A beautiful failure

22 11 2011

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

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

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

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

In those terms, the Sunday Sanctuary has failed.

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

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

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

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

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

But what a beautiful failure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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.





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.





New directions

23 06 2010

I know someone who got themselves in a right pickle by blogging about what had gone on in a PCC meeting. PCC? Parochial Church Council – it’s a Church of England parish’s very own baby church parliament. In other church traditions the whole membership of a local congregation takes decisions about the deployment of resources. In the Anglican setup, at least in England, these decisions are delegated to a small, elected, representative body: the PCC.

The Church of England is episcopally led and synodically governed. Basically that means that clergy have all the responsibility and none of the power! Which is a good thing, I think. No really it is. I aim to give away power and pursue influence instead.

Except tonight, the PCC gave genuine leadership itself I think. And I don’t think it will be a problem to blog about it – I’m bigging them up, not dissing them!

We finally, after a few days’ delay, met to kick start the process of discerning a way forward for our main activity. I was going to say, our main Sunday morning activity, but one of the options to emerge was that we should change the time when we meet. That suggestion came from me (and actually, initially from my colleague Alex, so I’ll steal no credit there).

After a short devotional introduction, and a bit of business, we began the process of examining where we’ve got to and where we might be going next. I was surprised by how positive we were about the first of those. There was no desire to roll back in terms of location or engagement or to attempt to work with a different ‘client group’. Young families are still the focus of our presence in Wilmcote House and Somerstown more generally. Measuring ourselves against each of the five values of a mission-shaped church, there was much to encourage us.

We all know, though, that there are frustrations for some of our number – the lack of opportunities to encounter God in sung worship, the lack of extended Bible teaching and opportunities for corporate prayer, the relentless hard work required to do what we’re doing now and the smaller numbers we’re seeing on Sunday mornings these days.

I don’t share many of these concerns personally, but is undeniable that they are very much in evidence among us and that these have the potential to break our communion. Sorry if that phraseology sounds too grand. This is not on the scale or intensity of the things threatening to break the Anglican Communion. But it is clear that we cannot carry the unresolved tension any further without people feeling compelled to walk away.

So, we try and move forward together; to preserve all that we have invested in each other. At the same time, we were keen to preserve the relationships we’ve established with our new friends in Wilmcote House. I was concerned that in our desire to reinstate some aspects of worship as we have experienced we might be loading people up with some unhelpful ‘baggage’ or, worse (is it worse?) put them off completely so that they never darken their door again.

We had an involved, and at odd moments, difficult, conversation. But we managed to conduct it in a spirit of honesty, humility and compassion. At the end of that discussion, we formulated three options:

  1. Integrate more familiar elements of worship throughout the morning.
    We would shorten our opening times. Instead of opening at 10 am, we would open at 10:30. As now, the first half hour would be set aside for welcome, breakfast and conversation. The next hour would incorporate singing, preaching and prayer alongside some more all-age focused activities.
  2. Add a ‘service’ at the end.
    The start and finish times would remain the same, and the time between 10:30 and 11:15 would remain predominated by all-age focused activities, but the time between 11:15 and 11:45 would be a more concentrated and structured service of worship including the elements identified in option 1.
  3. Move to the afternoon.
    Given that research suggests family activities are most successful in the afternoon, we thought we should consider as one of our options moving our activity to that time. This would involve an hour focused on hospitality and storytelling between 5pm and 6pm and then a contemporary music style service at 6:30 pm.

The master stroke that came out of our discussion was that the Wilmcote House families who are part of ‘us’ now should also be invited to participate in our discernment process. We could have invited them to come to our Tuesday evening gatherings that we have set aside for this purpose. But the suggestion that we should instead move our communal discernment to Sunday mornings for the next few weeks was recognised by all as the best way forward. It allows all ages to participate and allows the broadest possible participation in terms of residents, more longstanding members of the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s and some of that latter group who don’t normally make Tuesday evenings.

I am troubled by the possibility that we might be becoming more worship-shaped and less mission-shaped, slightly more stale than fresh expression, but I have to recognise the reality of where people are, what they’re able to give and what they need to receive. I just hope and pray that, whatever the final shape of what we do together, this is a necessary corrective to ensure we grow and develop as a pioneering community and not a withdrawal into more safe and familiar territory. That way lies our demise, I fear.





Gimme five (although four will do).

17 06 2010

The PCC have been considering a review paper that I wrote for them. On the basis of that paper and PCC members’ responses, the PCC will try and produce three options for a way forward at its meeting on Thursday 17th June, 2010. Three is more of a guideline than a straightjacket, so if it turns out we need two or four options, that’s what we’ll do. Over the course of the three weeks following that meeting, at our Tuesday evening gatherings, we’ll be looking at each of the options in turn and entering into a process of spiritual discernment.

