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.





Seventy times seven

3 11 2010

I am on a quiet day today, reading ‘Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense’ by W.H. Vanstone. His reflections on the ‘phenomenology of love’ — the title of his third chapter — have set me thinking in the nature of forgiveness and fidelity.

What does forgiveness mean? I guess I would start by saying that it is a willingness or a decision (of the heart) to cut out an offence. I use that metaphor deliberately, as I think talking about brushing aside or sweeping away, for instance, would not do justice to the pain or cost involved in forgiveness. It is surgery. Without anaesthesia. It restores a relationship as if the offence had not happened.

But what if the offence is the utter betrayal of infidelity? Would we consider a wife who responded to her husband’s adultery with forgiveness seven times (let alone seventy times seven times) a heroine of love or something else?

I am trying to be careful here as there may well be people out there reading this who are tolerating a serial adulterer, perhaps even people known to me. I do not pretend to have any right to comment on your decisions.

But we might be more inclined to say that such serial forgiveness might be a failure of that other sort of love, implied in the traditional summary of divine law: love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and love your neighbour *as yourself*. It might be said to be a dereliction of one’s duty to love one’s self to allow such betrayal and abuse to be perpetuated. And it is the same Christ of the gospels who both sets such a high standard of forgiveness and appears to accept that infidelity invalidates the covenant of marriage. Is it possible to have both forgiven and divorced an unfaithful partner? Surely it must be so. Otherwise we ask that forgiveness robs us utterly of our dignity and self-esteem. I am not saying here that there is no way back for a relationship when there has been adultery. But I am saying that I think that living out the demands of the prayer that daily asks us to forgive others as we are forgiven does not mean that we must endlessly tolerate betrayal.

But what does forgiveness mean if the broken relationship is not restored as if the offence had not occurred? Perhaps it means that we do not place that person in a category other than ‘person’ in our own heart and mind. That we continue to view them as a person of unique and infinite worth, even if we have concluded, with sadness, that it is not healthy for either of us to remain together. And perhaps it means that we do not allow that experience of betrayal to so distort our understanding of ‘persons’ that we can no longer trust or love. Perhaps it is a restoration of innocence, if not relationship; something that is for our own benefit and for the benefit of others, as much as it is for the benefit of the one who has betrayed us.

That is all very well if we are talking about the utter betrayal of adultery. That sort of betrayal is not ‘all very well’. What I mean is that this understanding of forgiveness does not touch my experience as I have not needed to offer it or ask it in those circumstances.

But what is infidelity? Is ‘marital unfaithfulness’ merely a question of adultery or should we draw its bounds more broadly. I have lived up to my vow to ‘forsake all others’ but have I loved and cherished in times better or worse? Or have there been times when I have been indifferent, unkind or even cruel? I confess that there have. And not merely as that perhaps understandable sort of sulking or lashing out in the emotional heat of receiving offence, but through prolonged periods of self-absorption. It is clearly a deeper betrayal to withdraw one’s love and give it to another. But simply to withdraw it is on the same trajectory. What sort of forgiveness can I ask for in those circumstances? Is this not a sort of infidelity — a lack of faithfulness?

I am fortunate indeed to have been forgiven this more than seven times. Slowly perhaps, this forgiveness is transforming me; making me better able to love in a truly faithful way.

And perhaps this is a way too to understand the relationship at the heart of faith. Time and again in the Hebrew Scriptures, the nation is ‘hewn by the prophets’ for their spiritual adultery. They literally engaged in the ritual worship of gods other than Yahweh. As a follower of the Way, I am not, I think, drawn off in idolatrous worship of false gods. (Though I do lust after the idols of consumer capitalism — iWant.) My infidelity is more along the lines of that self-absorbed indifference. Even the work of a priest, pioneer or otherwise can be a way of avoiding the call of God. So today I am taking time to reflect in silence; to be still and allow myself to be found; to experience and receive forgiveness and perhaps grow in faith/fulness.





How do I meet SABRINA?

19 11 2009

How do I meet SABRINA? That’s the question that’s occupying my mind at the moment.

