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.





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.

FIRST: THIS IS MY BABY

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.

SECOND: WHAT ABOUT US?

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.





Pioneer, pastor or manager?

24 09 2009

748066_ihs_iiMark Berry started an interesting discussion recently. He was expressing a degree of frustration at the extent to which he finds himself having to engage in managerial and pastoral tasks when he really wants to be pioneering. I know how Mark feels. And I too appreciate his honesty. The whole idea of creating a new ministry stream was to set innovators free from the administrative and pastoral responsibilities of parochial ministry so that they’re free to experiment and spark off new forms of mission.

It’s maybe a bit ironic then that it was reported recently in the Church press that there are lots of people who have trained as ordained pioneer ministers who have been unable to find pioneer appointments. For some, I’m guessing, that’s because they’re looking for a ready-made fresh expression of church to look after. And I’m not dissing them for that. We need people like them. These will be the people that will release the really adventurous mission entrepreneurs to move on and try something new. But I think calling these people ‘pioneer ministers’ is muddying the waters a bit. Maybe ‘pastor to an established mission community’ is more descriptive if a little challenged on the catchiness front. The majority of those people will be ordained, I guess, especially if those communities are to receive sacramental ministry — pretty fundamental to any recognisably Anglican ecclesiology.

Mark Berry often wonders out loud about the necessity of ordination. He often talks about ‘models’ of ministry and ‘models’ of church. So do I. But I am decreasingly comfortable using this language. It suggests that the forms of ministry we have inherited were established as pragmatically determined forms that got stuck. That’s a very post/evangelical perspective, I think. The more I engage with thinking from a more catholic perspective, the less satisfied I am with approaches that ignore the ‘Tradition’, by which I mean the received form of the church. I am a pioneer through and through but I don’t think I’m free to ignore the Tradition. In my view it’s as important a source of authority within Christian faith and practice as any other — including Scripture. I want therefore to face up to the deeply searching questions that it asks of the emerging church, fresh expressions and pioneer ministry. That doesn’t mean I am ready to give up the adventure of reimagining mission and ministry for the 21st century but neither does it mean I can ignore the deep insights and experience of the previous centuries.

So, much as I think the Incarnation should inspire us to fashion indigenous forms of church, I also want to affirm that any ecclesial community is a local expression of the church catholic. Catholicity is something I am taking increasingly seriously. And the holy orders of bishop, priest and deacon are part of what ensures we are genuinely connected to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. I’m attracted by Mark’s idea of ordination for a time and a place but I think it reduces ordination to something functional and ignores the ontological dimension of priesthood particularly that has been part of the traditional understanding.

But then of course, I would say that wouldn’t I? I’m part of that cadre of religious ‘professionals’. But once you’ve had your consciousness awakened to a hermeneutic of suspicion, you can’t just switch it off. And that was a feature of my critical education. So I can see the bid for power that nestles inside that particular theological assertion. I have a lot of sympathy with George Bernard Shaw’s description of professions as a ‘conspiracy against the laity’. Actually I think ordained ministers of every order should see themselves as amateurs in the true sense of that word. Colloquially ‘amateur’ has connotations of operating at a low standard of competence. But at its root it means people who do something for love. It’s only then that the distinction between a stipend and a salary makes sense.

So as an ordained pioneer minister I think I cannot escape, so easily as Mark might, the broad set of responsibilities my ordination as priest entails. That includes ‘sustain[ing] the community of the faithful by the ministry of word and sacrament, that we all may grow into the fullness of Christ and be a living sacrifice acceptable to God.’ So even if there’s an extent to which as an ordained pioneer minister pastoral care might be less of a priority than for a parish priest, it’s not a responsbility I can expect to evade entirely. And neither would I want to. I think it would be deeply hurtful to found a new community without seeing through at least some of that early fragile period by offering a degree of care and nurture to its members.

And when it comes to administration, I am minded to remember that I am a clerk in holy orders. Again there’s a different balance to be struck. But I don’t think it’s legitimate to confine ourselves to what we like doing. We don’t want pioneers to be demotivated by overburdensome administration. But neither do we want to train people who are unrealistic about the need to get stuck in with doing some boring stuff from time to time. Because it’s often necessary to do that hard groundwork in order to release the vision we’ve had.

I spent part of my week working on a hall hire agreement. Part of my role includes helping a struggling parish congregation to find a renewed engagement in mission. That parish includes some buildings that are the main source of income for the parish.

