Home and away

24 06 2010

Yesterday I stood in for my colleague at the weekday parish eucharist and a home communion at one of the local retirement blocks. I was joined for both by the ordinand who has been on placement with us for the past few weeks. In the midst of all the discussions we’re having about the future and my expressions of anxiety if we revert to being too churchy in our current activity, it’s ironic that I found it enormously comforting to do some straightforward ‘vicaring’. Both services were simple, intimate and undemanding. I was able to step aside from all that’s going on in my head and be properly present to these two little groups of people and offer some straightforward sacramental ministry. I found a safe retreat in familiar, churchy stuff and perhaps more importantly with relaxed and, frankly, uncomplicated interaction with some appreciative people.

I had a similar experience conducting a funeral Monday lunchtime. It takes care and attention to lead a funeral well. But a lot of the time, it’s not difficult. I know what I’m doing. It feels like a privilege not a chore. And again, the family and friends of the lady we buried were appreciative.

In both these sorts of ministry encounter you get an immediate sense that you’re making a difference. And an immediate sense of satisfaction of a job well done. It’s not a challenge to work out what you need to do. You just need to do it well and with real presence and attention.

Part of me is not pioneering at all. Part of me, yearns for the comfort of the familiar, straightforward and instantly rewarding. I’m not sorry. It’s human. It’s normal. I just need to remember and make sure I’m not too quick to condemn others for feeling the same. We all enjoy the comforts of ‘home’.

I actually don’t know if I’m a natural pioneer or entrepreneur at all. But what has driven me to this sort of role is that I believe ‘home’ as we’ve known it is disappearing. The generation of people who would wish to have a home communion in their retirement flats complex is passing away. Passing away, of course, is what will ensure there are always funerals to conduct. But the number of people for whom a Church of England, even a Christian funeral will be relevant is also declining. And those are just symptoms of the bigger change – church just ain’t working for the majority of people. It isn’t even on their radar.

There is an argument that says that evangelical and charismatic churches are growing, so it’s all about church having a contemporary style and a clear message. But I don’t buy the argument. The evidence is much more mixed I think. Churches of all traditions are experiencing decline (and growth). And at the end of the day, whether it’s happy clappy or smells and bells, a significant and growing proportion of the population just ain’t interested.

It’s easy to get depressed about all that. But I think this is a providential moment for the Church to experience growth in depth. To rediscover its roots and find that home isn’t all about the familiar building and the familiar religious trappings – be they fuddy-duddy or ersatz contemporary, it’s about being alongside others as they and we encounter the mystery we call God in our lives. It will ask us to give up our settled existence and become a pilgrim people again, finding that wherever we are ‘away’, we’re home because we’re there with the One who calls us out of the immediate comforts of Ur to find new life in new places.

In that situation, we will, I’m sure find that some of our trappings are invested with new depth, meaning and vitality and that some are left aside. As a community, the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s, of which I am a part, is right in the middle of that process of re/discovery. We’ve pushed ourselves out beyond our comfort zone and found that there are some things we can’t do without just at the moment. But it is a moment and I’m beginning again to dare to hope that in the midst of all this, we will forge some genuinely new and most importantly authentic-for-our-locality ways of being and journeying with God.

A year in the life

27 04 2010

Thought you might be interested to read the report I wrote for the APCM of the parish of St Luke, Southsea on the 20th April, 2010.

Last April, Alex spoke about the past, present and future of the parish of St Luke’s.

Looking at the past, we heard that from its inception, St Luke’s has struggled to engage with the troubled area it has served. And from the outset too, the congregation has found its building difficult to sustain.

In some periods, the church grew by attraction: people came from across the city and beyond because they liked its style. Good attendance looks like success. But that ignores the question of whether the church is remaining faithful to the original vision that inspired its founders. That vision was and is an expression of the very heart of what it means to be the Church of England: a commitment to each and every locality and its people.

Responding to the needs, material, social and spiritual of all the people in the geographical parish is clearly beyond us. We are a tiny, fragile and diverse Christian community. But in recognising that, we have found freedom to seek to express our identity in a fresh way. Though tentative and unsure, we have found the courage to take a significant step towards leaving behind a familiar and comfortable way of being church and embarking on a new adventure in mission.

