One step forward…

11 10 2010

I posted at the weekend about the hugely encouraging breakthrough that there had been in forging one community among those who gather Sunday by Sunday in Wilmcote House, despite some clear differences of approach to what that gathering should be about. I wanted to celebrate that, and I still do. I hope not to lose sight of that in what follows.

But it does often feel that renewed challenges follow hot on the heels of every ‘win’.

It was a relatively simple matter for the PCC in the end to complete the review of the Sunday Sanctuary and gather all the fragments of our discernment process together. Because there had emerged at the same time as that was all going on, between my colleague Alex and myself, a desire; an intention to create a new evening service, that would offer a different sort of space from both Sunday mornings in Wilmcote House and Sunday mornings in St Peter’s. More of that in another post.

The upshot, though, was that there would be an outlet for the more established members of the Sunday Sanctuary to express their spirituality through contemporary sung worship and quiet contemplation. Thus it no longer felt necessary, or appropriate (given the response to the suggestion from our newer friends) to try and shoehorn those things into Sunday mornings at Wilmcote House. So far, so positive.

It was clear from our wider discernment that we didn’t need to persist with keeping the Sunday Sanctuary open for two hours. Residents of Wilmcote House liked the idea of a slightly later start and others were finding the long morning hard going, especially those working to keep the kitchen open.

We had been moving towards closing the kitchen at about 11:00 and I had often notified people of that with ‘last orders’ announcement; which, unfortunately, frequently had the effect of creating a rush and making it more difficult to gather people for our all together time. (It made it virtually impossible for kitchen workers to join the all-together time as they had to clear up a new batch of dirty plates, cups and so on.)

So we decided that the Sunday Sanctuary would open at 10:30 instead of 10:00. The kitchen would close at 11:00 and be followed immediately by our all-together time. 11:45-12:00 would be tidy up time, which we would all share together, not simply as a clear up after the real activity but an important part of the expression of our life as a new community. (Kitchen clear-up was to wait until then too, so that kitchen helpers could join the all-together time.)

We also thought that the time between 11:30 and 11:45 might involve differentiated activities so each age group got the sort of stimulation that reflected its unique needs.

As I write this, I think this all sounds right and good. But we haven’t perhaps been as good as we might have been at sticking to that schedule and that may be at the root of some of our problems this half term.

Because it hasn’t felt to me as if we have really been hitting the mark since our restart. There have been lots of good things. The barbecue our first week back was a really good way to come back together. And of course it was encouraging after something of a break that we did all come back together. I think taking a break in future might seem a little odd. It felt odd, actually, during the summer. Projects take a break. Communities – churches? – do not.

Somehow, in between making a clear choice not to include sung worship and an ongoing effort to avoid cutting and sticking (for those who hated the ‘Sunday School’ feel that it had on occasion) we have ended up with a lot of up-front talking. Storytelling has been and remains an essential part of our shared identity. And I’m a firm believer in storytelling as an art form in its own right. There is a place for a variety of ways to share stories – story sacks, puppetry, pictures, film clips – but above all I think a really engaging storyteller simply speaking a tale can hold the attention of a group. But somehow our style (mostly delivered by me) has become flabby, unengaging and drawn out. Instead of being punchy and exciting, the stories and most especially the reflection following have become long-winded and talky.

In the past few weeks I have noticed that nobody has really been engaged. The youngest children are gravitating back to the Lego, which in a very echoey room is very distracting. The parents and older children are trying to draw their children/siblings’ attention back and the adults without children there are distracted by all of that going on. And on occasion when I’ve been speaking, I’ve been wondering who I’m actually speaking to!

It has brought me for the first time in ages to question my personal commitment to intergenerational community/church. Is it really possible to hold the attention of a middle-aged professional at the same time as you’re engaging a pre-schooler from a refugee family with next to no English? If your comparison is with school, then you’d say: ‘Of course not!’ Vertical teaching groups can work, but the age span is not normally more than two years. But if your comparison is not with education but with, say, a family meal, especially a special celebratory meal like Christmas dinner, then it’s not nearly so clear cut. But maybe I have confused the idea that ‘we only do apart what we cannot do together’ with some notion that we do nothing apart.