Part of the struggle for this congregation has been finding resources of time among themselves for the oversight of what is effectively a business. It wouldn’t be a viable business if you took a cold, hard look at it. But it provides funds that would otherwise be difficult to find.

I am temporarily plugging a gap by doing some of this work (though it has to be said that my colleague Alex, who is actually Priest-in-Charge of the parish, has taken the lion’s share of this sort of admin). I don’t intend to do it indefinitely. But doing it now is part of a strategy for getting everything on a surer footing going forward.

And getting things off the ground — pioneering — isn’t ever, I think, just about dreaming dreams. There is always some hard grind and detailed work to do to make the dream a reality. We don’t all necessarily have to be completer-finishers but we do need to be able to see some things through to the end. If we are truly pioneering, starting things from scratch, then it’s inevitable that there won’t be enough people to ensure that nobody has to work outside their comfort zones. Now we might argue that pioneering puts us permanently outside of a comfort zone. There’s some truth in that but there’s also a degree to which we might be letting ourselves off the hook a bit too easily. On the frontier is kind of a natural home for mavericks. Being systematic, methodical, institutional — all those things are probably much more outside of a comfort zone for entrepreneuring types. But if the analogy is business, then you only need to watch Dragons Den to know that you have to do a bit more solid work than dreaming up a great idea to actually get the money!

So in the end, I think pioneer ministry inevitably does mean getting our hands dirty with both pastoral care and even in the grubbiness of management.





Nowhere to run to?

15 07 2009

418898_hiding_-_2Is there any place that’s just for ‘us’? That’s the issue I’m grappling with just now.

I’ve been asking the little congregation I’m with to effectively give up our Sunday gathering. Not to stop coming. I’m asking if we can do something else with the time together. I’m asking them to give it over to mission. Some are really up for it. Others are struggling to let go of something that has sustained them spiritually and that they have worked hard to sustain through some difficult times. I understand that.

But I think this is a push worth making for the sake of mission.

But maybe it was a step too far to ask those who were there at our Tuesday night gathering if they would be willing to give up those Tuesdays as we do them now in order to be part of something new in the week too. I had thought they’d be up for it. They really weren’t. And actually, though I was a little taken aback and disappointed then, I can empathise. Because this isn’t about hanging on to a worship style that suits. It’s been about building relationships and conversation that can really be safe space.

A number of us are, in one way or another, refugees from more conservative churches. A common thread that emerges in conversation is how often people didn’t feel able to be truly themselves. We have felt under pressure to say or do the expected thing. Where we have said what we really think, we have been made to feel, by well-meaning people, that it is not acceptable to either hold or express a particular viewpoint. We have managed to create in our Tuesday night gathering a place where people can be themselves; where they can be real and genuine without being slapped down with a quote from the Bible. That’s not to say there’s no Bible in our gathering. There is. It’s a partner in our dialogue. We find it embraces, encourages, challenges and frustrates us in equal measure. We don’t spend our time necessarily looking at a particular text, asking setup questions and then finding the answer where we’ve been told to look. Instead, we can draw on those parts of the Bible that have seeped deep into our souls and shaped us, as well as confronting and grappling with those parts that we find it harder to reconcile with our experience of life or our knowledge of the world. Our conversation is honest, compassionate and enlightening. We all grow and are fed through it. We’ve got something precious — space to be ourselves and to grow in faith and discipleship in a grown up and honest way.

The issue with conservatism is not conservative theology per se, but how some of us have experienced it. There would be plenty of space for a conservative viewpoint in our conversation as long as that viewpoint was expressed in a compassionate way that valued the relationships in the group above the ‘right’ view prevailing.

There’s not really a fear of engaging with people who wouldn’t consider themselves to be ‘christian’. In the experience of most of the members of the group, conversations about faith are often more real in this setting than in the churches we’ve known. The fear that was expressed was because my invitation was to be part of something else with some other christians we don’t yet know so well. People understandably were reluctant to risk a return to unreality or disapproval. And, given the relaxed, conversational feel of our gathering, they were reluctant to have to do something that felt very much more structured or formal or to have to do heavy Bible study as they’d experienced it in the past. There is also a feeling that if the intimacy of our small group is lost, we would find it hard to have the same quality or depth of conversation as we currently enjoy.