Instead of trying to be all things to all people, we have focused our energy and resources on engaging in mission with one very specific locality. Our ‘parish’ has in effect got a lot smaller! Our mission field is essentially one tower block of 108 flats housing approximately 400 people. On some Sundays we have welcomed getting on for a tenth of that population. Most churches would be delighted with attendance like that!

Of course the rest of the actual parish hasn’t gone away. And neither have we abandoned those who don’t live in Wilmcote House. We don’t have the capacity on our own to sustain the traditional parish model of mission. But the possibility of uniting with our sister congregation in Somerstown offers the opportunity to develop complementary expressions of mission that nourish and nurture each other.

One of the constant challenges for us since our move into Wilmcote House has been the question of how we will be sustained in our faith. Those familiar and comfortable ways of being church I mentioned earlier offered real resources for our individual and communal discipleship (even though they were failing to provide an opportunity to respond to God’s call to join in God’s mission in this locality).

That challenge remains and we continue to reshape what we do in response to our own needs and the needs of those with whom we now find ourselves gathering. Uniting with St Peter’s means that we don’t have to do it all ourselves and within our own capacity. Our particular expression of the Anglican mission in Somerstown needs to be able to become church in its own right, but alongside that we have the opportunity to find spiritual resources as part of a bigger whole. That will not be entirely comfortable as the tradition of our sister parish is not what many of us are used to. But in coming together, we will find, I believe, that we will all grow as disciples of Christ.

The issues we identified last year haven’t been resolved over the last twelve months. If anything, they’ve intensified. We now need to consider together the immediate maintenance and future of two parish church buildings, alongside an intriguing and, for some, unsettling offer from the city council. We were talking about the parishes coming together this time last year. It might seem like there has been little progress. But Alex has been doing significant work in the intervening months preparing the ground for uniting St Peter’s and St Luke’s with a little assistance from the associate priest. And we have taken a significant step in beginning to inhabit our vocation as a ‘fresh expression’ of the Anglican mission in Somerstown.

There are enormous challenges ahead for all of us and in particular the members of the new PCC. But I think we should be encouraged by what we have already achieved together. The future’s bright!

A rapidly developing parish?

9 06 2009

I don’t think I posted after the first ‘Rapid Parish Development’ workshop in April. We’ve just had the second (on 2nd June) as well as a workshop for the congregation in mid May. Rapid Parish Development is a programme developed by the Diocesan Social Responsibility Adviser in conjunction with a development consultant. Although I think it was kind of targeted at parishes needing some sort of building project, it asks deeper questions than that. The development consultant who runs the sessions unapologetically uses the language of the market to talk about how churches can engage.

It’s difficult for church people to get along with that, and all of us would have reservations about it, including, in fact, this consultant, but if has proved a helpful way of cutting through a lot of our flim-flammery to the reality of who we’re trying to reach and how.

The answer to the first of those, of course, is everyone. The Church of England is for everyone unless they choose to opt out. In theory. In practice, we’re not reaching people as effectively as we might by focusing our energies down on our ‘market’. That just means, given that we have limited resources, which group/s in our immediate area are we going to target next and what does that mean for the deployment of our resources and the development (or maybe abandonment) of our built assets?

Members of the congregations, as well as the clergy from parishes in some of the tougher areas in the diocese (what would once have been Urban Priority Area [UPA] parishes) have been asked to pilot this programme.

It’s been very helpful. Two things particularly have stuck with me and have become key thoughts in approaching our developing strategy.

  1. Don’t try to address a deficit. That is don’t base your strategy about trying to fill a need, or to put it another way, you can’t turn a negative into a positive. Need is an all consuming black hole. You need a positive offer.
  2. Einstein’s definition of madness: ‘to keep doing what you’ve always done and expect a different result’

Out of our most recent session we are working on two quite clear strategic possibilities for the parish of St Luke (and in conjunction with the parish of St Peter, we hope). The first is that we could spend a significant chunk of our money throwing a big party for Somers Town. We want to get Winston Churchill Avenue closed and to put on an event that will celebrate Somers Town and help people to feel positive about themselves and where they live. This area is relentlessly disparaged, but there is life and vitality and we think it’s worth celebrating. If we can ‘Love Albert Road’ as a nearby festival in the city suggests, we can love Somers Town too. We kept hearing ourselves using the Loreal strapline: ‘because you’re worth it’. We would love to start a new and lavish festival for the people of this area – because they’re worth it.

