Commemoratio: a guerrilla happening

2 11 2009

Here are some of the promised pictures. Thanks Ben.





For someone you’ve lost.

1 11 2009

531444_daisy_in_the_sunLucky heather sir?

How do you normally respond? If you’re anything like me, I’m sure you normally refuse. There’s no such thing as a free lunch (or heather). We all know how it goes. It’s not a gift. The heather lady wants you to cross her palm with silver. None of us wants to be taken for a mug. So we politely refuse. We all have our guard up. And what’s more, we don’t like being approached by a stranger. Stranger=danger. Even for adults. So why on earth would I plan an event that involved stopping people in the main shopping street in the centre of Portsmouth and offering them a flower?

Well precisely because I wanted to break through that defensive barrier to connect with people — to connect with their spirit.

If there was one thing that came up again and again in my conversations with people late on a Friday night at the Friday Fridge, it was that sense of suppressed grief that we all carry. It was that, I think, that boiled over when Diana, Princess of Wales died. People weren’t really grieving for Diana. She was a proxy through whom they could connect with their own sense of grief. It comes up so often when you’re taking funerals. Not just in the obvious way that you’re talking to relatives about a loved one that’s just died, but also there’s invariably a personal tragedy that the deceased person carried, unspoken, for years. There’s a time after a bereavement when people accommodate our desolation; there’s a sort of permission to be demonstrably emotional. But there comes a time when grief becomes impolite, embarrassing. Especially in our culture. Because we don’t do death like we once did. I suspect that we want grief out of the way as quickly as possible as it’s a memento mori. So we push it down deep. But it’s there. Gnawing away. Inside we’re desperate for someone to just acknowledge what, no who, we’ve lost.

That’s what I think anyway. If you think differently, please share your experience or thoughts via the comments on this page.

Because I think that, I think that it is an act of compassion to acknowledge the grief of another. It connects with the deepest level of our identity and embraces our whole being, not just the ‘I’m fine’ persona we like to present.

So yesterday (because close to All Souls seemed as good a time as any), eighteen of us from around the Diocese gathered at the fountain in Commercial Road in Portsmouth. I described the event as a guerrilla happening. I called it ‘Commemoratio’ from the latin for All Souls’ Day: Commemoratio omnium Fidelium Defunctorum (Commemoration of the faithful departed). As for the previous guerrilla happening I pulled together, I sent invitations by email, text, facebook and twitter and just waited to see who would come.

We gave away 300 single stem white gerberas. It was a simple act. As we offered them to people, we said: ‘this is for someone you’ve lost.’

Lots of people — perhaps even a majority — politely declined. But a substantial number also received the gift in the spirit in which it was given. They seemed genuinely moved. And let’s not overplay the refusals. Within a quarter of an hour all the flowers were gone.

There was no agenda. We weren’t trying to get people along to something else or preach or sell them anything. The gift was free. It was a genuine gift.

We had attached small cards. They looked like this:

tag mock-up

And I think (from what they said to me) that those who took part experienced it as a moment of privilege. We all had powerful moments of human connection.

What right did I have to interrupt people’s Saturday lunchtime? None. What right did I have to attempt to make people reconnect with their grief?None. Who am I to decide that people’s carefully constructed protection around their grief should be penetrated? No-one. I hope you can tell, dear reader, that I have thought carefully about whether it was truly kind or fair to do this. In the end I thought it was kinder to acknowledge people and communicate a recognition of their loss and its validity. And I think the experience bears that out. I don’t think it threatened the defences of those who declined the gift. And the expression and frequently the words of those who did accept the gift communicated that they were grateful to have their grief and the one for whom they grieve recognised.

I hope to post some pictures here in the next few days.





Canvassing opinion

2 09 2009

1021125_under_canopies_3It was a bit longer than a week or so wasn’t it! It’s been a busy summer with a real variety of experiences. And now I am looking down the barrel of a very challenging autumn.

The summer started with the family at ‘New Wine’. This is a week long christian event run by the New Wine network.

This isn’t the place to dis’ other people’s spirituality, so I will refrain. But this was not a happy experience for me. I have been before so I wasn’t surprised, but I am so far away from this sort of muscular christianity. We only went again because the children enjoyed it last year (when I went with my then training incumbent). When they enjoy it and ask to go and when the rest of the time they have very little contact with other children in a church setting, it feels mean not to take them. I was concerned at times about the level of indoctrination my children might have been subject to, but actually, they seem to be able to make quite mature judgements about what’s being said to them. And we’ve got the rest of the year to give them a broader range of experiences.

