Losing faith in the pub

23 01 2011

After another Sunday night in the pub pretty much on my own, I am beginning to wonder whether this is an idea that has had its day. Indeed, I wonder whether it ever really had legs.

I’ve persisted with what became known as ‘PUB:FAITH’ for a year now. The idea is that on a Sunday night in a city centre pub I host a conversation for spiritually inclined people who ‘don’t do church’. I start each evening with a ‘skinny ritual’ — a brief, symbolic activity to lead us into ‘spirited conversation’. I usually choose a topic based on the Church of England lectionary, after thinking about the broadly spiritual issues reflected in one of the set readings for each Sunday. My question as I approach the text is, ‘What are the experiences, questions or challenges that non-religious spiritual people might connect with?’

There have been nights when there’s been a good turnout and a good conversation. But in the main, most of the people who’ve come have been people who do ‘do church’. They haven’t all been finding their experience of church to be entirely helpful. And there have been some, even some who have come reasonably frequently, who are not churchgoers or people of acknowledged Christian faith at all. But I am not now, and haven’t been since the outset, making many connections with people who are, in the terrible churchy jargon, ‘unchurched’ or even many who are, as yet, ‘de-churched’.

I value what I’ve been able to share with people who have come, and I’m grateful for those who have supported me by turning up. But if it doesn’t really do what it says in the tin, I’m not sure it’s what I should be doing with my time. Especially if, as now, I am only seeing one person each week and that person is well connected with another nearby church.

I haven’t made as much effort to promote it as perhaps I might. I have advertised — just recently, in fact. I placed an ad in a local publication that goes to 10,000 homes. Nobody came or even made contact as a result. In fact it’s since that ad went out that it’s been the quietest it’s ever been! I haven’t ever done the other thing I’ve vaguely pondered doing — handing out postcards in the Guildhall Square. But even if I had, I would have been likely to reach far fewer people than 10,000. I send out an invitation each week on Facebook. But it’s a sad reflection of just how churchy have been the circles I’ve moved in that overwhelmingly the people I’ve invited are Christians, or even fellow clergy. I guess I just thought that the website and word of mouth might lead people to come along.

Whatever the failings or inadequacies of my marketing strategy, though, in the end I wonder whether it’s just a flawed idea. Are non-religious, but spiritually inclined people really going to want to go to the pub to speak with some vicar bloke they’ve never met before?

I probably wouldn’t, to be honest. And it’s not really about meeting people where they are. It’s still a ‘come to me’ sort of approach, even if the place I’m inviting people to come to is a pub instead of a church.

There have been some good times. And I’ve learnt through the experience. But maybe it is pretty much dead and I just need to put it out of its misery.

Maybe you think I’m being hard on myself. And to be honest I am feeling a little despondent about it. But if this sort of work is going to achieve anything, I need to be really robustly truthful with myself and name my failures. I’m not beating myself up over it. Lesson learned. Move on.

That is itself a substantial challenge. What do I move on to? I’m not talking about moving on from my current post. I mean what do I do instead to meet spiritual questers who are making their journey outside of the Church. Not to show them the error of their ways but to join the conversation and offer some insight from the Christian Tradition. And to open that tradition up to challenge, question and reinterpretation in the light of people’s experience. Real, risky dialogue is what I’m seeking. I’ll share some thoughts about that in the coming days.

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Why does it always rain on me?

9 11 2009

travis‘I’m seeing the tunnel at the end of all these lights.’

I was delighted at the positive response from the manager of the pub to my request to host my Sunday evening conversation there. I was delighted that such a good number joined me this week (9+me). I was delighted at the quality of the conversation on our topic. I was delighted to be able to enjoy a decent pint. Abbot Ale.

Those are the lights. Now what about the tunnel? Hmm. The slightly fuzzy head this morning? The fact that overwhelmingly those who joined me are churchgoers and not spiritual explorers? The fact that I am going to have to bin 1,000 postcards with the wrong venue?

Last night’s conversation went really well. Our skinny ritual was to take a sugar cube and drop on red food colouring with a teat pipette (representing something we regretted) and then to watch it dissolve in a bowl of warm water. The subject, as I explained, was something I had come up with rather on the hoof. Trying to be clever, I had chosen a series of song titles that were also questions. I thought I could work out what each would actually mean as a conversation starter nearer the time.