[Editor’s note – and I’m the editor! – this post has well and truly now broken the short post rule. Commitments are dropping like flies all around. 😉 ]

Of course, we are rather stuck in that we are in one room. There are not alternative spaces except for outside in the good weather (we have taken children outside for a game or activity). But when it’s getting colder, it becomes much more of a challenge to create discrete spaces – especially with the awful acoustics that this room has (very echoey).

The lesson I’ve learnt from being married to a teacher and being involved in a local primary school is that if we are not engaging people, children especially, it’s because we’re not engaging not because the people are not responding appropriately.

So what to do?

Funnily enough, the thought that has occurred to me is to go back to the liturgy. To look back into the shape of the Eucharist and see how the moments and movements of that might be reinterpreted in our setting. It may be that we need to make the occasional simple sharing of bread and wine into a more regular feature.

That might seem like quite a conceptual leap from talking too much not working to let’s have a simple sort-of-communion each week. But there’s something about the way we’re having to reinvent the wheel each week that I think is giving us a bit of a headache. And actually to start with sharing a meal: breakfast; and to conclude with sharing a simple commemorative meal: bread and wine (grape juice actually) gives the whole thing something of a shape that maybe it’s lacking. Within that, there are moments for gathering, self-examination and reflection, hearing and reflecting on one of our inherited stories, looking out to the wider world and giving thanks, that might just give us the structure that will keep things moving along in a much more dynamic way. It might also help us to express our newfound community-ness more wholeheartedly in the content and shape of our mornings together, not just in the sheer fact of our coming together. And I think the times that have worked best have been those occasions when we have shared food that has some symbolic, nay sacramental, significance – a high point for me, was the simple passover we shared when we were journeying through the stories of Moses.

I’ll let you know how things develop…

[If you’ve made it this far, thanks for sticking with me. I’d welcome your comments. 🙂 ]

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…

Higher and hire

26 03 2009

One of the ongoing conversations I’ve been having finally reached a conclusion at the beginning of this week. Some weeks back I asked a council housing officer about running some sort of workshop in one of the high rise blocks in the northern part of Somerstown.

I had asked about using the community room on the ground floor in this block for some activities in Holy Week and the week preceding.

As it turned out my contact was not able to come back to me in time to make this timing work. But he has now responded. I can use the room but I will need to pay to hire it. He has also refused me permission to hang about in the entrance area.

At first I was very disappointed at this outcome. I had anticipated that the social benefit of my presence and the sessions I was planning to run would be obvious and so my offer would be welcomed. It wasn’t unwelcome. But I think it was viewed as just another potential hire of the community room. And even then, there was a question over whether it was an appropriate use.

And now I think about it I wonder why I ever thought it would be otherwise. I am finding, to my surprise, that I — for all my protestations to the contrary — am still in the grip of Christendom thinking. I think I was still operating under an unconscious misapprehension that as a local priest, I could just walk into any social space.

But society has retreated from the Church just as much as the Church has retreated from society. If there was ever a presumption of open access for the clergy of the established church it has now gone.

And why shouldn’t we have to pay to hire someone else’s space — we charge everyone else to use our church buildings no matter what the community benefit might be. That could hardly be said to be in the spirit of generosity I think the early church modelled.

And why should I have thought it appropriate that I should be able to hang around in someone else’s home?

Having got my head round all that, I am once again excited about the opportunity that has opened up. This particular tower block has been in my mind a testbed for the possibility of St Luke’s becoming a ‘seeding’ congregation — a church community that moves into a space for a while in order to found a new congregation in that place. That possibility remains open but I will need to persuade the congregation to put its money where my mouth is…

Retreat! Retreat!

