One step forward…

11 10 2010

I posted at the weekend about the hugely encouraging breakthrough that there had been in forging one community among those who gather Sunday by Sunday in Wilmcote House, despite some clear differences of approach to what that gathering should be about. I wanted to celebrate that, and I still do. I hope not to lose sight of that in what follows.

But it does often feel that renewed challenges follow hot on the heels of every ‘win’.

It was a relatively simple matter for the PCC in the end to complete the review of the Sunday Sanctuary and gather all the fragments of our discernment process together. Because there had emerged at the same time as that was all going on, between my colleague Alex and myself, a desire; an intention to create a new evening service, that would offer a different sort of space from both Sunday mornings in Wilmcote House and Sunday mornings in St Peter’s. More of that in another post.

The upshot, though, was that there would be an outlet for the more established members of the Sunday Sanctuary to express their spirituality through contemporary sung worship and quiet contemplation. Thus it no longer felt necessary, or appropriate (given the response to the suggestion from our newer friends) to try and shoehorn those things into Sunday mornings at Wilmcote House. So far, so positive.

It was clear from our wider discernment that we didn’t need to persist with keeping the Sunday Sanctuary open for two hours. Residents of Wilmcote House liked the idea of a slightly later start and others were finding the long morning hard going, especially those working to keep the kitchen open.

We had been moving towards closing the kitchen at about 11:00 and I had often notified people of that with ‘last orders’ announcement; which, unfortunately, frequently had the effect of creating a rush and making it more difficult to gather people for our all together time. (It made it virtually impossible for kitchen workers to join the all-together time as they had to clear up a new batch of dirty plates, cups and so on.)

So we decided that the Sunday Sanctuary would open at 10:30 instead of 10:00. The kitchen would close at 11:00 and be followed immediately by our all-together time. 11:45-12:00 would be tidy up time, which we would all share together, not simply as a clear up after the real activity but an important part of the expression of our life as a new community. (Kitchen clear-up was to wait until then too, so that kitchen helpers could join the all-together time.)

We also thought that the time between 11:30 and 11:45 might involve differentiated activities so each age group got the sort of stimulation that reflected its unique needs.

As I write this, I think this all sounds right and good. But we haven’t perhaps been as good as we might have been at sticking to that schedule and that may be at the root of some of our problems this half term.

Because it hasn’t felt to me as if we have really been hitting the mark since our restart. There have been lots of good things. The barbecue our first week back was a really good way to come back together. And of course it was encouraging after something of a break that we did all come back together. I think taking a break in future might seem a little odd. It felt odd, actually, during the summer. Projects take a break. Communities – churches? – do not.

Somehow, in between making a clear choice not to include sung worship and an ongoing effort to avoid cutting and sticking (for those who hated the ‘Sunday School’ feel that it had on occasion) we have ended up with a lot of up-front talking. Storytelling has been and remains an essential part of our shared identity. And I’m a firm believer in storytelling as an art form in its own right. There is a place for a variety of ways to share stories – story sacks, puppetry, pictures, film clips – but above all I think a really engaging storyteller simply speaking a tale can hold the attention of a group. But somehow our style (mostly delivered by me) has become flabby, unengaging and drawn out. Instead of being punchy and exciting, the stories and most especially the reflection following have become long-winded and talky.

In the past few weeks I have noticed that nobody has really been engaged. The youngest children are gravitating back to the Lego, which in a very echoey room is very distracting. The parents and older children are trying to draw their children/siblings’ attention back and the adults without children there are distracted by all of that going on. And on occasion when I’ve been speaking, I’ve been wondering who I’m actually speaking to!

It has brought me for the first time in ages to question my personal commitment to intergenerational community/church. Is it really possible to hold the attention of a middle-aged professional at the same time as you’re engaging a pre-schooler from a refugee family with next to no English? If your comparison is with school, then you’d say: ‘Of course not!’ Vertical teaching groups can work, but the age span is not normally more than two years. But if your comparison is not with education but with, say, a family meal, especially a special celebratory meal like Christmas dinner, then it’s not nearly so clear cut. But maybe I have confused the idea that ‘we only do apart what we cannot do together’ with some notion that we do nothing apart.

