A Wilmcote House Nativity

22 12 2009

On Sunday 20th December, we hosted a ‘Wilmcote House Nativity’. I posted the cards shown above through the door of every flat in Wilmcote House. I also produced posters and put them up on the noticeboards in the entrance hall and on the doors and windows of the community room. Actually it was the posters that I put up first, and it was as I was putting them up that I realised that nowhere on my cards or posters did it say where this event was happening! So I spent an hour handwriting it on 180 cards and the posters. Unlike previous weeks, I didn’t put the publicity up in any of the other tower blocks in the area. It just seemed right on this occasion, given who had been coming and the focus we were giving it to concentrate on Wilmcote House itself.

We thought if anything we were going to do was likely to be a big draw it was this one, so we catered for 50 people (including the members of the mission community formerly known as the congregation of the church of the parish of St Luke – catchy ain’t it?!)

One thing that came out strongly in our discussion at our Tuesday night gathering was how good it had been at our coffee and carols event the week before that there were moments where everyone there was invited to do the same thing together. It someone had suggested that to me at the beginning, I might well have viewed it as a bit of a step backward; a bit of an adulteration of our very clear intention to be a drop-in, not a church service. But inviting people to take a pause from whatever activity they were involved on and sing a couple of carols did seem to bring people together.

This week we again had the mix of individual and communal activities. We had presents to choose and wrap for someone. We had a ‘random act of kindness’ station where guests could fill a gift bag with chocolates and a satsuma. The idea was that you’d then take it away with you and give it to a stranger or a neighbour. That did seem to get a bit blurred with the presents in the end as I was given more than one of those bags by some of the children who had come. We also had a station where people could make a ‘stained glass window’ with black card and tissue paper. We had prepared two designs – a Christmas star and a candle.

We also had a station where people could decorate a gingerbread Christmas tree that one of our number had lovingly baked the night before. This was a very popular activity.

There was another table where people could cut out and decorate a shiny star. AT the same table, people were invited to write a prayer or reflection on a shiny strip of paper and add it to a paper chain of prayers.

But in the midst of all this, we invited everyone to come and join a circle as I told them the Christmas story using a story box with little felt figures. One child had told us the week before that they didn’t know the Christmas story, but I’m guessing they’d been hearing it at school as not only were w they ell engaged with the story but they also seemed to know what was coming next. Indeed it seemed to add greatly to the enjoyment for the children there that they knew the story and were able to interject with what was coming next.

Maybe there’s something in there about how oral storytelling works – maybe the greater the familiarity the greater the engagement, if the storytelling is handled right. I was just nimble enough to recognise this as I went on and so I created more and more opportunities for the children to feed me the next event in the story as we went on.

We followed this ‘circle time’ with a more familiar nativity presentation in which the children took the roles of the different characters. One of our number – a primary school teacher – had prepared and delivered a nativity for her school. She had written an excellent simple narration script which was conveniently broken down into small chunks, so that I could turn it into cards which we distributed so that lots of people there had a chance to tell a bit of the story. We interspersed the narrative with four carols which we sung along to a backing CD that had very child-friendly versions of the carols we were singing.

So in some ways, it was more like a service of worship than I had envisaged our Sunday mornings would be. But I still don’t think this is worship-shaped church. For one thing, I always made it clear that it was an invitation and that people could carry on with what they were already doing if they preferred. And it wasn’t how the whole of the time was spent. There was a good combination of activities for people to take at their own pace and things that we did all together. There was spiritual ‘content’ in both types of activity but in neither did it make demands on the people who came in terms of belief or commitment.

And the people who came who haven’t been regular members of the congregation when we were meeting in the St Luke’s building seemed to cope with the all-together stuff just fine. That should be no surprise really. In school and nursery settings there’s the same combination of all together and individual/group work and in parent and child groups too the same pattern pertains. This is what people are used to. There’s perhaps even a certain naturalness to it.

Interestingly, I think the one thing that isn’t well developed yet is the thing that I said would be the defining characteristic of this venture: conversation. I’m not worried about that, though it’s worth making and holding that observation. I’m not worried because on the one hand this is a grand experiment. We’ve approached this with ideas of how it might be, but also hopefully with enough flexibility to respond to the real people who really come and what will work best with and for them. And on the other hand, it’s still early days.