A friend and colleague recently gave me (mischievously I think) a copy of an article by John Milbank called ‘Stale Expressions: The Management-Shaped Church’. As well as critiquing the fresh expressions agenda, Milbank gives the managerialism of evangelical Christianity a bit of a going over too. This article is uncomfortable reading for people like me who have adopted an emerging/missional ecclesiology and I will return to it as I grapple with it in the coming weeks (because he makes a lot of good points).

The managerialism of evo Xty is very much evident at something like New Wine. Milbank’s analysis is quite persuasive but when you’re at a big event away from home with your children, you notice when it’s well run. So in that regard alone, I was appreciative of evo managerialism.

It stood in stark contrast to the frankly shambolic nature of Greenbelt. This was my third time at Greenbelt (a christian arts festival over the Bank Holiday weekend). I had been in ’06 and ’07 and really enjoyed it. Both times previously I had been without children. The laid back feel had been part of the attraction on those occasions. But this time around with kids in tow, I didn’t find it quite so amusing.

The contrast was all the more stark because not only had we been to the (well run but bonkers) New Wine conference at the beginning of the summer, but also because we had been only two days previously at EuroDisney (or Disneyland Resort Paris as we must now call it). Now that is well run!

We’d been there to meet up with my brother and his family, whom we hadn’t seen since last summer. Good times. If a little tiring.

Now you’d think after 3 days in Disneyland, we’d be used to queueing. But in Disneyland, you queue for 30 minutes to share a thrilling ride with excited children. At Greenbelt, we queued for an hour for a plastic token to get our children into an activity session. At the end of the queue, there were tokens for only one out of three. The venues for our two junior age children were already full. And they wouldn’t give us tokens for the afternoon session. We’d have to come back and queue again for that (for an hour and a half as it turned out). But even before that queue, when we came back an hour after collecting the morning session token for the actual session, we queued to get through the front gate, and then again at the venue inside the children’s compound and then the same again when we came back 2½ hours later to pick her up.

Now I’m sure the properly spiritual response would have been to have appreciated the unexpected downtime and to just chill enjoying the view of ominously gathering rainclouds overhead (It never did quite properly rain – unlike New Wine where we had a monsoon). But after a night of shivering in the tent, I was having a bit of a sense of humour failure, to be honest.

That all said, Greenbelt was enjoyable. The children did have a good time and did get to see a very different expression of christianity from what they’d experienced at New Wine. They loved watching Shlomo and the Vocal Orchestra on the mainstage. But Athlete on Monday night was just a bit too late for them to really enjoy it without needing to ask after every song: ‘is it finished now – can we go home?’

So now, back home, and back to work, I face the challenge of needing to write a proposal for an extension to my licence in the autumn of next year. When I started back in October, I knew this point would arrive. My job for year one was to explore possibilities and suggest a focus for ongoing work. A licence extension wasn’t exactly a foregone conclusion, but it seemed like that’s what everyone expected. But the situation has changed. The bishop is retiring this month. The diocese is facing some pretty severe financial constraints. So the question I need to answer is no longer merely, ‘what will I do?’ but ‘why is it necessary?’ I need to answer that question not just for the locality but for the whole diocese, which is facing all sorts of cuts. I’m confident I can make a strong case for why this work is needed here and why an investment should be made here particularly. I’m also confident I can demonstrate how this is vital for the whole diocese. But it’s a big piece of work. If you’re the praying kind. Pray for me. If you’re not, and you don’t feel like giving praying a go, touch wood or do whatever you do to send out your positive encouragement!





We are the knights who say ‘ning’

8 06 2009

One of the things I said I’d do in my first year was to try and establish a network of ‘mission practitioners’ in the Diocese of Portsmouth. This isn’t meant to be exclusive but to be a way of supporting and fostering new approaches to mission and ministry. I set up a community network website using the Ning social networking tool. I was going to link to the Ning site there, but when I checked just now it was offline for ‘maintenance’. I hope that’s what is really going on and that we’re not going to lose our site! Anyway, that was designed, like a smaller version of a UK-wide mission practitioner’s network I’m part of, to encourage the sharing of ideas and practice and to be a place of challenging conversation with colleagues who understand each other’s practice. A place of critical solidarity.

I invited a small number of people I know who are involved in new things to join the network and then we met up for a coffee in the middle of May. I really want this to be a place of mutual support and definitely not all about me and my work but that’s what we ended up talking about as that’s what the others kept asking about! I did come away feeling very supported and encouraged but I hope that subsequent meetings will add a bit more grit and some support for others in the group.

[Captain’s log supplemental: a comment from someone who came to that meeting has reminded me that it wasn’t all about me, myself and I. We did talk about others’ work. So it was even better than I remembered at a couple of weeks’ distance. Well done us!]