[Editor’s note – and I’m the editor! – this post has well and truly now broken the short post rule. Commitments are dropping like flies all around. 😉 ]

Of course, we are rather stuck in that we are in one room. There are not alternative spaces except for outside in the good weather (we have taken children outside for a game or activity). But when it’s getting colder, it becomes much more of a challenge to create discrete spaces – especially with the awful acoustics that this room has (very echoey).

The lesson I’ve learnt from being married to a teacher and being involved in a local primary school is that if we are not engaging people, children especially, it’s because we’re not engaging not because the people are not responding appropriately.

So what to do?

Funnily enough, the thought that has occurred to me is to go back to the liturgy. To look back into the shape of the Eucharist and see how the moments and movements of that might be reinterpreted in our setting. It may be that we need to make the occasional simple sharing of bread and wine into a more regular feature.

That might seem like quite a conceptual leap from talking too much not working to let’s have a simple sort-of-communion each week. But there’s something about the way we’re having to reinvent the wheel each week that I think is giving us a bit of a headache. And actually to start with sharing a meal: breakfast; and to conclude with sharing a simple commemorative meal: bread and wine (grape juice actually) gives the whole thing something of a shape that maybe it’s lacking. Within that, there are moments for gathering, self-examination and reflection, hearing and reflecting on one of our inherited stories, looking out to the wider world and giving thanks, that might just give us the structure that will keep things moving along in a much more dynamic way. It might also help us to express our newfound community-ness more wholeheartedly in the content and shape of our mornings together, not just in the sheer fact of our coming together. And I think the times that have worked best have been those occasions when we have shared food that has some symbolic, nay sacramental, significance – a high point for me, was the simple passover we shared when we were journeying through the stories of Moses.

I’ll let you know how things develop…

[If you’ve made it this far, thanks for sticking with me. I’d welcome your comments. 🙂 ]

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.

A Wilmcote House Nativity

22 12 2009

On Sunday 20th December, we hosted a ‘Wilmcote House Nativity’. I posted the cards shown above through the door of every flat in Wilmcote House. I also produced posters and put them up on the noticeboards in the entrance hall and on the doors and windows of the community room. Actually it was the posters that I put up first, and it was as I was putting them up that I realised that nowhere on my cards or posters did it say where this event was happening! So I spent an hour handwriting it on 180 cards and the posters. Unlike previous weeks, I didn’t put the publicity up in any of the other tower blocks in the area. It just seemed right on this occasion, given who had been coming and the focus we were giving it to concentrate on Wilmcote House itself.

We thought if anything we were going to do was likely to be a big draw it was this one, so we catered for 50 people (including the members of the mission community formerly known as the congregation of the church of the parish of St Luke – catchy ain’t it?!)

One thing that came out strongly in our discussion at our Tuesday night gathering was how good it had been at our coffee and carols event the week before that there were moments where everyone there was invited to do the same thing together. It someone had suggested that to me at the beginning, I might well have viewed it as a bit of a step backward; a bit of an adulteration of our very clear intention to be a drop-in, not a church service. But inviting people to take a pause from whatever activity they were involved on and sing a couple of carols did seem to bring people together.

This week we again had the mix of individual and communal activities. We had presents to choose and wrap for someone. We had a ‘random act of kindness’ station where guests could fill a gift bag with chocolates and a satsuma. The idea was that you’d then take it away with you and give it to a stranger or a neighbour. That did seem to get a bit blurred with the presents in the end as I was given more than one of those bags by some of the children who had come. We also had a station where people could make a ‘stained glass window’ with black card and tissue paper. We had prepared two designs – a Christmas star and a candle.

We also had a station where people could decorate a gingerbread Christmas tree that one of our number had lovingly baked the night before. This was a very popular activity.

There was another table where people could cut out and decorate a shiny star. AT the same table, people were invited to write a prayer or reflection on a shiny strip of paper and add it to a paper chain of prayers.

But in the midst of all this, we invited everyone to come and join a circle as I told them the Christmas story using a story box with little felt figures. One child had told us the week before that they didn’t know the Christmas story, but I’m guessing they’d been hearing it at school as not only were w they ell engaged with the story but they also seemed to know what was coming next. Indeed it seemed to add greatly to the enjoyment for the children there that they knew the story and were able to interject with what was coming next.