We’re still just getting to know people. It isn’t that we aren’t talking to them, it’s just that it can be quite a busy space and we’re grabbing snatches of conversation. There’s plenty of time for that to grow and for us to invest in some new furniture and try some new configurations that enable and facilitate some more adult engagement alongside the fun, learning and reflection that all ages together are enjoying.

So from Wilmcote House and the Sunday Sanctuary, I wish you all a very happy Christmas and a peaceful, joyous and blessed New Year!


Finding sanctuary in a tower block

6 12 2009

Two weeks into our great adventure, it’s time to bring you all out there in blogland up to date.

Maybe you don’t know what I’m talking about. So I’ll tell you.

On Sunday, 22nd November, 2009, the tiny congregation meeting in the parish church building in the Church of England parish of St Luke, Southsea, said goodbye to that building. In a special service, we moved around the building, stopping at various points — the main entrance, the font, etc. At each ‘station’ we marked some feature or character of the church’s life, symbolised by the piece of church furniture at which we were stopping. We committed ourselves to carry that aspect of our common life forward into our new future.

Why did we do that? Because from then on, we would be ceasing to hold our 11 a.m. Sunday service in the church building. Instead, we have since been gathering in the community room attached to one of the nearby tower blocks. But it’s not just a matter of geography. We haven’t moved our Sunday service of Anglican liturgical worship. We’ve ended it.

The time for the intentionally Christian community’s worship is now on a Tuesday evening as part of our home group. Each week we share a meal, a Eucharist and prayer and engagement with the Bible in my home.

On Sundays, now, between 10 a.m. and midday, we open what we’re calling the Sunday Sanctuary.

We provide breakfast and refreshments all morning and some sort of craft-based activity. Alongside that, there’s one or two light, reflective activities on offer. We’ve been describing it as a family drop-in in the publicity material. Is that what it’s been?

In the first week, six people we hadn’t met before came: a brother and sister, a child who came with one of our members who lives in the block, and three young teenage boys. So all of our guests were children, without their parents. This isn’t what we were aiming for but it is, to a degree, what we expected. We have tried to avoid becoming a child-minding service by insisting that children below secondary school age should be accompanied by a parent, another adult or an older sibling.

In the second week, we had nine guests, three of whom we had seen the week before. The brother and sister returned and brought their younger brother with them. One of the teenage boys from last week returned and brought a friend with him. One of our members who lives in the block brought a different child with them this week and in the second half of the morning a mum and her two children joined us. I hope, dear reader, you can understand that when I say that we were encouraged by the presence of this family (at our family drop-in) it doesn’t reflect any sense of disappointment with, or devaluing of, our other guests. We have been encouraged and pleased to meet, serve and share with all those we’ve met. But meeting this family this week has suggested that our ‘model’ might just work; it might be the right one.

Already, we have experienced a steep learning curve. I anticipate that our Tuesday night gatherings will include some lively conversations from now on. The first surprise was that people are staying all morning. In fact this week, we had a job on our hands dissuading two people from coming in before we opened at 10. That job lasted for nearly 50 minutes. We had been working on the assumption that people might come for 30 or 45 minutes and then go. One or two craft activities can sustain that but not if people are there for 2 hours. So we are rapidly having to think about creating a broader range of things for people to do. This requires more work from us, which presents its own challenge for a community where there is not an evenness of either commitment or capacity.

Some of those we’re engaging with have somewhat chaotic lives. Just being able to provide some decent nutrition and some positive adult contact and attention is more, I suspect than some are regularly getting. That all presents its own challenges, as I’m sure you can imagine.

There are so many sensitivities here that it’s difficult to say too much more. It might sound as if all these reflections are practical, rather than spiritual. But at the forefront of our minds is the need to ensure that all we do is intentionally spiritual. It would be easy in lots of ways to respond to our challenges by resorting to entertainment. Just (as we’re frequently asked) to get the pool table and other games out. But we aren’t a youth club or a kids’ club. We’re a church operating a family drop in. We’re not about forcing anything on anyone. Everything is optional. But everything we offer comes from who we are.

That’s the unique contribution we bring: ourselves and our faith. That’s not an imposition, I believe, it’s a positive gift. It motivates us to love each and every person and to believe in everyone we meet. Other people find different motivations and end up in the same place. But this is our motivation. So faith has a positive contribution to make to the extent that it provokes us as a community to draw alongside people living in this difficult locality.

But I’m also excited about the positive contribution that finding faith can make for each person we meet. Faith brings positive transformation. What I’m trying to say is that if people discover faith for themselves through this, that is an outcome I would celebrate. (I think it’s at least as likely that those of us who consider ourselves to have faith already will rediscover faith.)