Last night’s (Sunday 8th November) was Travis’s 1999 track ‘why does it always rain on me?’. (Whatever happened to Travis, by the way?) I was inspired by the line ‘was it because I lied when I was 17’ to invite discussion on the whole idea that rubbish things happen to us in life and that we get to feeling a bit victimised by that (why does it always…) and that religious faith has often suggested to people that the rubbish stuff might have something to do with being bad (or good). My own view (one that I shared during the discussion) is that sh*t happens and it’s how we deal with it that is the means for our growth or diminishment. I don’t agree with the proposition – that I’ve heard in some church settings – that sh*t happening means that there’s a cosmic agenda behind the detailed events of our lives. That’s often put, in pop-evo language, in terms of attack/test.

It goes like this:

Something bad is happening because a) you’re a bad person and you’re being punished, b) you’re a good person but God is testing you or c) you’re a good person and the NME is attacking you. Obviously that last one only generally applies if you’re a great rock band that is inexplicably being slated in the music press.

Personally, I don’t buy it. As I say, I think life happens and God travels with us through the circumstances of our lives, whether they be good or bad, inviting us to grow in faith, compassion, goodness and peace through them all. I think that was generally the view that those sharing in the conversation last night shared too.

Oh. If you’re wondering about the picture this time round – it’s Travis. But not Dave Lee. The hairy cornflake. What a lovely image that is. I’ll have a bowl. If you’re offering…





Relocation, relocation, relocation.

7 11 2009

7f6205373f78c1ee18955feba695ec3bI visited the Wetherspoon’s pub in the Guildhall Square. I was in the square to work out a site plan for the climate change vigil I’ve been arranging with the Diocesan Environmental Adviser.

Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve mentioned that before here. The Diocesan Environmental Adviser called me a few weeks back to ask about using St Luke’s as a venue for one of a series of vigils he was arranging to coincide with the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. I asked who he wanted it to impact. If just Church of England Christians then a church venue would be fine. But if we wanted to open the possibility of other people being involved, then why didn’t we go for a public venue. I suggested the Guildhall Square. He was very excited by the possibility.

So I’ve been busy organising that event — specifically seeking permission from the City Council events team and producing all the paperwork they need: booking form, insurance cover and site plan. The Environmental Adviser produced the risk assessment. Anyway the plans are coming together for a vigil between 7 and 8 pm on Monday 14th December. As you might imagine, if you’re at all familiar with my work, my plans are for an event in which people of all faiths and none could participate. I have permission to chalk a map of the world on the pavement. We’ll be inviting people to place candle lanterns (a tea light in a jam jar) on the map. There’ll be a ‘message tree’ where people can hang a prayer or message to the leaders meeting in Copenhagen and a ‘wind farm’ where people can add a home made windmill to a field of windmills. Nothing too complicated. Keeping it simple as much as possible. Oh and there’ll be soup and hot chocolate to warm the people who come to express their solidarity with those most affected by climate change – which as we know, as ever, is the world’s poorest.

So. That organised, I visited the JD Wetherspoon pub: the Isambard Kingdom Brunel and wondered why I hadn’t selected this for my venue for my Sunday night conversations from the beginning. There’s no music. There’s decent beer. There was a spot in the pub that was just perfect for a conversational gathering. So I left my card for the manager and said I’d be back later that afternoon.

When I came back to speak to ‘Nat’ the bar manager, she couldn’t have been more helpful. She was enthusiastic about Sanctuary happening in this bar, was happy to set aside the table I wanted and for me to include the pub’s name in my publicity. She was even happy to welcome larger events, like ‘beer and hymns’ not just to a function room, but in the main pub.

So this will be my new base for Sunday evenings. I’ll let you know how it goes.





Beer, Bread, Bible, Boosh

10 07 2009

BBBBThis was the liturgical shape of the Safespace gathering I was privileged to be part of. It was intriguing on both a literal and metaphorical level. What do I mean? Manuel, let me explain…

BEER
The evening began with a shared meal. Mark and Lou had provided some of the food but members of the community also brought food and drink too. So the space for and the staple basis of the meal were provided by the Berry family as hosts. But the final form and content of the meal was shaped by those gathered. As well as sharing food, this was the point where people shared their stories – just the ordinary events of their lives in the past week, including how they were trying to make sense of faith within that. There was a sharing of beer too. It was interesting because that seemed to be about trying new things. The beers on offer weren’t standard. It wasn’t about having your ‘usual’. It was definitely about exploring the unusual. I particularly enjoyed a welsh dark ale. Kind of like my usual Guinness and yet different. 🙂

BREAD
Following the meal, we shared bread and wine. Mark presided over that sharing. They had a really nice earthenware chalice and paten set, embossed with the cross of St Brendan. So this moment was special and charged with symbolism. Could we call this Holy Communion?