The other thing is a refinement of the idea of starting with Wilmcote House which is basically, and very simply, that since children are the most likely to be around at the sort of time in our week that we have already carved out as ‘church time’ – Sunday morning – that some sort of kids’ club could well be the way forward. We will see how this conversation develops as we broaden the discussion again for the whole congregation.


26 02 2009

On Tuesday, the St Luke’s ‘home group’ met in the Fleet. I put home group in quote marks there because it wasn’t in a home!

It was a very different experience for us all. But I think a positive and enjoyable one. We all like going to a pub, I think. It’s a social occasion. Most of us enjoy a drink. So the home group didn’t take a lot of persuading! They were pleased too, I think, to come to the place where I’ve been spending some of my time recently. Barbara and I arrived early for a bite to eat and met up with some friends (also members of the home group). We were beginning to think the others weren’t coming when they all arrived.

After settling in, getting drinks and so on, we spent a little bit of time, picking up our theme from Sunday, thinking about prayer. I wanted to do this in a light-hearted and fun way. So I made some cards (laminated to protect them from beer stains!) with a whole lot (54 in fact) of different words that people might associate with prayer. You can see the words I produced here. The file is called ‘prayer labels.pdf’. I spread them all out on the table and asked each person to choose the three that chimed most with their understanding or experience of prayer. I deliberately made sure that there were no duplicates so that everyone had to choose three that were unique to them. I then invited each person, if they wanted to, to share in turn, ‘Why those three words?’ I then asked people to put their words back. I then invited everyone to join in as we placed as many of the words as we could in one of five circles. (The file is called ‘Lords prayer circles.pdf’ [with apologies to Lynn Truss for the lack of an apostrophe]) Each circle had one phrase from St Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. (That’s St Luke the gospel writer, not St Luke’s as in our church!)

I think that second exercise got people thinking but nobody really responded to my invitation to talk about what had come out of it for them. That was okay. I then made a connection with the season of Lent which was going to begin the next day, and spread out a series of forty cards on the table with suggestions for things people might want to consider either giving up or taking on for the season. They were all pretty light-hearted in tone. There were twenty suggestions each for things to fast from and things to take on as a discipline during the forty days of Lent. I invited everyone to take one card away with them, not necessarily to do what it says on the card but just as something that would prompt them to think during Lent. Of course, if people did want to use them as a commitment, that was fine too.

I tried to show a film (a slideshow of Simon Smith’s wonderful illustrations of Jesus’s forty days in the desert) on my iPhone. Partly just because I could. (Look at my iPhone… shiny…!) That didn’t really work. Maybe because it’s slow and meditative. [I’m planning to use it on Sunday instead] Maybe really short, arresting little films could work. I’ll let you know. The other reason it might not have worked is that the pub was showing the Champions’ League match between United and Inter. I ended up watching that instead too!

What struck me as I was preparing those materials and after Tuesday night, was how what we were doing was like a game. And actually how appropriate things that were game-like would be in that setting. People play games in the pub. What if we could play games with some spiritual content? I want to get hold of a copy of Richard Passmore’s ‘FaST game’ for next Tuesday. (Which kind of blows my plan to run a lent course out of the water [or should that be beer? 😉 ]) I’ll let you know how that goes…

It was really great to see what would happen if you took church into the pub. On this occasion, it worked. I wonder what it would be like to share a eucharist in that setting. This is a different way round from what I have been working on over the previous couple of weeks. That was about the pub becoming a setting for new church. This was existing church making its home in the pub. Compared to what church is often like, it was a lot of fun, I thought. There’s a buzz of conversation and fun that can *sometimes* be lacking in a church building. Just having a lot more people around than there are normally in the particular church building where I’m associate priest was good! Even if they were unconnected with what we were doing.