So I think all that is good. It’s encouraging to me that people value so much where we’ve got to as a group. What I find harder to reconcile is the potential exclusivity that might foster. We invite new people on our terms.

But actually is that so bad?
What are our terms?

  • Be real.
  • Don’t judge others.
  • Be compassionate in conversation.

These are not things, having achieved them to quite a degree, that we should recklessly give up. At the moment, this is a gathering that includes some people who don’t call themselves ‘christian’ or who are less certain about what that might mean for them. This offers a safe place for them to explore without any pressure. There is a growing sense of commitment, one to another. The challenge is how we can continue to reach out and be inclusive, perhaps to some who would find the views expressed at times difficult.

It has been helpful to me to consider the gospel for this coming Sunday as I’ve prepared to share my reflections on it on Sunday morning. In that episode, the apostles Jesus has sent out on mission come back excited but tired and hungry. Jesus invites them to come away with him – to find some space just to be with him. It doesn’t quite go to plan: they don’t even find the space to satisfy their hunger. But these twelve hungry men are the ones who serve bread and fish to the enormous crowd that gathers. And at the end, there are twelve baskets full of scraps left over. This suggests three things to me.

  1. Jesus does invite those who have responded most fully to his call to spend time alone with him. But…
  2. That time is snatched along the way – they get a bit of time in the boat with him before they’re right back in it. And…
  3. Their needs are met when they are stuck into mission; when they’re feeding the crowd, they get fed.

What does all that mean for us – this little group of pilgrims on the way? It suggests to me that I’m right to ask this bunch to give up Sunday for the sake of mission. And it suggests that they were right to refuse to give up Tuesday so that they preserve their special, intimate time away from the crowd: a place to share our stories and be with the one who calls and sends us.





Hanging with the abbot

8 07 2009

MarkBerryPortraitMark Berry speaks passionately about the values of the ‘Safespace’ community in Telford– hospitality and mission, diversity and inclusion, openness and commitment. Those are my words for what I heard Mark articulating in several different conversations — with me, with an American journalist, and with the community itself.

I wonder to what extent those are Mark’s values and how much they are understood and owned by the individual members of the community. What I’ve outlined above is broad and open enough for anyone to find a home within it. That’s not to say it’s vacuous. It does have content. In fact it is best expressed not systematically, but narratively. The bible and particularly the gospels are normative for all Christian communities (although sometimes you wonder if people are reading the same gospels as you are!). But in addition to the Bible, the story of St Brendan is particularly formational for this community. And in one sense it doesn’t matter if every individual is completely sold on every aspect. The creeds represent the Church’s corporate affirmation of faith but there’s probably not one individual who would go to the stake for each and every line. So people in this community can recognise and affirm their corporate story without being subsumed within it.

I suppose I‘d like to explore with Mark how that story came to be part of this community’s story. Did Mark’s articulation of this set of values and the story of Brendan lead to the forming of a community around that narrative? Or did Mark bring the story into a community that grew out of relationships? The two are not mutually exclusive of course. But the reason I would like to explore this is twofold – first because of Mark’s skepticism about leadership, and second because the question of how a community determines its values/vision is a live one for me and the community I *lead*.

I think Mark gives quite a strong lead to this community. I don’t mean that negatively. It’s not that he imposes his will. It’s more that they look to Mark for direction and inspiration. At least that’s my impression after the few days I spent with Mark and his community.

Mark spoke about being guardian of the community rather than its leader. He seems to me to be more like an abbot. This is a community that models itself on the monasticism of previous times. So in this regard it perhaps matters more than in other sorts of ecclesial community whether individual members buy into its vision and identity. The members of this community are asked to live out the values, not just in what they do together but to take them on as a ‘rule of life’ wherever they are as individuals too. So they do stuff together and they do stuff apart but still trying to live out the values when they are apart. All the members I met, apart from Mark and his family, are members of churches. There are some, whom I didn’t meet on this occasion, who are leaders of churches. But the members of the community are also involved in running Sank•tuary together – an initiative which Mark says grew out of the community. And though it’s very open and welcoming of new people, whether as fellow travellers for a time or as new members, there is a sort of novitiate of a year, after which people are given a St Brendan cross to indicate their belonging and adoption of the community’s shared values. The interesting question is the extent to which the community adapts its identity and values to accommodate new members and the extent to which new members are required to adapt themselves to join the community.