23 03 2009

I spent last week travelling to, being at and returning from an organized retreat for pioneer ministers at Lee Abbey in North Devon. It was a time for deep spiritual reflection. It was hard work. There was no raucous singing round a beach fire and definitely no late night card playing or whisky drinking. Honest.

There were 24 of us involved in all kinds of projects. I was particularly in awe of Paul and Jo who are running a pub in Coventry. You’ve got to admire anyone prepared to live in Coventry. Only joking J+P. Coventry’s lovely!

Quite a few of us were in ‘mixed economy’ appointments — part pioneer, part parish. Others were struggling to pioneer new forms in conventional appointments. There was a good deal of experience of frustration and misunderstanding being shared. I’m thankful that I have experienced such strong support this far in the Diocese of Portsmouth. I just have to cope with the pressure of expectation!

Soul space
The retreat programme included ‘soul space’ groups. We met in small groups with a facilitator. Each person who wanted to, shared something of what was going on for them each day of the retreat. The others in the group just listened in silence without comment. We kept silence after each speaker. We maintained a sort of double confidentiality. Anything shared in the group was kept private and we agreed not to approach each other to speak about anything that had been said. There were a few skeptical murmurings, but my experience of the group I was in was positive. I thought this was powerful and helpful. I think it could work in an adapted form with children as well as adults. You’d need two adults present for accountability and need to be careful about the degree of confidentiality that was guaranteed. You’d have to make it clear that you’d pass on anything that the school, for instance, needed to know. Children might find it more difficult to maintain the ‘no further discussion’ rule.

Prophet of boom!
Former President of the Methodist Conference, Tom Stuckey led a Bible reflection each day from Acts. He interpreted the current state of the world and the Church in prophetic terms. We’re in an in-between time, he said. We’re on the cusp of a Pentecostal explosion of Sprit. He didn’t mean Pentecostal in terms of Pentecostalism or charismatic renewal. He was speaking more about an explosion of missionary enterprise and the growth of the church in new forms (fresh expressions).

I’d love to go with his interpretation. It was certainly an exciting vision. I recognize absolutely his portrayal of where we are now as being in a liminal space. It definitely feels like we’re in uncharted territory. And it’s not comfortable even for those of us who spin ourselves as adventurous.

Sound the retreat
But ‘retreat’, ironically, feels like quite a good analogy for where the Church is at present to me.

There is a strong drive to retreat into forms of church and worship that make us feel safe or as I keep finding myself saying at the moment — like we’re on the winning side.

Church people always look at me askance when I say that. I’m sure they’re thinking (because sometimes they say so) ‘of course we’re on the winning side’. That’s the eschatological promise that Julian of Norwich spoke of when she said ‘all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well’. It would be difficult to carry on if I didn’t have hope that in the end justice, peace, joy and love will overcome (underwhelm?) the forces arrayed against them.

But that is not the same thing as the triumphalism that characterizes some churches — the sort of churches that others want to retreat into. And to be honest, at times, I feel like retreating into. When I’m involved in a tiny, struggling church and we’re surrounded by mega church on every side, it can feel like you’ve got it wrong. Those closest to me aren’t wholly persuaded by my analysis that big church isn’t the way forward.

And when there’s pressure from within the congregation to try and emulate that soft rock style of gathered worship, perhaps with the idea that we too will become mega church somehow — it can be discouraging. Because in giving in to that pressure a bit we’re ending up with something that satisfies no-one and affirms our death rather than our life.

I think the future of the Church is as tiny, struggling congregations. But not struggling because we’re trying to recover past glories or copy someone else’s admittedly impressive present ones. Mega church is, I think, the last gasp of Christendom. It marshalls impressive resources and fosters a particular form of committed discipleship, but it fails, I believe to incarnate the gospel in the plethora of cultures around us. It expresses the gospel in a sub-culture that’s often more sub than culture. And in the end it doesn’t always provide the depth of spirituality people need to bear life’s complexities in faith. That’s my experience anyway.