The difference between what we’re doing here and a regular church service is that we’re not expecting people to come to us and do what we do without space for question or doubt or just exploration in conversation. The activities we offer share some of the things that we have found meaningful. They invite others to imaginatively enter into that world of meaning — to ‘try it on for size’. But we will always respect people’s freedom and if people find themselves taking a different point of view, it will not affect our welcome of them.

Getting all arty-farty

9 11 2009

anomie1The day I came back from the consultation in Salisbury, my colleague Alex and I went to see an avant garde theatre production at the New Theatre Royal in the centre of Portsmouth.

‘Anomie’ combined music, dance and video to weave together the narratives of alienated individuals living in an urban environment. It was presented by Precarious – a company from… actually I don’t know where they’re from. But they seem to have generated some interest at the Edinburgh festival with this one-act piece.

The first surprise was the theatre itself. Though Alex and I had spoken with the theatre director about our work in the city and explored possible connections, I hadn’t been before. I think it’s a great venue with a real intimate feel to it. It struck me as a place with a lot of potential, though I’m not sure I can say for what. I can just kind of imagine doing… stuff… there… I’ll let you know if anything more concrete occurs to me.

The second surprise was the performance itself. I really expected to like the mix of multimedia and dance. It was well done and imaginative but I think it was actually at its strongest when it was just the movement. And that applies to the speech in the piece too. The words reminded me of artist’s statements I’d heard – artists statements I’d written – at art college. Just trying a bit too hard to be meaningful. Again, the scenes where the movement was allowed to speak for itself were the strongest.

I think they’d invested quite a lot of effort in the intellectual content. There were layers of symbolism that I think I was supposed to engage with at a cerebral level. But trying to figure all that out got in the way. When I abandoned that mental effort and just allowed it to engage me at a more visceral level, I got much more into the performance. I think some of that content crept back in, but in a more subconscious way.

The narrative strands were drawn together in such a way at the end that I think I became more consciously aware of them retrospectively than I had been during the show. That struck me as an interesting metaphor for our own lives – individually and collectively. Do we only find narrative integrity in retrospect? Or is this something we can experience or expect along the way?

I would have liked to have seen it with my wife, Barbara. She’s less pretentious than me. I would have been interested to see whether she would have loved it or whether she would have thought it was all a bit affected. For me, it was both. I haven’t seen much dance in my time, but I think the human body in movement is one of the most profoundly poetic art forms. But there was a sense in which this was trying a bit too hard. It had the feel of a student piece that hadn’t been edited enough to find a pure and profound voice. A work in progress/development, rather than something finished. But then maybe that’s more appropriate for a postmodern audience. Maybe that gives the audience to be part of the performance, to continue to form and process the ideas-in-formation that we’ve encountered.

It has set me thinking about liturgy for postmodern worshippers/spiritual explorers. Alternative worship that I experienced or that I have been involved in creating has that sense of trying too hard, of throwing too much in, of words that are stretching for profundity. But maybe again, that’s okay, because in its failure and its self-indulgence it opens up a space for those engaging with it to find their own voice…

…or am I now trying too hard?! 😉

Alex suggested that my Sunday night conversations could be enriched if the people taking part were sharing experiences together in this sort of arts space. I have to say it set the juices a-flowing. Watch this space…

Surprised by joy (and chicken kebabs)

16 07 2009

1066287_barbecueTonight as I was preparing a meal, I experienced a moment of sheer joy and connectedness. What was going on? This was the second time that day I had cooked the same meal. Earlier, my kids, who had been moaning as they saw their herb-covered chicken kebabs going into the oven, actually tucked into what I finally lay before them and then followed it up by eating loads of fruit. I couldn’t quite believe it. My little junk food junkies were eating real food. And loving it. It’s like the usual order of the universe had been inverted for some short period. It was a real Doctor Who moment. (Doctor Who and not Torchwood because if it had been Torchwood they would probably have instantaneously combusted immediately after eating their healthy supper.)

So that was the first thing that contributed. Second, José González’s Heartbeats was playing on the CD player. I challenge anyone to feel bad listening to that track. But this was something more than just feeling good. This was a moment of being overtaken by joy. Not just happiness or contentment. Joy. What’s the difference? It wasn’t just about a happy feeling. It was about feeling that everything is connected and that everything is pure gift.