That process, much like the way we approached it at our weekend away back in March, comprises 3 broad stages:

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

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

1. GATHERING IN CHRIST
Our usual habit of eating together and sharing Communion will function as the first of those stages but perhaps to ensure the rest of the process doesn’t feel too confined, we might forgo having a pudding for these weeks! We will also try to start the meal promptly at 7:40, giving 10 minutes for people to arrive, say hello and get a drink. I will try and ensure we have finished at the table by 8:30. At the end of our Communion, we will hear the option being considered and be given a printed copy. We then move into the main exploration.

2. LISTENING TO THE HOLY SPIRIT
I have suggested we proceed as follows:

  • Letting go
    I want to invite us all to approach our discernment prayerfully, letting go of any barriers to being receptive to the Holy Spirit’s leading. To do that we need in a moment of quiet to ask for the grace to lay aside our ego, preconceived ideas, biases, and predetermined conclusions that may limit openness to God. What we’re looking for is ‘holy indifference’. That means being indifferent to everything except God’s will. It doesn’t mean, ‘I don’t care.’ And it doesn’t mean we lose our values and convictions. It simply means we are called to be open and focused above all on what God might be calling us to be and do. (Much of this is word for word from Curtiss)
  • Reflecting on the Bible.
    Listening.
    It would be tempting to select a text that offered some support to my own point of view! Or at least for people to feel that I had. I suggest therefore that we make the set gospel reading each week our text for that week. I think it would be helpful too to hear an initial reflection on that reading from different people each week. I am therefore looking for three people who will be willing on one of those weeks each to bring a short reflection (5-10 minutes) on that reading. It will require a little preparation, of course but I already have two volunteers.
    Connecting.
    We’ll follow that with a few moments in quiet, during which I’ll ask each of us to write down the one word or phrase in the reading or what was said following that spoke to us most immediately or seemed to capture the essence of what God might be saying to each of us. We’ll then swap those papers and read each one in turn.
    Examining ourselves
    We then take a few moments in quiet to ask ourselves the question: what might God be asking of me as I approach this process of discernment?
  • Sharing our stories
    Again, in quiet, on one side of a slip of paper, we each write down one thing that concerns us about the option before us and one thing that concerns us. We share our concerns in turn. We all listen in silence. We share our excitement in turn. Again, we all listen in silence. One person records all the things that are shared.
  • Pause for reflection
    We keep a moment of quiet for reflection on what we have heard.
  • Discussion
    We take time to explore our response to the option put before us in conversation.

3. GOING FORTH AS GOD’S PEOPLE

  • Choose direction
    As ‘president’, I attempt to gather our collective response to the option before us and shape it into a summary statement. We express our support of the proposal using the five finger method, as follows:
    5 fingers      I am fully supportive.
    4 fingers       I am mostly in agreement 
and am willing to support the majority.
    3 fingers       I have questions or reservations
 but am willing to stand aside;
    2 fingers       I am somewhat opposed and have concerns.
    1 finger        I cannot support this at this time.
  • Rest with the direction
    We spend a few moments in quiet again, entrusting our exploration to God and praying for our continuing discussions.

Out of this process, the PCC, as trustee of the parish’s resources, will determine how we should proceed together, selecting one of the original options or another that may have emerged from our exploration. I’ll keep readers of this blog up to date with how this proceeds.





Which way(s) now?

15 06 2010

So enough of me and my angst (for now 😉 ). This week the PCC meet to kick of the process of reviewing where we’ve got to with what we’re currently doing and how we might develop. The discussion will be in two parts. The first part takes us through the values of a mission-shaped church, as we have been paraphrasing them. The second is about trying to determine what options there are for taking things forward.

PART ONE: Where have we got to?

Are our Sunday and Tuesday gatherings:

  • INSPIRED BY GOD?
    Are we* all drawn closer to God?
  • RELATED TO CONTEXT?
    Are we* connecting with the locality and its culture?
    Are we* relating to the right context? (Are we where we’re being called to be?)
  • MAKING A DIFFERENCE?
    Are we* making life better for the community we serve?
    Are we* making enough of a difference to enough people?
  • CHANGING PEOPLE’S LIVES?
    Are we* active in calling and helping each other to become disciples of Christ?
  • BUILDING COMMUNITY?
    Is all that we* do characterised by welcome and hospitality.
    Are our* ethos and style open to change as new people join?

* To what extent should we consider newer members from Wilmcote House as being part of our community in these questions? Is it us/them, or we? That’s not an entirely straightforward question. The way we have responded to newer members needs in practical ways suggests the members of the Congregation Formerly Known as St Luke’s (TCFKASL) see these newer people as part of our community. And the way they have got involved in helping to make our Sunday mornings happen suggests they have a sense of ownership and investment in who we are together. On the other hand, these newer members have not yet taken the steps (such as baptism) that would allow them to officially participate in the governance of the parish.