The challenge will be to ask if this group would be happy to make this their permanent home. As the evening went on, and the footie finished, the music was much louder and the conversation was harder…


13 02 2009

Well almost immediately after posting that last entry in the pub (via my iPhone), I was invited over by someone it turned out I had met before. (I was a welcome guest!) W had been on an Alpha course at St Jude’s (where I was curate). She was meeting her dad for lunch. It turned out that we had met before too, though completely independently of my knowing his daughter. We had a good chat about what I’m doing and what was going on for them. It was a gentle lead back into conversation for me. And it sort of helped me with a question I had in my mind as I walked to the pub.

When I had been doing some research in preparation for the Friday Fridge, I had gone into one or two of the pubs in Southsea wearing a dog collar. Then too I had invited myself into other people’s conversations. But I had also experienced being approached by others. Normally the conversation began with someone asking: ‘Are you a real vicar?’ (To which the technically correct answer would have been no, I was assistant curate. But what people meant was, ‘Are you a real church bod?’, not, ‘Are you really the incumbent of a Church of England parish, enjoying the right of Freehold to the Living of the Parish?!’) Now that was at a different time of day and in a different place. Lunchtime drinking is generally a more gentle and restrained affair than in the nighttime. People are probably more reserved during the day than when they are a little more ‘refreshed’ in the evening. But I wondered whether hanging around might lead to people asking me who I am and what the hell I think I’m doing! Well not quite, but it did remind me that building relationships with people is what it’s all about. I must state again that there’s no instrumentality in that. I’m not building relationships so that… Building relationships is what it’s all about.

After speaking with the people I found that I knew (a bit), I approached three people sitting together – G, C and L (one man and two women). We had a very interesting conversation. We shared some common experience as they were mature, part-time students and I have twice now been a mature, part-time student. (Actually now I come to think about it, I’m doing that a third time with my MA.) But we quickly got on to talking about my role and into a conversation about belief and how we shape our lives. Two of them had had negative experiences of church. G had recently left a new church, where he had for a time been a youth worker, because he found that church to be too judgemental. And C had devout family members, including a mother who had at one time been in a religious order. L was currently attending a church with her children.

I reflected on my experience that conversations about the deep questions of life are often of a better quality outside church settings because people don’t have the sense that they knew what answers they are supposed to give. Often, my experience of church is that there is a lack of honesty. People feel constrained to say the right thing, rather than what they really think. This was a reflection that was expressed at a clergy and church worker gathering I attended in October last year.

G expressed skepticism that I didn’t have an agenda. My agenda he suspected was to convert people and get them into my church. I understand why he felt that way. In fact, as he said, he had had that agenda when he had been a church youth worker in the past. I told them that I honestly don’t have that agenda.

I wonder if that worries some of you who are from a church and are reading this. I’ve thought about it since yesterday and I think I can honestly stand by that statement, as far as it relates to my role as city centre pioneer minister: I don’t have an agenda to convert people and get them into my church. Even in relation to my role as associate priest of St Luke’s, I’m much more interested in getting the church out among the people than in getting the people into the church – especially if church means the building. I would like to see the Christian community grow but not through presenting people with a bald choice and pressurising them to jump one way.

As I’ve said before on this blog, I want people to hear the invitation of Jesus to follow him. But I’m really not interested in trying to tell them what to think. I can’t convert anyone. If God is real (sorry if that ‘if’ offends – but that’s not a closed case for everyone reading this) – if God is real – then it’s up to God to reveal God’s self to people. I think I’m invited to be part of that process of revelation but not through beating people over the head with what I think! It’s much more about what sort of person my faith makes me. Who I am is more important than what I say. If my words badger and berate, then people don’t encounter the loving invitation of God through me. If my words, my manner and my whole being express a depth of respect, love and dignity, then maybe they will begin to wonder at what it is that makes me that way. (That’s a big if for a flawed human being!) But I am released and relaxed by the thought that it’s not my job to make anyone believe in God. It’s up to each person to make their own mind up. And as I’ve said, I don’t think belief is nearly as important as how we choose to shape our lives. I want to live my life as if God is real (mostly I fail) and quite a lot of the time I have a strong sense that God is. I think it can be a positive and transformative thing for an individual to live as if God is real; for themselves and more importantly, for the rest of the world.

I say ‘can’ because it rather depends on what you think God is like. Basically I’m with Adrian Plass: ‘God’s nice and he likes me’. (Though I would have  preferred it if Adrian hadn’t used a gendered pronoun!) I don‘t think convincing people by force of argument leads them into a living relationship with God. I’m fairly convinced that if I try to force or push a response it does nothing other than turn people off.