Maybe there’s something in there about how oral storytelling works – maybe the greater the familiarity the greater the engagement, if the storytelling is handled right. I was just nimble enough to recognise this as I went on and so I created more and more opportunities for the children to feed me the next event in the story as we went on.

We followed this ‘circle time’ with a more familiar nativity presentation in which the children took the roles of the different characters. One of our number – a primary school teacher – had prepared and delivered a nativity for her school. She had written an excellent simple narration script which was conveniently broken down into small chunks, so that I could turn it into cards which we distributed so that lots of people there had a chance to tell a bit of the story. We interspersed the narrative with four carols which we sung along to a backing CD that had very child-friendly versions of the carols we were singing.

So in some ways, it was more like a service of worship than I had envisaged our Sunday mornings would be. But I still don’t think this is worship-shaped church. For one thing, I always made it clear that it was an invitation and that people could carry on with what they were already doing if they preferred. And it wasn’t how the whole of the time was spent. There was a good combination of activities for people to take at their own pace and things that we did all together. There was spiritual ‘content’ in both types of activity but in neither did it make demands on the people who came in terms of belief or commitment.

And the people who came who haven’t been regular members of the congregation when we were meeting in the St Luke’s building seemed to cope with the all-together stuff just fine. That should be no surprise really. In school and nursery settings there’s the same combination of all together and individual/group work and in parent and child groups too the same pattern pertains. This is what people are used to. There’s perhaps even a certain naturalness to it.

Interestingly, I think the one thing that isn’t well developed yet is the thing that I said would be the defining characteristic of this venture: conversation. I’m not worried about that, though it’s worth making and holding that observation. I’m not worried because on the one hand this is a grand experiment. We’ve approached this with ideas of how it might be, but also hopefully with enough flexibility to respond to the real people who really come and what will work best with and for them. And on the other hand, it’s still early days.

We’re still just getting to know people. It isn’t that we aren’t talking to them, it’s just that it can be quite a busy space and we’re grabbing snatches of conversation. There’s plenty of time for that to grow and for us to invest in some new furniture and try some new configurations that enable and facilitate some more adult engagement alongside the fun, learning and reflection that all ages together are enjoying.

So from Wilmcote House and the Sunday Sanctuary, I wish you all a very happy Christmas and a peaceful, joyous and blessed New Year!

Going up to big school

12 06 2009

IMG_0148After the fortnight I spent with a primary school in the centre of Portsmouth, I am now running virtually the same spirituality programme in a secondary school in the city. This is a church school, but I have not modified the programme to make it explicitly Christian. I have retained the open and accessible ethos of my last placement. By spirituality I mean ‘relational consciousness’ – a term coined in David Hay and Rebecca Nye’s ‘The Spirit of the Child’. On the basis of their research into the spirituality of children, they defined spirituality as a deep cognition of our relation to ourselves, to others, to the world and to the ‘transcendent’. I have said that before on this blog but it bears repeating so that you, dear reader, may know what it is I mean when I am talking about spirituality.


The programme.
In brief, my programme is as follows:

EVERY DAY: Brief meditation derived from Ignatian prayer but stripped of explicit Christian reference, sensing the body, awareness of sounds around, breathing in and out. Sharing stone group – children in a circle may share a brief reflection on the experience they have just had. No other children may comment either within or outside the group.

DAY ONE: Getting to know you
DAY TWO: Matroyska doll – who we are inside and out. Movement to music. Body sculptures in pairs
DAY THREE: Necker cube & EC Escher pictures –opening our visual perception
DAY FOUR: Andy Goldsworthy nature art – reording our world to reveal its inherent beauty

DAY ONE: Seafront ‘pilgrimage’ with stops for King Cnut story, pebble mosaic-making, decorating a stone and building a cairn
DAY TWO: Small group pebble mosaics
DAY THREE: Whole group pebble mosaic
DAY FOUR: Footprints story told in Godly Play style but stripped of explicitly religious content, whole group feet printing picture

I run the above sessions in one period of the school day. As much as possible I am around for the rest of the school day to build relationships with the children in the class. I am mainly assisting them with their regular work.

I have completed my first week in this secondary school. It has been impossible for me to reflect on this experience without reference to my previous primary school placement. Comparing and contrasting has proved useful for my own thinking and so I am to some degree presenting it in those terms. I recognise, though, that this may introduce some distortions that may not have appeared had I started here rather than there.