Not the Teenage Witch – well not especially. No, actually it’s SABRINAs (plural) of either gender. By which I mean Spiritually Active But Religious-Institution-Non-Affiliated. Another way of putting it is SBNRSpiritual But Not Religious.

I hope that’s a self-explanatory term. I’m looking to hook up with people who are interested in spirituality or actively engaging their spirit, but who – as some of my publicity for my Sunday night pub conversations says – don’t do church.

Why?

Well first off, let me state clearly and categorically, not to convert them. It’s not my business to convert anyone. That’s not because I don’t think ‘conversion’ can happen in the conversational space I’m trying to create. But if, as I believe, the mystery we call ‘God’ is going to be active in that space then conversion is something that can and will happen for all and any of us. To put it more simply, I’m not trying to meet people and open up a conversation in order to persuade people to become christians. I’m not trying to gather an audience to hear me preach. This isn’t backdoor Alpha. There’s no programme or agenda that includes a vision of moving people from one place to another along a particular route. I just want to open up a conversation and see what happens.

So that’s why not. It still leaves the question of why?

My answer is to do with the mission of the Church but also something more personal. As you’re reading this, you might discover that what I’ve said so far seems more designed to answer the question for people who don’t have explicit christian faith than for those who do. I’m trying to reassure SABRINAs that I’m not out to get them. I’m genuinely interested in their experience and to create a space for genuine conversation.

That’s because as I’ve said before, what I’ve often encountered in churches is that people can be infantilised by learning a language that shapes and to a degree controls their world view. It’s very difficult to articulate in that space real doubt or struggle or, perhaps more subtly, to celebrate real moments of grace. I think we often miss them because we’re conditioned to look for them in very specific, structured ways that doesn’t help us to recognise the Spirit blowing where she pleases. Speaking personally, I find conversation with people who haven’t been conditioned in that way more stimulating, challenging and real. So one aspect of why is, to be honest, for me. It’s part of the attraction of working outside the bounds of what normally constitutes church.

But I am being paid by the Church. This isn’t just about me having the sort of conversations I enjoy and want to stimulate. So if it isn’t about getting bums on pews, what does it do for the Church’s mission? Well, it is possible of course that some bums might find their way onto pews through this. I’m not setting out to make that happen, but that doesn’t mean it can’t. I would celebrate if someone who was regularly part of the conversation found faith where they wouldn’t have said they had it before. I would celebrate too if there emerged from this a little community of people who were wanting to take a Jesus-shaped life more seriously. But again, I don’t think it’s even possible for me to make that happen, so I’m certainly not seeing it as my job. That allows me to relax and let God do whatever God does in the midst of that. I hope it allows others to relax too and not worry that they’ll come under any sort of pressure to adopt any particular belief system.

So do I bring anything to the table other than creating a space for this sort of conversation? I think so. Because the church isn’t all bad news as far as spirituality is concerned. That’s the great shame of our (somewhat deserved) bad press. The christian tradition does have a wealth of resources to offer those pursuing a spiritual life – particularly one earthed in real, everyday experience. What I can do, therefore, is to put those resources, indeed christian faith itself back on the agenda in the broader conversation about spirituality. At least for those who join me. There’s also a gentle challenge that I can offer to people to think about the value of being in the stream of a broad tradition, rather than simply being a free-floating individual. There’s something about the ‘bigger-than-usness’ of faith that means there’s value in negotiating faith in the midst of a community that includes not just those immediately present but those who have gone before too. (In the language of the Church: the Communion of Saints.)

So far, the group, being mostly people I know already, is numerically dominated, by people who would call themselves ‘christian’. (As I’ve said before, that’s a descriptor that is not always helpful.) I say numerically, because I don’t think that so far, those people are dominating. They have got it when it comes to the attitude to different viewpoints that I’m attempting to cultivate. And I value them all being there. But if I’m just gathering interesting/ed christians together, then it does kind of defeat the object.

So I’m going, somehow, to try and make contact with SABRINA and her friends. Perhaps a website, perhaps some cards to give out, perhaps some media stuff. And just some of that providence sort of stuff that can happen when you just hang about and meet people. I’ll let you know how it goes…





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.