It hit me when I was chopping tomatoes for the salad that Barbara and I would share with our dinner guest – a colleague from Barbara’s school who is shortly to leave for a new job in Spain. So there was a sense of being able to provide for the people I love – first the kids and then Barbara and to be able to sustain and support her in a relationship that matters to her (and so to me).

And then there was the beautiful redness and fullness of the tomatoes I was chopping. Just the goodness of these gifts in front of me. Chopping them felt like a ritual action (in a good way). It was like an act of worship or thanksgiving to prepare them. It was fulfilling in itself but I was also anticipating that greater fulfilment to come when I would eat these tomatoes and I would experience their taste as well as the resistance of their physical presence against the action of my knife. I’m starting to sound a bit mad now. But this is honestly how I felt. It took me by surprise because I am physically very tired and not quite 100% well I suspect but I was just aware of feeling really great.

And there was also the thought that I was doing something both profoundly and simply creative. I was taking the stuff of the earth and reshaping it in a way such that others could enjoy and experience it. It was a moment of artistic expression. [This must sound so pretentious!]

The sad thing was I thought how rarely such an experience happens in the context of Christian worship. It made me think that Christian worship might offer more of this sort of experience if it gets more basic and grounded in these sorts of real, everyday human experience. It reminded me how preparing and sharing meals has been central to my thinking in the past and on occasion more recently. Before I was ordained, I remember saying to someone once that I wanted to be remembered as the ‘cooking curate’. I have just this week started cooking again after months (years?) of just heating stuff from the supermarket. This whole (quite freaky) experience has reminded me that this might be a real feature of my vocation and what I think human community and the faith community might be all about.

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?

Spiritual children. What have I learnt?

2 06 2009

Time is a very valuable commodity in the life of a school. There is a full agenda for limited time. That means that one needs to be focused and prepared. There’s not space in a school day for expansive time or lots of open exploration. You need to know what you want to get from the time you’ve assigned to an activity and a clear strategy to achieve it. To some degree that mediates against spiritual work which is about slowing things down and creating space for open exploration. But it is possible to engage in some worthwhile activity if you are very clear about what you’re doing and how much time you’re giving to each element – and in this setting that has to be minutes.

Stillness and silence are very much part of the spiritual tradition that I most connect with and, it seems to me without doing any proper research on the subject, are the aspects of Christian spirituality that are resurgent at present. It occurred to me, again without any real empirical basis for this assertion, that this might be the very thing that is lacking in many of these children’s lives.

Actually I think it’s the thing that is most lacking for most of us in the (post)modern world. This is the point that is made in the episode of ‘What about me?’ titled ‘Bombardment’. [This is a film made by 1 Giant Leap (Jamie Catto and Duncan Bridgeman) as they travelled the world making some amazing collaborative music and mixing it up with all kinds of life/spiritual comment from a whole variety of spiritual or philosophical backgrounds.] The impression that build in this episode is that it’s very difficult to find a still centre in the midst of the manic noise of our world. That’s down to the constant media bombardment we find ourselves subject to.

Many of these children are subject to the additional ‘noise’ of difficult home situations as well as media/cultural noise. The other aspect that contributors to this episode picked up on was that there is also the internal ‘noise’ of our own minds that makes it even more difficult to find peace. That inner noise is, I suspect, not disconnected from the noise without for some of these children. they will have internalised some of the noise of their home situations.

Moments of passivity were especially challenging for these children. But not so universally or unrelentingly challenging that it wasn’t worthwhile. For some of them, the inner noise was very evident in these moments. It would break into the learning environment and disturb the individual child and inevitably their peers. But there were some moments where it seemed to click for a group I was working with – whether the whole class or a smaller set of children. This suggests to me that it is worthwhile to persevere with providing these opportunities even if children will not be consistently take advantage of them. The discouragement of the times when it doesn’t work (probably more often than it does, but not overwhelmingly so) is worth it for the golden moments when it does and the children find some moments of peace.

More consistently ‘successful’ was the hands-on creative work. I was concerned before I began that some of the more physically inclined children – and I guess I was thinking that there might be some gender bias in that distinction – would not like the more ‘arty’ aspects of what we were doing. Perhaps because it was more physically expansive than the usual cut/stick/colour craft activity that might be more familiar in church settings, it did engage those children. In fact, it engaged them very well. Where children moved their bodies and their hands in gathering and handling materials and making artefacts beyond the usual proportions of a ‘picture space’ (ie: A4 paper) there was a real depth of engagement. Moving out of the usual working environment (the day pilgrimage and making the footprints picture in the green area outside the classroom) or changing the usual working environment (pushing the tables back, making a mess) also helped children to engage.