Technically, from an Anglican standpoint, we should call it an agape meal. The words of the prayer before the sharing and the words at the distribution were quite close in some ways to what would be recognisable in a trad church setting as a eucharist. Technically, I should be more worried about the distinction than I am. But lay presidency is a whole can of worms. It’s one of those issues that exposes fractures within the Anglican Communion and would test our relationships with the wider (small ‘c’) catholic church. But it’s also one of those issues that means very little to anybody outside the church or even to a lot of people within it. That doesn’t mean I think we’re free to just ignore all that churchy stuff and just go with the flow. But neither can we provide each and every little missional community that emerges with a priest to administer the sacraments – certainly not with our current models of ordained ministry.

Actually I wonder whether other people ever lead the bread and wine ritual. If not, I will definitely be needing to pull Mark’s ordination-skeptical leg.

What I do think is that sharing food levels and unites us (as long as we don’t create special places at the table [arguing against myself here?]) and is therefore essential to true community. And I think that the symbolism of bread and wine can function in [at least] two directions. I see those expressed in two shared meals from the gospels: Jesus feeding the 5,000 and the passover meal with the disciples (note it’s that broader group of the disciples, not just the apostles as is so often pictured). In the first, the table is open for the crowd and is abundant and reckless in its generosity and welcome. In the second, there is a sort of special recognition of the place of the apostles and a preparation for the crossward road: the way of uncompromising surrender to love’s agenda.

So maybe we need two sorts of symbolic meals. If we want to call the first agape and the second eucharist for the sake of ecclesiastical expediency, well so be it. Both re-member us in Jesus – one in his profligate welcome into God’s kingdom and the other in our inherited apostolic connection to his call to sacrificial discipleship (lived out in mission). The first could and should be shared regularly in each little gathering. The second on those occasions where we’re getting into the (small ‘c’) catholic vibe and presided over by those whose ordination puts them in the place of representing the apostolic inheritance.

At this point I really need to apologise to those I know who read this who aren’t in the least bit churchy. Bear with me. I know this seems like a whole bunch of flimflam. It is. But it is important at some, highly churchy, level. 😉

BIBLE
Next – or was it before bread and wine? – anyway, at some point there was a Bible reading and reflection. It was one of the lectionary (set) readings for the day and it was from the book of Genesis. It was the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac. Mark gave some space (accompanied by chilled, ambient music) for people’s own quiet reflection and also offered some input on this reading. Again, I wonder if others sometimes lead this sort of reflection, or whether Mark or the others in the community see this as his role.

This is a hugely problematic text. I thought Mark’s take on it was quite ‘straight’. I wondered if in a gathering that is seeking to challenge itself, a more critical reading could have provoked a deeper reflection. That’s not to criticise Mark. Maybe I just like throwing hand grenades too much, but I would have wanted to question the appropriateness of Abe’s response to YHWH’s request to do his son in. It’s interesting to compare it, as one contributor to Start the Week did recently, to the Abe that is pictured arguing with his deity about YHWH’s proposal to nuke Sodom and Gomorrah. No such unquestioning obedience on that occasion. Which is the more faithful response? (Clue: Israel means ‘contends with God’).

BOOSH
Finally, after all that, the conversation somehow turned to Stuart Hall and Jeux Sans Frontières. That led to us spending the rest of the evening watching clips of British comedy, in theory for the benefit of a Texan student who was also visiting. We took in Blackadder, Python and the Might Boosh along the way. The last of those proving somewhat challenging for our visitor and some regulars but hugely entertaining for those of us unhinged enough to appreciate the frankly lunatic humour of the Boosh.

None of these liturgical moments – and I’m being serious here – was any more important than any other. The common feature of all these moments was sharing and all, in their own way, offered a challenge; a moment, an opportunity to move out of our comfort zone and grow. Good times.