When I asked those people whether this couldn’t be church (‘this’ being the conversation we were having in the pub) C asked if people wouldn’t need to believe in God for that to be so. I said I didn’t think so.

It wasn’t a question that Jesus ever seemed to worry about. That’s of course because almost everyone he spoke with, did believe in God. But he didn’t seem that hung up on doctrine. He had the odd theological run in with people, like with the Sadducees when he challenged their denial of the possibility of a general resurrection, but mostly he was concerned about people’s faithfulness being expressed in mercy, love and inclusion. Following him didn’t mean saying a creed. It meant laying down your life for your friends.

So I think it would be entirely possible for an emerging community in the pub that was exploring the questions of meaning together to be *church* without all of that community’s members being able to say that they believed in God. In fact for one member of that conversational group, the church she attends does feel like a safe place to be as someon uncertain of God’s reality. I didn’t get the impression that there was open conversation in that setting, but at least she didn’t feel pressured to become something she’s not.

If that all sounds vague and woolly, well probably you’re right. But again, if God is real, God can bring something out of that conversation. And I do bring something to the table. It’s not being the one with all the answers. As I said to G,C and L, I don’t think I’ve got what they need, any more than they’ve got what I need. I think it’s the space between us and within our conversation that’s really interesting. That’s the thing that offers an opportunity for us all to grow. What I bring comes back to something I said in response to a comment on a previous post: a willingness to open up a space for dialogue that is not bound by the niceties of being in church. I also think I bring a deep engagement with the story of Jesus as the church tells and experiences it. Through living that story, I have found a depth of personal encounter with *God* experienced as ‘immanent transcendence’: the Something-Bigger-Than-Ourselves-or-This-World encountered in real, everyday life – through wonder, joy, suffering, beauty, hope and human relationships and community.

That conversation yesterday was a very inspiring and exciting encounter. The parting comment from the little group I spoke with was, ‘We’re here most Thursdays.’ It suggested that they were not averse to continuing the conversation. It raised for me the possibility that yes, this pub or another like it, could be a place where *church* could begin to happen. Not as we know it Jim, but still in a fragile and emerging way, church. Let us boldly go…

Building: the future?

29 01 2009

Alex and I have spent the last two and a half days in the bowels of the University learning everything you wanted to know about development but were afraid to ask. We both feel a bit now like we wish we hadn’t. Asked that is.

That’s not to say that it wasn’t an interesting and really potentially useful couple of days. It was. I now know how to capitalise future income as a net present value and what a monte carlo simulation is but the most important outcome was the realisation that developing/redeveloping a building is a massive undertaking. If we were to get involved in developing the buildings in Somerstown for which we currently have some responsibility, it could eat up all of our time. It would then come back for seconds. Maybe even thirds. And still have room for pudding.

I suppose being involved at St Jude’s as the church prepared for its building programme should have brought me to that realisation already. The difference is that in our situation, there is not the large pool of capable people to draw on. If we were to embark on a building programme we would have to drive it forward personally.

That presents us with something of a dilemma. On the one hand there’s the obvious question about whether this is what we were licensed for. We already have a massive job on our hands helping two struggling congregations to discover their vocations, sustaining their worship and discipleship and even, hopefully, leading them into growth — yes in numbers as well as depth. Add to that our desire and vocation to see the church at the heart of the transformation of this community’s aspirations and prospects. Add to that my peculiar vocation to see the church engaged in the city centre in new ways and it all looks a bit beyond us.

On the other hand, redeveloped buildings could… could… be a vehicle for all those things.

Before I started my new role, I swore blind I wasn’t going to touch the St Luke’s building. Trouble is, it’s going to rear up and bite us both if we don’t give it some of our attention. It’s a bit of a mess!

This is part of the inevitable messiness of the dual role I suggested and then took on. A purely pioneering position might have avoided my having to deal with these issues, though that isn’t altogether certain. We’ll see how long I can avoid the question given that I am required to operate in a mixed economy that includes both opportunities for (a) new form(s) of church and related to it/them struggling tiny congregations and dilapidated buildings.