Interestingly, there was one activity that was very much about colouring in on an A4 sheet that also gripped the children. That was the follow-up work on A4 worksheets that followed the ‘Necker Cube’ presentation. Though here again, we had moved out of the usual classroom to a different room. It also was challenging to visual perception, if not even disorientating and this too perhaps meant it required a level of concentration that stimulated the children’s interest.

Theories about learning styles are not uncontroversial, but to borrow that language, these activities did seem to allow those who might be classed ‘kinesthetic learners’ to flourish in a way that more academic work did not, so obviously. That said, though, there were very few children who were actually disengaged by these activities.

According to David Hay, spirituality can be defined as ‘relational consciousness’. That immediately suggests a connection between individuals that is well developed in a spiritually ‘healthy’ person or community. It was part of my aim to encourage and foster that level of connection in the time I had with the children I was working with. But as well as interpersonal connectedness, there is also a good degree of intrapersonal connectedness that is a feature of a healthy spirit. Spiritually healthy people will have a well developed sense of self-worth, self-knowledge and self-appreciation. In fact it is difficult to empathise with others (an essential feature of community) if we do not empathise with ourselves. The Christian tradition recognises this in the second-half of the summary of the law that Jesus uses: love your neighbour as yourself. Implicit in that calling is a recognition that we need to love ourselves if we are to love others.

So much of the programme I developed was designed to stimulate both of these aspects of the children’s spirituality. There were moments of individual working as well as moments of collaborative working. Some children with socialisation challenges found the collaborative working difficult, but this difficulty did appear to diminish over the course of the two weeks. A good number of the children coped well with working with others from the outset. Physical constraints of working space meant some children felt excluded by more dominant children. Others were self-excluding, wanting to do their own thing and sometimes feeling that their ideas were not being recognised.

It was interesting that if the class was divided into smaller groups within the same space, a competitive tendency emerged. I’m not against competition per se, but our individualistic/tribal culture means that competitiveness is the default and it’s not always a healthy or sporting sort of competition. It’s more often about a hostility to the other. Tribalism creeps in very easily. For some of the whole class activities, for instance and especially the whole class mosaic activity, there was a sense of shared identity and solidarity that was achieved without definition over against another.

One aspect of relational consciousness that my programme addressed a little less effectively perhaps was the sense of connection with ‘the transcendent’. This is perhaps because this is the aspect of spirituality that is most contentious and where it draws closest to what has traditionally been understood as the religious realm. For the non-religious or for non-theistic religions, the transcendent is perhaps a little harder to describe than in those traditions where it is identified with deity. Awe and wonder might capture some of what the experience is like, whether people want to define that in terms of relating to a god or gods. Quite often it is encountered in the face of the natural world and especially in reflecting on the awesome power of natural forces or the barely comprehensible time or spatial scales involved in events at both the biggest and tiniest levels of the universe.

I touched on this in some of the reflection I offered especially on the beach pilgrimage day, but this often involved just me talking with the children (sort of) listening. These moments suffered from the same problems as the sermon does in church settings – it’s just not a very effective teaching method. I need to give some more thought to how a programme such as this could more effectively stimulate this aspect of the children’s spirituality.

[This post has been cleared with the headteacher.]

We are collective

2 06 2009

My final couple of days at a primary school in the heart of Portsmouth were just hugely enjoyable. As usual there was literacy and numeracy work in the morning of Thursday 7th May. It was great to be around to help some children with their work. They were writing an account of their day on the beach. It was encouraging to see that they had good recall of the events of the day. That suggested it had been an experience that they had enjoyed and counted as worthwhile. I helped one or two with their spelling as they wrote these accounts. Next time somebody asks me how to spell the name of the king who acted out turning back the tide, though, I will use the longer spelling. The four letter spelling isn’t so good to use for a generation familiar with French Connection UK’s branding! 😉

In the afternoon, after some more regular curriculum work, we began my session with the whole class participating in the meditation activity. Sat in a circle on the floor, they really entered into it again as they had on the first occasion. There was much less disruption and the children seemed genuinely quietened by taking part.

