A beautiful failure

22 11 2011

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

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

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

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

In those terms, the Sunday Sanctuary has failed.

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

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

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

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

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

But what a beautiful failure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.





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:

  1. GATHERING IN CHRIST
  2. LISTENING TO THE HOLY SPIRIT
  3. GOING FORTH AS GOD’S PEOPLE

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

1. GATHERING IN CHRIST
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.

2. LISTENING TO THE HOLY SPIRIT
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.
    Listening.
    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.
    Connecting.
    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.

3. GOING FORTH AS GOD’S PEOPLE

  • 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.





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.





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.





End of a (very brief) era

28 06 2009

This Sunday morning was the last of the four in June that the St Luke’s congregation have spent in the community room at the bottom of Wilmcote House — one of the high rise housing blocks at the centre of the northern strip of Somers Town (an area of concentrated social housing in the centre of Portsmouth). It has been an amazing and exhausting experience.

The headline for me is that in the third week a new family joined us. And they came back again this week. And mum is saying that they’re going to keep on coming when we return to the church building. They found us friendly, relaxed, informal and unintimidating. But the thing that clinched it for them was the trouble my wife took to recognise the step they’d taken in coming along and to explain everything that was happening as the morning progressed. How do I know that? Because that’s what mum told me.

So is that job done? Not really. I know from the feedback sheets I’ve been giving out each week that for some members of the existing congregation, this has been a worthwhile adventure in *outreach* but a real test in terms of a satisfying worship experience.

I recognise that. There are practical problems with the room we’ve been using. It’s a visually and aurally noisy environment. It’s hard to ‘be still and know that I am God’. It’s hard too to engage in the sort of deep reflection on the Bible that some people quite reasonably expect to be part of their experience when they participate in Christian corporate worship. That reflects the wider concern that some people are expressing when I ask them to give their regular gathered worship time over to mission: ‘how are we to be fed?’

Partly my response is that as adults — both literally and metaphorically (by which I mean having a degree if maturity in our faith) we are ultimately responsible for feeding ourselves. We should be dependent on God, the source of our life, and interdependent on each other but not dependent on a ‘parent/priest’ to spiritually spoon feed us. Our own spiritual life through the week should be nourishing us. I have to set that against the authority that is conferred upon a Christian priest in the context of the Church to teach. But, much as with teaching in schools, though there is knowledge to be imparted, the ultimate aim is to equip people to be active, self-motivated learners in the world.

But maybe a bigger problem is that I am confusing mission and worship. Maybe in a new way I am falling into that old trap of just trying to get people ‘in church’. So often that has been the be all and end all of mission. We imagine that if we can get people to come, some strange magic will work upon them and they’ll just suddenly get what we’ve got.

If all we’re doing is attractional church in a different building, then we might as well give up and ‘run home to momma’. But I don’t think it is quite that. I’ve been trying — and succeeding and failing in equal measure — to change the shape and content of what we do so that it is less about asking people to come and join our party and more about a sort of party that is new for all of us.

It’s most important that we build relationships, have fun and begin to share stories, personal and communal. So we could just run fun activities in this place — do ‘outreach’ in effect — probably mostly among and with children to begin with (there have been loads of them hovering around and peering through the windows). And then save *worship* for the explicitly Christian community at another time.

My problem with that is that we’re still trying to get people to another place — our place. We’re laying on things for people where they’re at. So in one sense we have gone to them where they are. But we have made no inner journey towards them. We are only befriending them in order to get them ultimately to be like us. ‘We will come to you and give you fun. But God is for us. If you want some of that you’ll have to become like us.’ And people don’t yet — may never — know that ‘God’ is what they’re searching for. But they might be looking for *G-d*; that ineffable mystery at the heart of being that is bigger than the god named by any particular faith tradition. We have some pretty substantive truth-claims about the shape of that mystery. But we haven’t got it all worked out. Dare we risk the adventure of saying: ‘We’ll come and be with you and find *G-d* together in ways that will belong to us all and in a place that will become home for us all and that will continue to be open to transformation as each new person comes to share the adventure.’ Spirituality is for all or it’s for no-one. Just having fun is something that I would absolutely want to hold up as a spiritually enriching experience. But there should be something about what we do in Wilmcote House (it’s my hope that we’ll soon return) that provokes deeper reflection in the light of the Christian story for ALL.

That’s much more challenging and risky but much more exciting to me. It poses some questions to an Anglican priest and an Anglican community of faith that lives with some given criteria for what constitutes worship and authentic church. That can be both helpful and restrictive. But the deeper challenge is to us all to give up our desire to get what we want from church, especially as that has been conditioned by churchiness, and to open ourselves to newness.





What if an atheist approves?

26 06 2009

Last week I caught up with one of my closest and longest-standing friends. We met for lunch at his house and I enjoyed his fantastic cooking in his fantastic garden. It’s always a bitter sweet experience for me meeting this friend. In lots of ways we are very alike — personality, interests, politics, taste in music, values and sense of humour. That’s all save for one regard. He is a convinced atheist. I am a Christian priest. That has actually made our friendship hugely valuable. I am the priest I am today thanks to working with this man for over eight years and reshaping my faith in the face of his robust yet compassionate questioning. It was quite a crucible!

So it’s not bitter sweet because I’m harbouring some disappointment or resentment about his convictions not being the same as mine. It’s bitter sweet because sometimes as I travel to meet up with him, I am slightly anxious about what it’s going to be like when we talk about my work.

I needn’t be. He’s always gracious and gentle, though sometimes I can tell that he’s working quite hard to refrain from explaining why I am a mentalist!

He can kind of cope with what I do all the while I pursue my quaint delusion in a way that doesn’t get in anybody else’s face. So maybe I was a little more anxious than normal as my mission work has really started to bear fruit and I am definitely getting in people’s faces.

But when I explained about the open spirituality work I’ve been doing in schools and even about the more creative worship we’ve been engaged in as a congregation alongside the people of Somers Town he seemed to be genuinely intrigued — approving even.

‘That all sounds really good to me,’ he said.

I think the idea of encouraging deeper reflection on life through hands-on engagement with visual and material art was something he could connect with and see value in, even if it is motivated by religious impulses that he thinks are bonkers.

So if what I’m doing is inoffensive to an atheist, does that mean there’s a problem with what I’m doing. I guess that for some of you that’s an issue. But for me it’s not. For two reasons. First because this particular atheist is a thoughtful friend whose judgement I value. Second because if people are required to adopt a religious conviction that they find problematic before they can access the sessions I run or the worship of our community, how will they ever be able to find the space to reassess their view of that religious conviction?