I have received a warm welcome in this school. The staff who work with the children in year 7 have been very friendly. So have the children. There has been some cheekiness, of course, but they have responded to me positively and, in their way, respectfully. When I have needed to be firm in order to regain their attention they have responded appropriately. And they have been happy to receive my help and attention in the classroom. Other children around the school have been happy to exchange greetings too in a genuine way. Other staff have been happy to chat to me, and have made me feel very welcome. To hear some people in the city speak about this school, you’d think you were going to be entering a warzone. But though there are some real challenges here, I have found it a good place to be.

Social background
The age group I am working with is not disimilar in age. Previously I was working with a combined year 5/6 class. Now I am working with a year 7 class. They are largely from the same area and so the social profile of the children is identical. This includes a higher than average proportion of children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, a first language other than english and learning difficulties. This school operates a unit for year 7 children that is like a primary school in that the children spend much of their day with the same teacher in the same classroom. Other teachers come to the classroom to teach some subjects and some lessons are taught in different parts of the school, for instance PE, geography and drama. So mostly, as in the previous school, I have been working with the children (as I have accompanied them during their regular curriculum sessions) in the same space. But I have moved about with them too. Working with an older year group that was more acclimatised to the secondary system would be quite a different experience and could be worth pursuing at a future stage.

How big a group?
Where previously I was working with a single group that constituted one class, though they included children from two year groups, I am now working with a smaller group taken from the class. Selecting a smaller group has been a practical necessity as it was apparent from the first day that the day trip in week two would not be conducted with a teacher (as previously) but with a learning support assistant (LSA). We therefore needed to keep the group small. I was also keen that, after a long walk on that day, we should collect the children in the school minibus and not make them walk back to school. It’s good that the walking should stretch the children but my previous experience suggested that the walk back was probably a bit too much of a stretch for some children. The minibus seats 17. So with the driver and an LSA (I could walk back) the group for the pilgrimage could not be larger than 15 children. In order that the programme should make some sense and that each session could build on what had gone before, I have been working with the children who will accompany me on the trip out plus the reserves for my sessions.

Just the nice ones?
It appears that the group that has been chosen to work with me has been selected on the basis of behaviour. To an extent then, it appears that the opportunity to work with me constitutes a reward for good behaviour. This, of course, has made for an easier time for me than might otherwise have been the case. But I must confess to being disappointed on behalf of the more challenging members of the class. Of course, this is a matter for the school, and it may have been a very different experience for everyone concerned had I been given a different group to work with. I have been slightly uncomfortable with the potential issues around equality of opportunity (though I understand that overall, these things balance out) but also with the possible implication that spirituality is reserved for well-behaved children when actually it may be that those more challenging children have more to gain from a programme designed to stimulate their relational consciousness.

The class as community
It has been hugely encouraging to see the degree to which the children in the group I’m working with take care of each other and are very at home with the diversity in the class, to the extent that it is not really noticeable. This class functions to a good degree as a community where everyone seems to be valued for who they are. Of course there is banter and sometimes individual children become the object of their peers derision or hostility. That’s true in any school. But there is a sense of being ‘in it together’ that does stand out here compared to, say, my own children’s school. This is something I would point to as an indicator that spirituality, at least in respect of consciousness of the other and the existence of community, is very much alive and well among these children.

The staffroom as community
By contrast, the staff room here feels very different to the staff room of the previous school. That’s not to say that there is any atmosphere or tension that I have detected. it’s simply that a lot of the time it feels deserted in comparison to the primary school when I was there. Breaktimes and lunchtimes were a time when it seemed the staff as a community, a family even, gathered together to share their stories and their humour. All this over food and drink. I have not found a similar sense of a community gathering here. With my researcher’s hat on, I think it would be interesting to probe that a bit further. With my ‘guest who knows nothing’ hat on, I think that might appear a bit upstartish. It may be that there are smaller groups of staff gathering in different places, but I regret that the ‘in it together’ feeling I saw in the class was not so apparent to me in the staff room. That doesn’t mean it’s not there. it just means I haven’t seen it yet.