If I have to write the word ‘community’ one more time, I will be physically sick. It has to be the most overused word ever. I find myself using it far too much when I talk about our two parishes’ involvement in Somers Town. I said to someone just yesterday that we want to ‘engage with the community’.

Oh dear, there I go. Excuse me a second. Bleeuurrghh!

Actually one of the things about Somers Town is that it isn’t a c*******y. It doesn’t have that social coherence that would make it a… you know what. I should start using the word ‘locality’. That would be a much more accurate word to describe the social situation in the… erm… locality.

Anyway, I digress. Safespace probably does justify that word that I’m no longer mentioning, because it’s intentional about being it. And in that regard it is further along the road than the congregation of St Luke’s is currently. I would love us to get to a point where our shared life provides a framework for each of us living missionally in every part of our lives as well as directly being involved together in the locality for which we have a responsibility. The Fresh Expressions/Pioneer Ministry agenda should encourage us to think beyond the parish system, but if we disconnect from ‘place’ as our locus for mission, we have forgotten the central and defining feature of what it means to be Anglican. Some of us may not care about that but this is where – to pick up on my previous post – my role as priest is to keep our connection to a wider story ever in front of us.





A pain in the neck?

3 07 2009

Last week I had a fantastic visit with Mark Berry, pioneer in Telford. One of the key values of his little community is hospitality. Mark and his wife and their son certainly lived that out as they made space in their home, their life and their community for me.

I followed Mark about a bit and got a bit of a sense of the place and the relationships he’s working with. But most valuable were our conversations.

collarParticularly challenging was a conversation Mark and I had about ordination. I was relating to Mark that I find it important in my work to be identifiable as a priest and so I wear a clerical collar wherever I go. I knew this might be provocative as Mark was featured earlier in the year on the Fresh Expressions Podcast expressing his doubts about the whole idea of permanent ordination. We probably don’t know each other well enough yet for the conversation to be as robust as it could be. I think Mark was quite gentle with me!

Still, he did make a point about the collar representing a power bid that I didn’t find easy to deal with at the time and cannot easily set aside now. And his assertion that ordination perpetuates an unhelpful identification of ‘the Church’ with its clergy instead of the whole community is similarly persistent. I’ve always felt it important to be identifiable in that way, so that when people meet me they know who I am. But do they know who I am? Or do they identify me with a role or a mis/understanding of the role or the wider church. As a ‘lay’ minister, Mark doesn’t have that issue. The only resource he has is himself as a human being. And that’s quite a strong suit.

So actually, as Mark was saying, the collar and the role it represents, could well be an obstacle to people knowing who I really am. Even if the aim is for people to know where I’m coming from, it could still be more likely to evoke misperceptions than a true appreciation of my take on the Christian tradition. And if I wear a ‘uniform’ and am clearly identified with a particular role, isn’t that always about making a grab for some sort of privilege or even power?

Think about people who wear a uniform in public life…

Maybe you thought about police officers or members of the armed forces, or nurses. All roles that confer power and/or authority.

But what about school uniform? Doesn’t that in fact represent a distinct lack of power and authority for those wearing it? Doesn’t it instead mean that those wearing it are identified with a particular community and are bound to some degree by the ‘rule’ of that community – its standards and way of life. Or maybe it’s more like the markers of religious affiliation that various faith communities adopt to express their identity. This is what I was saying in a conversation in a meeting where I was introducing myself to a Somers Town parent forum. I think probably it’s about all of those things.

Within the faith community, there is a degree of authority that is conferred by ordination. As I was saying in yet another conversation about this at the weekend, there is something about the ordained priesthood that is meant to represent, stand for, the catholicity (universality/oneness) of the church. The one, holy, catholic and apostolic church is incarnated locally but hasn’t spontaneously erupted into being in different localities. It is there because of the handing down of its shared story and its shared sacraments. The ordained priesthood is (meant to be) there to make that ‘sharedness’ apparent. That can be awkward at times. It can be really frustrating to be reminded that if we are to remain authentically ‘church’ we can’t just do whatever we like. We’re part of a bigger (though somewhat dysfunctional!) family.

It’s obviously much more problematic if the collar represents authority in public space and particularly as one is building relationships in those settings. At one time the established church did have that sort of public authority. Now of course, it does not. Much as people want to lament that, I think it’s a good thing. I have found in practice in public space that being identifiable as a Christian priest does not, by and large, convey any special power or authority. Indeed at times it has the opposite effect. It evokes suspicion and so means one needs to negotiate one’s presence in the public space.

