rooted in particular places in order to found new, indigenous and eventually self-sustaining congregations in Somerstown. TCFKASL (The Congregation Formerly Known As St Luke’s) would be sustained in its mission spirituality by forging and living a shared ‘rule’ in our Tuesday gatherings and our everyday lives.

So I’ve got a lot invested in this enterprise, emotionally, spiritually and, dare I say it, in terms of my reputation. Now some of you more saintly readers of this blog will perhaps be shocked that such a consideration as the last of those should even feature. But there it is. I admit it. I have an ego. It matters what people think. It’s not decisive, but it’s there. Perhaps because I acknowledge it, I’m better able to mediate against its less favourable influence. Time will tell.

By suggesting that we keep the arrangement to a year, I was attempting to save us from getting stuck in yet another set way of being and doing. It was my intention that the arrangement should never become fixed, but always provisional, under constant review. The funny thing is that I think of all of us involved, I have become the most ‘stuck’ in what we’re currently doing. I do genuinely think we might need to give it a bit longer to see how it might work. Even though this is the annual review, we’ve actually only been going for seven months.


I am nervous because in part the motivation for some of the questioning is that perennial question ‘what about us?’ I don’t blame or condemn people for that question. It’s a perfectly legitimate question. I’ve been saying for all those months we’ve been operating and for several before that, that if we engage with God in God’s mission we will be fed. And I’ve been saying that if we engage with children, like whom we are invited to become, we will meet God. I’ve been saying it. But for some at least, the experience hasn’t lived up to my rhetoric. There is a degree to which I wonder whether people have been as open to those sorts of experience as they might. But the fact remains. What I said would happen for people has only happened really for those who already found spiritual fulfilment in those ways.

So my nervousness comes from the desire I hear being expressed to pull back from the ecclesiological edge to somewhere a little more familiar. It worries me that the new people we’ve got to know could be sidelined as longstanding Christians look for more of what they’ve known in their church experience.

This is such a difficult balance to tread. In one sense, I am tempted (alongside my recognition that ‘I’m a failure’) to see this as a failure of my leadership. I have not managed to persuade people or demonstrate to them in our shared enterprise that the presence of God is to be found and that this is of itself worship and offers opportunities for discipleship. I am actually not so sure of this position as I once was. I need to look into the Tradition and recent experience to explore more deeply how it is that a mission community on the edge is spiritually sustained.

But on another level, I think I can allow myself to recognise, without blowing my own trumpet – well all right, maybe just a little – that this paradoxically represents an endorsement of my leadership. Because alongside the mission stuff (and in fact not separable from it) is the community stuff. I have worked hard to foster investment in relationships that are open, honest and trusting. People expect and feel safe to share how they’re really finding their journey. And in looking for and implementing ways that we can share in communal discernment, I have encouraged this community to develop a flat structure and an ethos of shared responsibility.

We find our way forward together. So that’s what we’re doing. We are going to try to find a way forward together that allows space for people to be resourced spiritually in more familiar ways as well as engaging in adventurous mission.

To snip or not to snip, er, that’s not really our question!

29 03 2010

This is what Paul and Barnabas really looked like. Possibly. Not.

Previously on LA Law…

In my last post on the question of discernment, dear reader, we thought about how it was that Peter came to lead the church in a whole new direction.

According to the writer of Acts, he was the first to preach the gospel to people who weren’t Jewish (or Samaritan). He led the way there. He had a vision of new possibilities: something so shocking for him that at first he struggled to accept it. It was a really surprising thought for him. So surprising; so out of his comfort zone, that he saw that it must have come from God. And yet we also saw how it was also the next step in an ever outward trajectory on which Peter had already been travelling. For Peter, the authority of his vision was confirmed by the coincidence that followed. Immediately after waking from his ‘vision’ (nap/hallucination), he was invited to go into a place he would never have gone before.

But remember that when he got back, he shared that story with the whole church and together they worked out that this was not just for Peter, but for them all.

Job done. Decision made. But turn to Acts 15.1-35 and here we are just a few years later and  it doesn’t look so settled after all. It’s not that people want to roll everything right back. They don’t want to stop sharing the gospel with people who aren’t Jewish. But some people are now saying that these new believers have basically to become Jewish. The men have to be circumcised and all of them have to keep the law of Moses.

Paul and Barnabas are really pretty cross about it. They were sent out from Antioch to carry on what Peter started. They’ve been seeing people who aren’t Jewish come to faith. Those people have been baptised in water. They’ve received the gift of God’s Spirit.

But now some people are saying they’re second-class. Not even that. No class at all. Unless they become Jewish, they’re still stoofed.