Where do we go from here?

The original vision for TCFKASL, that I laid out last summer, is that we would become a mission community, spending a period rooted in particular places in order to found new, indigenous and eventually self-sustaining congregations in Somerstown. TCFKASL would be sustained in its mission spirituality by forging and living a shared ‘rule’ (in the neo-monastic vein) in our Tuesday gatherings and our everyday lives.

  • How does that look now that we have begun to engage?
  • Is the original vision still sound?
    If not, how do we go about forging a new vision?
  • How do we change what we do now in order to address its current shortcomings and to allow for the emergence/evolution of our vision for our place in this locality? This might include consideration of our target group, the location of our activities, their timing, format and frequency as well as how we make best use of our current resources and personnel.
  • Do we need to change what we do now radically or more gradually?
  • What different possibilities are there that we can agree to take forward into the discernment process with the wider congregation in the coming weeks?




Power to the people!

9 06 2010

Another 70s TV reference! Robert Lindsay as ‘Wolfie’ from Citizen Smith.

So when the PCC of St Luke’s agreed to relocate our main Sunday activity to Wilmcote House — one of the local tower blocks — it was, at my suggestion, for the period of one year. We agreed that we would review before the summer break.

And here we are. That review is about to take place. And it’s clear that some members of the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s are wanting to ask some pretty searching questions about what we do. Let me be clear: that’s a good thing. I should be welcoming it. I do. But I also feel somewhat nervous about it.

Why is that?

Perhaps there are two reasons.

FIRST: THIS IS MY BABY

It isn’t of course. This is not my church or my mission. But its current form is an expression of a vision I’ve been articulating – that we would become a mission community, spending a period rooted in particular places in order to found new, indigenous and eventually self-sustaining congregations in Somerstown. TCFKASL (The Congregation Formerly Known As St Luke’s) would be sustained in its mission spirituality by forging and living a shared ‘rule’ in our Tuesday gatherings and our everyday lives.

So I’ve got a lot invested in this enterprise, emotionally, spiritually and, dare I say it, in terms of my reputation. Now some of you more saintly readers of this blog will perhaps be shocked that such a consideration as the last of those should even feature. But there it is. I admit it. I have an ego. It matters what people think. It’s not decisive, but it’s there. Perhaps because I acknowledge it, I’m better able to mediate against its less favourable influence. Time will tell.

By suggesting that we keep the arrangement to a year, I was attempting to save us from getting stuck in yet another set way of being and doing. It was my intention that the arrangement should never become fixed, but always provisional, under constant review. The funny thing is that I think of all of us involved, I have become the most ‘stuck’ in what we’re currently doing. I do genuinely think we might need to give it a bit longer to see how it might work. Even though this is the annual review, we’ve actually only been going for seven months.

SECOND: WHAT ABOUT US?

I am nervous because in part the motivation for some of the questioning is that perennial question ‘what about us?’ I don’t blame or condemn people for that question. It’s a perfectly legitimate question. I’ve been saying for all those months we’ve been operating and for several before that, that if we engage with God in God’s mission we will be fed. And I’ve been saying that if we engage with children, like whom we are invited to become, we will meet God. I’ve been saying it. But for some at least, the experience hasn’t lived up to my rhetoric. There is a degree to which I wonder whether people have been as open to those sorts of experience as they might. But the fact remains. What I said would happen for people has only happened really for those who already found spiritual fulfilment in those ways.

So my nervousness comes from the desire I hear being expressed to pull back from the ecclesiological edge to somewhere a little more familiar. It worries me that the new people we’ve got to know could be sidelined as longstanding Christians look for more of what they’ve known in their church experience.

This is such a difficult balance to tread. In one sense, I am tempted (alongside my recognition that ‘I’m a failure’) to see this as a failure of my leadership. I have not managed to persuade people or demonstrate to them in our shared enterprise that the presence of God is to be found and that this is of itself worship and offers opportunities for discipleship. I am actually not so sure of this position as I once was. I need to look into the Tradition and recent experience to explore more deeply how it is that a mission community on the edge is spiritually sustained.

But on another level, I think I can allow myself to recognise, without blowing my own trumpet – well all right, maybe just a little – that this paradoxically represents an endorsement of my leadership. Because alongside the mission stuff (and in fact not separable from it) is the community stuff. I have worked hard to foster investment in relationships that are open, honest and trusting. People expect and feel safe to share how they’re really finding their journey. And in looking for and implementing ways that we can share in communal discernment, I have encouraged this community to develop a flat structure and an ethos of shared responsibility.