The school as an institution
The primary school where I completed my last placement was a very well-organised institution. Everyone seemed to know that I was coming and why I was there. It may well be true that a secondary school is a very different operation and that means that it is more difficult to run or needs to be run in a different way. But it does seem to operate more ‘loosely’ than the primary school I worked with. The first thing that struck me was that where previously I had been clearly told I would not be left to work alone with any children, I have regularly done so here. In fact, on my first morning, I was asked to supervise a group of boys changing for a swimming lesson. I did, but I’m not sure I should have.

And we actually missed my first session on day two (and so ran a double session on day three) because both I and the classroom teacher were expecting the other to ask the selected children to join the activity. That’s not entirely the school’s fault and I am skating on very thin ice if I make remarks about organisation!

IMG_0186How have the children responded?
In terms of the children’s response, they have actually responded better to the meditation than in the previous school and perhaps ever so slightly less well to the art based activities. That latter point is really quite marginal, and the children have all repeatedly expressed how much they are enjoying the art activities. I think it may well be that I am not leading those sessions as effectively as I may have done last time round, though of course, where I have been working on my own, I have needed to manage behaviour without intervention from a teacher. That’s fine, I can do that. It’s just a bit different to last time around. They have not, so far, been so comfortable with the group sharing exercise, though they have frequently expressed their gratitude for my presence and the activities I have been running.

Teaching and learning
I have seen some excellent teaching while I have been here too. The regular class teacher has led some whole class sessions that have managed to keep the attention of most of the children, most of the time, that’s despite some occasionally disruptive behaviour from one or two. I was privileged to sit in on a geography lesson with a very engaging and dynamic teacher. And how I wish my own secondary school education might have included drama as a distinct subject rather than as an add-on to English literature. The children have an excellent facility and an engaging teacher who managed to draw out some cracking work from these children.

Father Mark
On a final note, I have very quickly got used to being called ‘Father Mark’ – not because I have airs and graces; I was quite happy to be called Mark – but because it seems appropriate in a school where the regular staff are addressed as sir or miss. I think my relationship with the children is different but they do need to be able to maintain (for the school’s sake, not mine) a proper degree of respect for adults. So Father Mark is both properly formal and informal in this setting. I don’t think I’ll be insisting on it anywhere else though. Come to that, I won’t be insisting on it here. It’s what the children want to call me and that’s all right with me!

[This post has been cleared by one of the school’s assistant headteachers.]

Turning back the tide

5 05 2009

cnut_small1Today was the day that I have been working towards and to which the activities on the remaining days refer. This was, if you like, the climax of my two week’s work and presence in the school.

Except that it wasn’t in the school. It was along the seafront at Eastney and along to Southsea.

Today was the ‘pilgrimage’ day. Pilgrimage is maybe a problematic word to use – it has distinct religious connotations. But I think like the word ‘retreat’ it belongs to so many faith traditions that it can belong to all and none. It was the word I used in my proposal for this time with the school and it didn’t seem to cause an issue at that stage. So it was a word I used with the children. As I said to them, it often involves traveling to a sacred or special site, but in almost every tradition, it’s the journey that’s important not the destination.

So it was today. The destination – it’s impossible to say this without sounding like a comedy hippy – was ourselves (and our relationship with each other and the world).

I know that there are children in this city that have never been to the sea. I don’t know if there were any in that category in this class until this term. Their topic this term is water and they have already been on one trip to the other end of the seafront to look at the geography of the Solent. And I know there is a plan for them to go again later in the term. And in a sense it doesn’t matter. Though it was in my mind, I wasn’t suggesting this trip simply in order to address a particular deprivation.

In the Rapid Parish Development workshop I attended a couple of weeks back, we were asked about the places we loved to visit. The seafront came up on nearly everyone’s list. It is a significant place for all sorts of reasons. People go there for family time, for fun and for exercise. None of those things are disconnected from spirituality – far from it. But there’s also a sense in which the seashore is a place of more obviously spiritual experience. The sea offers an encounter with all the moods of nature from calm beauty to awesome, destructive power. It’s one of the places where one can encounter a big expanse; both of sea and sky. It’s a place to find peace and an encounter with the sublime – a place where we can reflect on our place in the universe; a place where paradoxically, because we are faced with our insignificance in space and time, we can find value in ourselves. My hope for this trip was that I could create the space where the children and we adults accompanying them might touch some of that. I didn’t want to force that on anyone. And, anyway, how could I?