It’s a massive question for the Church. Sharing the gospel with people who aren’t Jewish. That’s okay. The Church had already got that far. But if they accept the gospel; if they come to have faith in Jesus; do they have to become Jewish?

In the end, the Church says, no they don’t. Their faith in Jesus is enough. But that’s not all. There is something new. These new believers who aren’t Jewish have to live in a way that won’t offend Jewish people who don’t yet believe in Jesus. It won’t be business as usual for them anymore. They don’t have to become fully Jewish. But it’s not alright for them to live like pagans anymore.

That’s really interesting in itself. But in the third session at our weekend away, we didn’t think so much about the decision itself as how the Church came to that decision. We were thinking about how we can be a community of discernment. So we looked at how the Church exercised discernment together.

Here’s a few things that we noticed…

    This difficult question came up in Antioch. But it doesn’t get settled there. Paul and Barnabas go to Jerusalem. That’s where these people who were making life difficult had come from. Paul and Barnabas could have told them just to get lost. But they didn’t. They knew that their home church was part of a bigger family of churches. This was a question for the whole of God’s Church to answer together. Even though Paul and Barnabas were apostles, they weren’t free just to do their own thing. They needed to settle this question with all the apostles. I think that had two things to say to us in our situation:

    1. We need to settle our questions together. We need each other in our little group: the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s! We’re in it together.

    2. But we also need to test out our answers with the wider family of churches of which we’re a part. First, for us here, that means our sister church in Somerstown: St Peter’s. But our Anglican family includes other churches in the local cluster of parishes and the city deanery. And we recognise too in all this, the authority of the apostle who leads the mission in our Diocese: the Bishop of Portsmouth.

    We’re not alone as individuals as we try to answer our questions. And we’re not alone as a community.

    This whole question erupted because Paul and Barnabas told a story. They’d just come back from their travels in Syria. They’d been sharing the gospel with people who weren’t Jewish. they’d seen them respond in the same way as Jewish believers had. They’d seen them receive the same gift that Jewish believers had. Telling this story when they got back to Antioch caused a big upset. It was just too much for the visitors from Judea. It sounded like Paul and Barnabas had lost it.

    But Paul and Barnabas can’t keep it bottled up. They keep telling the story. They tell it on the way to Jerusalem. And all the churches in Phoenicia and Samaria get excited. They tell it to the whole church in Jerusalem. And they tell it again to the special leaders’ meeting that gets called.

    And telling their story sets other people free to tell theirs. Peter shares his experience again. But it’s not just people who agree who tell their story. Those pharisee believers who find it all a bit much get a hearing too.

    But finally, it’s James who sets all these stories in the bigger story of God’s love for God’s people. Everyone’s story matters. Those stories make sense when they’re heard alongside God’s story. So we need to share the story of what’s happening for us as get stuck in with what God might be doing in Somerstown. All our stories need to be heard. We need to hear each other’s joys in what we’re doing and share in that excitement. We also need to hear each other where our story is one of really profound difficulty with where we’ve got to. And we all need to agree that God’s story is the one that will help us make sense of all of that.

      It’s really interesting how James handles that story. He uses Scripture. He uses the spiritual practices of his people; their Tradition. And he creatively reinterprets both.First James recalls a promise about the Temple as if it’s about Jesus. The temple was everything to the Jewish people. It was where God lived. It was where the people met with God. And there was a hope that one day everyone would come to know God by coming to God’s temple. That included people who weren’t Jews: the Gentiles.

      Now Gentiles are coming to God. But they’re not going anywhere near the Temple in Jerusalem. They’re coming to know God through Jesus. Only Jewish people could come into the central parts of the Temple. But anyone can come to know God through Jesus. So the ban on people who aren’t Jewish coming to know God is irrelevant.

      Second James reminds everyone that people who weren’t Jewish were allowed in the Synagogues. There were lots of people around who weren’t Jewish but who liked what the Jewish faith taught. These ‘God-fearers’ were allowed to be associated with the Synagogue community if they kept what was called the law of Noah. The law of Noah wasn’t as full-on as the law of Moses. It was Judaism ‘lite’. But it meant that these people who weren’t Jewish were at the same time, not pagan. They were not Jewish but their lives didn’t offend Jewish people.

      So James puts these two things together in a brand new way. Gentile Christians had already come to know God through Jesus: the new temple. They could share in a mixed community if they kept the law of Noah. That way non-Christian Jewish people wouldn’t be offended by the gospel.

      I think that should inspire us to look into the Bible and the Christian Tradition as we try to answer our own questions. Let’s bring our story and Gods story together in creative ways. We’ll discover new ways to be God’s Church. We’ll find new ways too to share in God’s mission.