We followed this with the whole class making a pebble mosaic in a large tray of sand. Part of the activity was about agreeing what the design should be. I got them talking in pairs and then offering suggestions which we refined by a process of voting to get a final plan. They chose to make the centrepiece of their design, the name of their class. This suggested to me that they placed a high value on who they were together and to represent their shared experience through the past couple of weeks and especially the pilgrimage on Tuesday.

There was a real spirit of co-operation in the making of the mosaic and a sense of pride in the final result. When one child accidentally damaged it later on, there was lots of fussing over the mosaic and a repair was carefully effected. There were some moments of frustration for one or two who didn’t get to participate as they wanted, but there wasn’t the same wholesale withdrawal as there had been on the beach just a couple of days previously. Everyone played their part. One or two of the children who find more academic work more challenging really shone in this activity.

The next day I spent some of the morning working with three of the year 6 pupils. We were working out what thought or speech bubbles we wanted to add to the photographs the teacher had taken during the beach pilgrimage day. Of course (like any of us) they looked for the photos of themselves first, but it a real delight to be alongside these children as they tried to put themselves inside someone else’s head. It was all done with a great deal of humour, of course.

The session I’d planned for the afternoon started with a version of the well-known ‘Footprints’ story. I used a story box to help the children enter into the story in their imaginations and I told it in quite a meditative way – that is, I presented it slowly with lots of pauses and ‘I wonder…’ moments to encourage the children to listen in a meditative/reflective way. This is similar to the ‘Godly Play’ approach that has been developed as a way of encouraging and releasing children’s spirituality in Christian circles. However in both my method of storytelling and in the content of the story, I stripped out any religious references. I used the story to encourage the children to think about who it is that ‘carries’ them through life’s more challenging moments.

This had been a part of my programme that the headteacher of the school had asked me to approach particularly carefully, so that the children were not drawn unconsciously into a religious event. This seemed fair enough to me. Actually, given the approach I was taking, I wholly agreed with the need for care. I don’t sense that there is an absolute resistence to religiously derived stories being heard in this school. But the children would need to know from the outset what they were being presented with. It would actually be dishonest – a subterfuge – to have led the children gently into something that turned out to be religious without making that clear from the start. There would have been no opportunity for those who wanted to, to opt out.

I did give the children the option to share in a ‘sharing circle’ who it was that they thought carries them. I did make it absolutely clear that it was a perfectly legitimate response not to share, to offer the group their silence instead. Some initially took that option, but when they had heard others share, they mostly asked for the ‘sharing stone’ to come back to them so that they could share. It was family and friends for all of the children. I had intended not to participate in this sharing time, but several of the children asked me to. In the original version of this story it is ‘the Lord’ who has carried the dreamer who sees his life played back alongside his footprints along the beach. Perhaps I am conditioned by my knowledge of the original story, but I genuinely do have a sense of being ‘carried’ by God through life’s troubles. The headteacher had assured me that she didn’t want to close down any religious interpretations offered by the children. But it is quite a different matter for me as an adult in a position of responsibility, if not leadership, within that setting to offer my own reflection. It carries a different weight – not in terms of its validity, but in terms of its potential to influence open, young minds. It was part of the ‘deal’ with this school that I would be very careful when entering this sort of territory. As the children had all already offered their interpretations, I did feel that there was some scope for sharing something from my own (religiously-formed) experience. But I was wary of explicitly affirming the reality of Deity, so I said it was my faith that carried me. That seemed to me to be real and honest without making a religious assertion at a sensitive moment. There may be moments in the future where making religious assertions (couched in the language of ‘this is what I believe’) may be appropriate, but this wasn’t one of them.

We followed the story with each child making a picture on sandpaper that involved making ‘footprints’ with the heel of their hand and a finger tip dipped in poster paints. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the children’s engagement with this activity was joyous. This felt like a moment of celebration and that was carried through into the final activity where we all went outside and made real footprints in various colours on a large sheet of paper. Everyone got really messy and a little bit over-excited but the party atmosphere didn’t lead the class to get out of hand (or should that be foot?). They just loved it. So did I. Joy abounded. This was a moment that I would describe as deeply and profoundly spiritual. It repeated that pendulum swing that I had been taking the children through in each activity between valuing themselves as an individual and finding their place as part of the collective. Just like the mosaic picture, there was a sense that we were finding our identity as a group in this activity. I don’t know yet how lasting that effect might be for these children. I hope I will have a chance to see as I spend a bit more time with this class in the coming weeks.

[This post has been cleared with the school’s headteacher.]