I think if we take seriously the call to mission as a way of life and not just something we do ‘out there’ then it will shape our whole life — including what sustains us spiritually, individually and corporately. If we can’t find God in the forms of our immediate culture how on earth do we imagine we’ll help others to?

A doorkeeper in the house of the Lord

4 03 2009

Interesting time last night as our home group gathered to meet in the Fleet. One of our number had no ID and the door staff wouldn’t let him in. So after some unsuccessful attempts at persuasion, we decided to move on. That’s the second time, by the way, that I’ve offered to vouch for someone. Both times, unsurprisingly, the offer has been shrugged off. I have to laugh at myself – as if wearing a dog collar carries any sort of status. It was a bit pompous of me to imagine it might! Actually I’m a bit embarrassed that I even entertained the thought. Certainly I think it’s a marker for who I am and what I represent, but if I ever get to imagine that any privilege attaches to it, then I’m something else than a follower of Christ!

We ended up in a pub called the Trafalgar. We played the FAST game. Which was kind of funny, because, as one of our number commented, it looked a little bit like a Ouija board. In fact I’m sure someone going past commented to that effect. It worked well as a way of engaging with a story and drawing out significance for ourselves in a light-hearted way. A friend of one of our more regular members who joined us for the night joined in and really enjoyed taking part. It helped him to think about a serious issue in his life too.

So after a wobbly start (which included me having to abandon half a pint of Guinness – never a good thing), it was good night for the group. But it didn’t take us a lot further as far as our/my involvement with the Fleet.

Preparations for the church community’s weekend away have meant it’s been difficult to get out much more than this, though I did have a good chat over coffee with another church leader in the city. He’s well connected in the council. I was talking about running a two-week pilot before the summer break of a temporary chill-out space in the Guildhall Square. He was encouraging and thought it could be a flyer. I need to do some work now on putting a more concrete proposal together. I also emailed a housing officer about spending some time in one of the Somerstown tower blocks. I’m meeting with the SureStart people today to explore possibilities there.

The placements are coming together and I have maybe taken a step closer to finding a supervisor for my MA dissertation.

That’s all just a bit of a report on what’s been happening – which I know some of you are interested in, but I don’t have much deeper reflection to offer this morning. Too many late nights watching stuff on YouTube have mashed my brain.

A man with a plan

23 01 2009

So one of the great things about having a close colleague is that they just from time to time prompt you, in the nicest possible way to get on with it. Alex and I were having an extended meeting the other day where we were going to talk about where the pioneer stuff was headed. Preparing for that meeting just made me get my head around what I am going to do.

So here’s the plan.

Over the next six months I’ll spend the best part of two or three weeks in each month immersing myself in one of the potential mission contexts I have begun to identify. None of the arrangements are fixed yet, but I reckon these will be

  • one of the pubs in the Guildhall Square area
  • the Guildhall Square itself
  • one of the substantial tower blocks in the Northern half of Somerstown
  • A Somerstown primary School
  • A Somerstown secondary School
  • an area that includes a Surestart centre,
    a community café and a community arts centre.

There are other areas, such as the train station, the law courts and the police station that might also be interesting to explore, but I have had to make some choices. So I’ve gone for the places where it looks like there’s scope to grow a community.

After my time in each place I’ll take a quiet day retreat and then have a long chat with Alex about what I’ve found. I’ll record some of my thoughts on here too (as much as confidentiality will allow) so that perhaps this blog too can be part of discerning the vocation.

I’ll be speaking with others too – cluster and deanery colleagues, leaders of other churches, those working in secular organisations – later in the Spring and early Summer. This will all form the basis of my MA dissertation, so I hope I can keep some academic depth and rigour in the discernment process.

I will then look for a more sustained immersion in the Autumn in whichever of the potential mission contexts emerges from the early discernment period as the most likely to correspond to God’s calling for me and others with me in the next few years.

Sound okay to you? Well I’m going to go for it! I’ll keep you posted on what happens.