    This all starts with a row. Things get a bit heated. ‘There was no small dissension.’ That could have continued. What Paul and Barnabas have been doing challenges everything that Jewish people hold sacred. It goes to the heart of their faith. It threatens to undermine the whole basis of the people’s covenant relationship with God. They could have been put on trial for heresy. Instead, they are welcomed by the whole church. Who they are and the story they tell is embraced by the whole community. They are generously welcomed. They enjoy the hospitality of the church in Jerusalem.

    That spirit of hospitality is right there all through the proceedings. Generous welcome is what characterises the whole process of discernment. People don’t talk over each other. Everyone is heard.

    Did you notice that it keeps saying so-and-so stood up. The pharisee Christians stood up to say their piece. Peter stands up to tell his story. This is people giving each other space and taking their turn.

    The other thing we notice is that people need silence. When the special leaders’ meeting is called, they all listen in silence as people take it in turns to share their story. They’re not grumbling. They’re not whispering to their neighbours in the meeting. They’re not trying to interrupt with their own thoughts. They really and truly listen. They give their full attention.

    It’s ever so easy isn’t it when we’re in a discussion not to listen. To spend the whole time while someone else is talking working out what we’re going to say when it gets to our turn. I can’t say from this reading that people aren’t doing that. It doesn’t get us inside their heads. But I’d like to think that they’re not.

    Really, really listening isn’t just about being quiet and not speaking. It isn’t just about being quiet on the outside. Really, really listening is about being quiet on the inside. That’s incredibly difficult. But if we really want to hear God in what other people say and in ourselves, we need silence. We need the sort of silence that penetrates deep into our souls.

    That sort of silence sets us free to be truly present to other people. It sets us free to be present to the moment we’re in right now. That sort of silence is a gift it takes a lifetime to cultivate. But it’s worth the effort.

    When it comes to the crunch, it’s down to the apostles and elders to find a way forward. They’re the authorised leaders of the church in Jerusalem. It’s their job to listen to all the different stories and weigh them up. They work out what they think is right. They appoint people to take the decision to Antioch.

    And even in that group, it looks like James has a special job. He presides over the meeting and sums up where it’s all got to at the end. He talks at the end about what he’s decided. He might be talking about his own personal point of view. Or he might be saying that this is what he’s decided on behalf of everyone.

    I think that’s more likely. He seems to be the overall leader of the Jerusalem church. He is Jesus’s brother after all!

    But despite all that, I still want to suggest to you that the whole church is involved in this discernment process. These leaders don’t take these decisions without the rest of the church. In fact the process starts and ends with everyone being involved. When Paul and Barnabas first arrive, it’s the whole church that hears their story. And it’s the whole church that hears the pharisee Christians object.

    Next there’s this discussion among the leaders. They work out a way forward. But finally, it comes back to everyone again. The letter to Antioch goes with the consent of the whole church. So the leaders have authority. But they’re not authoritarian. Their authority comes from the whole church.

    How does that work for our discernment? Well there are obviously authorised leaders in our setup. Alex and I have authority from the bishop. But decisions have to be shared with the church council – the PCC. The PCC’s authority comes from the whole church. They are elected by all the church members. PCC members have a responsibility to reflect the views of the whole church not just their own.

    And so it’s perfectly appropriate for all of us together to consider how we go forward with some of the important questions that we are faced with.

Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.

19 03 2010

When you look into the Bible and begin to interrogate it for stories of discernment or guidance, you do find a lot of strange things happening. Actually the Bible is pretty strange all round. Some of it seems at times inpenetrable to me.

I’m probably not supposed to say that as an Anglican priest. But I hope the effect will not be to unsettle people but to release them from feeling inadequate because they struggle too. I think there’s a whole other post here waiting to be written. But I think for the moment I must lay those thoughts aside and press on with what I wanted to discuss here, which is the third of the sessions I ran on the recent weekend away for the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s.

In the preceding session on our weekend, we considered how we might receive direction from unexpected sources. Alongside that we experimented with the charism of prophecy as we considered an issue that is about the long term future of the Anglican mission in Somerstown.

This time we looked at the relationship between visionary leadership and the wider missionary community as we considered an issue that is much closer on our horizon. (In the subsequent session we thought about a very immediate question.) We looked at the story in Acts 10 and 11 of Peter’s vision, the expansion of mission that followed, and the wider Church’s response.