We find our way forward together. So that’s what we’re doing. We are going to try to find a way forward together that allows space for people to be resourced spiritually in more familiar ways as well as engaging in adventurous mission.





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!





Protection

11 02 2010

As we considered embarking on our great venture of creating the Sunday Sanctuary, there was one concern that was the most persistently expressed: ‘how are we going to be sustained in our faith?’

In response, I had relayed the experience of people who had been part of the Friday Fridge — a mission project I was involved in establishing four years ago. A number of people consistently report that they have grown in their faith through their involvement on Friday nights more than through any other part of their involvement in church. I encouraged people to expect that being part of the Sunday Sanctuary would give them a similar experience. That hasn’t so far been entirely borne out.

What I had perhaps forgotten or maybe even glossed over (as much with myself as anyone else) was that the people involved in the Fridge had not had to give up any other part of their church participation to get involved. They still got their ‘fix’ on a Sunday of those things — whether it was singing, prayer, teaching or whatever — that helped them feel… well whatever it did make them feel… encouraged? refreshed? sustained? renewed?

For my companions in this new enterprise, they have given up Sunday morning as a place to receive; to find an oasis of prayerful calm. Instead Sunday morning has become a time of sacrifice; of giving out for the sake of others.

I think the thing that may be particularly hard is that people are not bearing the weight of this effort equally. There is (inevitably?) a range of levels of commitment. What’s harder, perhaps, is that where people are on the range is not entirely related to capacity or to perceptions of capacity.

In trying to offer spiritual and pastoral care to this group, I am walking a very fine line between trying to give space to those who might well grow into this missionary endeavour while at the same time protecting others from burnout or frustration.

I had hoped that our Tuesday night gatherings would offer enough to sustain us in our communal spiritual life. It’s becoming more apparent that as I am currently structuring them, they are not entirely. The question is: can they ever? Or will Sunday mornings need to offer more to the explicitly Christian community in order to sustain us in our faith and participation in mission?

Which brings me to the group I feel the most protective of: those new people — residents of the tower block in which we are now located — who have been coming week after week to share in the activities we’ve been offering.

I don’t want to rush them into doing stuff they’re not ready for because that stuff is what the ‘core community’ need to be doing. In my thinking the needs of ‘outsiders’ always come first. Because it seems to me that’s who Jesus is interested in. And maybe the Church is meant to be, as I’ve heard Pete Rollins describe it, the community of outsiders.

I’m running the risk here of painting this little Christian community in a light that might make them appear selfish. I think that would be grossly unfair. I am not expected as an individual Christian priest to spend myself utterly for the sake of others. Quite the opposite, I am encouraged, nay required, to have a lively prayer life that encourages, sustains, refreshes and renews me in my ministry. That requires that my first priority is to set time aside essentially for myself and my own spiritual health. I need to have deep wells to draw on. Every individual human being needs the same. But that requirement of a Christian priest is not just for me as an individual but is meant to make present the priestly ministry of the whole people of God. Together we are to be formed, encouraged, sustained, refreshed and renewed in prayer for our common participation in mission.

And if I’m completely honest, I know that I’m also just a little bit driven by a perverse desire to be ‘radical’. I am probably a little too conscious of my own reputation as a pioneer of things funky and unchurchlike. Because maybe our new friends would not find it so odd or difficult if this began to look a bit more like something more easily recognised as ‘church’ through the most superficial of indicators.

I always allow myself a little scoff when I hear the stories of things calling themselves ‘fresh expressions of church’ that still involve singing or preaching or other such churchy bunk. Pah! I say! We’ll none of that. We are mission-shaped not worship-shaped. But maybe people wouldn’t find it so awful to sing the odd song or listen to the odd talky bit. [Shock, horror: we have done this a little already — we’ve even had *gasp* the odd prayer or two.] We probably just need to ask the families who’ve joined us instead of trying to second guess them all the time.

So that’s my dilemma. That’s what’s keeping me from my sleep tonight (this morning now actually). But fortunately I don’t have to resolve it on my own. I have an excellent colleague to share it all with. And then there’s the community itself. It’s our issue together. We will engage in frank conversation about how we are finding it alongside some searching prayer. And try to find a way forward together for Tuesdays and Sundays that will keep ‘us’ alive. That might seem like we are putting the needs of those among whom we are working second — that’s an obvious and inescapable implication of how I am framing this — but it’s equally true that if this community collapses under the strain then we’ll have nothing at all to offer our new friends.

This is all beyond me, of course. But thank God there is prayer. Not that I think it will all be just dandy in a minute if I pray about it. But dandy or otherwise prayer offers the gift of peace — the peace that comes from knowing I don’t have to make it work at all costs. I can fail or I can succeed. And fail or succeed: all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.





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.