There’s no denying that the collar is something to be gotten over. It can be a pain in the neck. But maybe there’s something important about that ‘getting over it’. It is in some sense an obstacle or trip hazard that can only be overcome as people really get to know me (and I them) but the church and even faith itself is similarly something to get over as I build relationships with people. Those things (the christian community and its faith) and my being set aside to represent them cannot be conveniently put out of the way. Their persistent awkwardness is part of who I am and what I’m about.





Pioneer congregation?

27 04 2009

I increasingly find myself describing the parish aspect of my role as part of my role as city centre pioneer minister.

Actually that’s exactly what I was saying at the beginning when I was first exploring this appointment. I would not have been interested in a role that was a half time straightforward parish job with another half time job as pioneer tacked on. For the sake of releasing the funds to pay my stipend, housing, pension, etc that’s how it’s legally structured, but I always saw it as a pioneer role that included leading a struggling parish congregation into new forms of mission and ministry. And that’s what I said to those who appointed me. The advertisement for St Luke’s said that the parish needed a fresh expression of church. So that understanding was there in the parish too.

However, it has been difficult to escape from familiar parish patterns and just the admin that goes with a parish church — especially one without even the minimum of parish officers. That’s all despite having an excellent colleague who holds the legal responsibility for the parish and who deals with as much of the crap as he possibly can. (All of which is incidentally holding him back from exercising the ministry of presence that we both think is vital in this area.)

So for a time, it did seem like I was being pulled in two contradictory directions. But more recently it has seemed to me that I could talk about two aspects of one role rather than two roles with more authenticity. The congregation of St Luke’s has seen some growth from the lowest point during the most recent interregnum. Some of that has come through people arriving of their own accord. Some of it has come through dechurched friends of ours wanting to be part our new work. What’s most exciting is that in all of those subsets: the old guard, the newbies and the groupies, there is a desire to engage in real mission in this area (Somerstown in Portsmouth).

People aren’t here for their weekly church fix. In a way it would be illogical if they were because whether they wanted trad Anglican or soft rock contemporary worship they could get better quality gear at almost any of the other churches nearby. I suppose that knowing I was a bit of an alt.worship ‘specialist’ (I really am biggin’ myself up beyond credibility right there), they might have come for that, but I genuinely don’t think that’s it. All the committed people (admittedly not a numerically large group but the overwhelming proportion of the Sunday congregation) want to bless this community and seem prepared to go to them rather than expecting them to come to us and do what we do. That has been expressed in a willingness to break out of familiar and comfortable ways of worshipping God and to genuinely, if not always painlessly, engage with new forms.

And this weekend, at the APCM (AGM for those of you unfamiliar with Church of England speak), we expressed a desire to begin a conversation that may well lead us in some quite radical directions as far as how we are structured. Part of that is a recognition that our current situation is unsustainable and there is inevitably sadness in that, particularly for those who have worked so hard to keep a presence here. But overwhelmingly I think there was a realistic enthusiasm for engaging with the people of our locality.

The enthusiasm is what I have been hoping for. The realism is something that I needed to hear. The people of this area have been repeatedly failed by agencies who have wanted to tell them what is best for them. The last thing they need is another bunch of middle class do gooders coming and interfering in their lives. Of course, there would be no Church at all if people hadn’t been willing to cross cultural and social thresholds from the very beginning of the Church’s life. But the serious point I took on board more than I had before was that we need to work out what our ‘offer’ is. We cannot imagine that we can come here as twenty (or fewer!) enthusiastic but already busy people and plug the gap of needs. The needs in this area are a massive black hole that will consume more energy and enthusiasm than a hundred little pioneer congregations could muster. But if we can bring something positive that generates light and life and hope, that seeks out those things where they are already to be found in this community and celebrates them with people, maybe we can make a difference and grow something new.

Parties. That’s what we need to bring. Jesus was always attending, throwing and generating parties. Celebration. Joy. That’s what I think today, anyway. We’ll see what happens because, thank God, I don’t have to have all the answers. But now that I reflect on it, I realise that I am truly blessed and privileged to be called to lead and enable this bunch of emerging pioneers and to share God’s future with them and those among whom we will find and celebrate the vitality of God’s all-pervading Spirit. We can determine and discover that future together. I just hope I can be the priest that these people need to help them on their way. That is my prayer. Amen.