It’s interesting to me that the one to whom (according to the fourth gospel) Jesus says: ‘feed my sheep’ — a seemingly pastoral comission — ends up (according to the book of Acts) leading the Church in mission. Now of course I’m stitching two narratives together here that may or may not have had any influence on each other. But if I may be allowed to proceed on the basis of the wider canon rather than just a single author/redactor, I think this is gryst to my mill. When people have asked me: ‘But how will we be fed?’ I have most frequently returned to an assertion that following God in mission is how we are fed. And so, taking the New Testament as a whole, I am happy to affirm that Peter, charged by Christ with feeding the ‘flock’ does so by leading them into new dimensions of mission – he is the first to take the gospel into a Gentile home. It seems to me to be only a logical outworking of Jesus’ own response to the question of how he would be fed. Jesus said: ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.’

The second part of that question as people ask it – indeed I was asked it this weekend by a group of ordinands in training – is expressed as concern for me. I’m not sure the concern is always genuine but maybe I’m just an old cynic. ‘How do you get fed?’ Above all, my answer to that is: by getting involved with God in mission. I don’t get the kind of weekly teaching that others are looking for. But I am learning every day. And of course I have the benefit of working with a trusted colleague with whom I pray daily and meet weekly. It’s very difficult to ensure that our meetings are focused on prayer and theological reflection instead of just ‘business’. (Yes I know we shouldn’t make a divide between what’s spiritual and what’s not. But believe me, some of the stuff we have to deal with week by week is neither inspiring or uplifting!) Nonetheless that relationship is a source of stimulation and growth for me. But above all, I am spiritually fed, sustained, enlivened, encouraged, challenged, shaped, whatever you want to call it through being with Jesus in the world.

I’ve lost the thread again, haven’t I! Forgive me for riding my hobby horse all the way through this reflection on Peter’s vision.

On the other hand, to be fair to myself, it’s not entirely irrelevant. I think the point that Peter feeds the church by leading them in adventurous mission is a valid one. But having banged on about that – at length [sorry] – what else can we say about discernment through this passage that we looked at on our weekend away?

    I’ve often heard evo charismatic types talking about being in the ‘right place’ to hear from God. But I don’t think Peter is there. He’s hungry and tired. He goes up on the roof and falls into a ‘trance’. It sounds to me like Peter is either knackered and falls asleep, or his blood sugar drops so low that he starts hallucinating. Now I’m not saying that Peter isn’t in the right place spiritually. There’s no suggestion that he isn’t but he seems to me to look for all the world like someone who is overworked and under pressure. And yet in the midst of his exhaustion, when his body finally forces him to rest, he hears from God.

    I don’t want to equate my experience with Peter’s but I think Peter’s story here does connect a little with my own. It’s often on my days off, when I really want to be switching off from the pressures that my role inevitably brings, that I somehow manage to have the most clear thinking about the issues I’m facing. I’m not suggesting that those occasions are always or perhaps ever about me hearing from God. I don’t think God, having established sabbath as a creation ordinance, would particularly or especially want to frustrate my desire for rest and recreation. But it may be that on occasion for me, as for Peter, a pause from overwork allows me to finally hear the still small voice that has been speaking to me as my unconscious mind has continued to wrestle with issues of finding a way forward. Which brings me on to my next point…

    In her book, the Creative Mind, Margaret Boden writes about those moments of sudden inspiration that scientists and artists often report. These often appear to interrupt our conscious thinking. Margaret Boden’s thesis, developed through her extensive research into cognition, is that the unconscious mind continues to work on problems while the conscious mind is doing other things. The interruptive nature of the moments when the unconscious mind furnishes the conscious mind with a new insight has led some to the idea that they therefore must come from outside ourselves. I don’t see why these moments cannot be both inspired and the conclusion of an unconscious process. ‘Uncanny’ refers to experiences that are both familiar and strange. These moments of insight will inevitably be of that sort. But is that a credible explanation for what is going on for Peter here. On the face of it, this text seems to suggest a sudden God-given visionary experience that radically transforms Peter’s mental space. This is a paradigm shift moment. But I think there’s a familiar unfamiliarity about what Peter experiences at this point. We can focus on the shocking nature of this experience for Peter as a Jewish man and see it as a wholly revolutionary moment for him. It is revolutionary. It is strange. But there’s also a sort of logic to it if we consider the whole of Peter’s narrative.

    Peter is a man for whom the expression of the love of God for outsiders has some precedent. The whole of the Jewish identity had been focused on Jerusalem and the temple. To be Galilean was to be a ‘hick’, an outsider. Peter is disconnected from the arena where the proper worship of God takes place. And yet he is called by one whom he increasingly understands as making present the divinity of God in Galilee. In fact this man who he comes to call Messiah is Galilean himself. God comes to him, the outsider, as an outsider. And since Jesus’ ascension, he has had experiences of God connecting with outsiders through him. On the day of Pentecost, Peter preaches not to native Jerusalemites, but to diaspora Jews visiting the city from all over the Greco-Roman world, most of whom don’t even appear to speak the lingo. And then Peter has ended up endorsing Philip’s ministry among the Samaritans – an absolutely despised people as far as Jewish people are concerned.

    His experiences up to this point might well have suggested to Peter that the love of God is reaching out in an ever-widening circle. This would have been something that Peter would doubtless have puzzled over consciously and, most likely, unconsciously too. In the light of all that, Peter’s step into the Gentile world doesn’t look so much like a totally unexpected change of direction but more like a logical expression of God’s embrace of the other particularly in Peter’s ministry.

    This is a paradigm shift for Peter. But it’s a predictable paradigm shift. It transforms his mental and spiritual landscape but in a direction in which he was, to some degree already travelling.

    There is a good deal of authority invested in Peter. (How much depends on your churchmanship!) But he is clearly for a time, the leader of the Church in Jerusalem and its mission. Authority has been invested in him by Christ himself. Peter does not immediately consult on this new direction for the Church’s mission. He pioneers it in response to his vision. And then he shares the story with the wider Church.I am not much of a one for power – having it or reaching after it – at least I like to think I’m not. But I recognise that there is a degree of authority vested in me by virtue of both my ordination(s) and my licence. I am engaged in mission here in Somerstown with the authority of the local inheritor of the apostolic commission: the Bishop.

    I think this story and that fact suggests that there are times when those with responsibility for leading the local church in mission are called upon to press forward with a new direction. On occasion to say: ‘This is where we’re going’.

    My colleague and I are saying something like that in regards to the issue of whether the Anglican mission in Somerstown is best served by there being two parishes or one. We are clear that there should be one parish.

    But there is no absolute authority at work here or in the first century Church. If we model our discernment process on this occasion we’re looking at, it becomes apparent that there are some moments where it’s legitimate for vision to come from authorised leaders, not the whole community. And even for those leaders to pioneer the initial expression of that vision.

    However, there does come a moment when that vision and its pioneering inception do need to come back to the whole community for affirmation or (presumably) or rejection. Peter comes back to the Jerusalem church to share the story of his experiences with Cornelius & Co. The Church affirms that this vision and action of Peter’s is an authentic expression of its mission, as much as it opens up a whole new dimension of the experience and outworking of God‘s saving action in Christ.

    In our setting, Alex and I are saying one parish for Somerstown and pioneering it by working as close colleagues. But in order for the reality to match the vision, that vision and action must be tested by the church communities it will affect – not just the two parishes but the wider cluster, deanery and diocese as well as the patrons and ecumenical partners.

    This idea is a much loved device of Richard Dawkins in his attempts to debunk providence and God’s being. Religious people are always looking for meaning in random events that aren’t there – so I think he would say. It’s not remarkable that events coincide. It’s simply statistically inevitable.

    I don’t disagree with that. I actually do think that coincidences are, on the whole, real chance events. I don’t think really that they arise because of magic or direct interference in circumstances by divine agency. But that doesn’t mean that I think they’re devoid of meaning. On the contrary, I think coincidences are pregnant with meaning – because it is we humans who find and assign meaning in chance events. But also, along with Chris Sunderland, author of In a Glass Darkly (see the appendix to his book, pages 262-269), I want to affirm that events that coincide by pure chance are also the means by which God’s purposes unfold. This brings us back to where I started a couple of posts back. There’s a role for chance and particularly coincidence as we exercise discernment.

    Peter’s vision happened just before Cornelius’ two representatives arrived. We can choose to think on the one hand that it’s because God directly intervened to ‘fix’ the circumstances. Or we can choose to believe that coincidences are, by their very nature, the surprising coming together of otherwise unconnected occurrences in ways that stimulate our capacities for pattern recognition and meaning-making. This event only seems remarkable because it has been recorded but that’s only because the thousands of other occasions when coincidences didn’t happen aren’t!

    But however we interpret this phenomenon, I would still want to allow for and recognise the role of chance in finding a way forward. Maybe God fixed these particular events because this had been God’s plan from before the beginning of time or maybe this real coincidence provided the opportunity for the realisation of God’s desire that non-Jews should have the opportunity to come to faith in Christ. It doesn’t matter. We should look at coincidences as opportunities for discernment.

I planned beforehand (and then forgot) to talk about the role of the abbot in Benedict’s Rule during this session of our weekend away. That seems to me to offer a helpful model of the relationship between authorised leadership and the whole community. A matter for another post I think. This one is, surely, long enough!