So the first part of the experience for them was a long, long walk. All the way from the heart of the city to Eastney, right down beyond the caravan park. They were tired and began asking lots of ‘are we there yet?’ questions, but I think it was good to take them on a walk that was beyond ‘utility’ (into futility?!). We could have stopped when we arrived at the sea front and done all the activities in one place, but I thought it would be valuable to enter into an experience of ‘journey’ as that is such an important metaphor for our growth, learning and spiritual development. There was something too about pushing ourselves on, keeping going beyond what is immediately comfortable to see if we could find value in doing so.

We arrived at the spot I’d pre-arranged with the class teacher for our first ‘station’. I think some of the immediate novelty of my presence in the classroom has worn off a bit and the attention is proving a little more challenging to draw together. Today, of course, was already a very new environment with lots of different views and materials from their usual learning space, so some of it could reasonably be put down to excitement.

EXCURSUS: excitement.

I nearly put ‘over-’excitement there but why shouldn’t children experience and express excitement? It’s one of the paradoxes of the school environment I think. The people I’ve met who work at this school all genuinely like children and enjoy their company. They want them to flourish as themselves and to enjoy their time at school and the new experiences and knowledge they’re encountering. Part of children’s natural response is excitement. Children are inherently enthusiastic people when stimulated in a way that engages their interests. But school isn’t a playground. There is an agenda. A big part of that agenda is set by outside bodies – the government for the most part. Sometimes that means that school makes huge demands of children’s intellect and for some of the subject matter there’s not always a big pay-off in terms of its being hugely stimulating. My perspective, after a few days in this school and somewhat longer married to a teacher, is that there is a degree of prescriptiveness, not only in what has to be taught, but how it has to be taught. That can stifle the creativity of teachers and make it difficult for them to make the learning as exciting as it could be if teachers had more freedom. And there’s a nagging thought in my mind that this is actually their (the children’s) time. Nobody is paying them. The rewards for doing the hard work could be so deferred as to make them irrelevant to these children. That’s not to say their achievements – no, not just their achievements – their efforts aren’t celebrated because they are. 

The agenda, as I hear it in the media, is to equip children for adulthood and most especially for the world of work. But what about their lives now? What about them getting the best out of life as the people they are now, not just the people they will become? I haven’t got an answer to that. But after a few days in this school there’s this little ache of grief in me that these children (my children too) are having to give up something of their childhood for the sake of what the adult world demands of them. What we demand of them. I don’t blame these teachers; the staff of this school. I’m deeply concerned as I write this, that any of them reading this understand that this is not a criticism of them. It’s more of a philosophical – actually I’d say spiritual – question about our society’s understanding of and relationship to childhood. The adults I have met in this school are dedicated to these children, to their education, yes, but also to these young people in their care for who they are right now too. I suspect that the little ache of grief is in their hearts too – not just for those whose lives outside school are  difficult lives but those whose lives are just fine too.

It’s possible to make too much of that, of course. In any other setting where one is working with children, their excitement does need to be managed. They are wont to get over-excited. They cannot be wholly relied upon to make good choices about behaviour that would endanger them or others around them. They need a degree of guidance and structure. They need boundaries in order to feel safe. Often for those in chaotic home settings, the boundaries that school provide, much as they might want to test them, kick against them, do offer some real sense of security.

Anyway, that’s a digression, though an important one that I needed to give space to.

Back to our day on the beach. After arriving at our first stop at Eastney, I recounted the well known episode in the life of King Cnut (as told by Henry of Huntingdon in the 12th century) using some props and getting a child to play the part of Cnut (without actually getting them wet!). He set his throne by the shore and pretended to command the tide to halt. When his robes were soaked by the waves Cnut leapt backwards and said ‘Let everyone know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.’ He then hung his gold crown on a cross and never wore it again. The point I drew out from the story is that human beings are not able to control everything and that there are some forces of nature that are just bigger than us.

Then we went and threw stones into the sea. Mostly for the sheer joy of it. I showed some who didn’t know how to throw a skimmer. This is the sort of useless skill children absolutely need to learn! It was a source of joy for us all, I think, to spend those few minutes skimming stones across the sea. We did reflect on how our stones made absolutely no difference to the sea and its relentless interaction with the land. I talked the children through the enormous lengths of time involved in the processes of erosion and the cycle from solid rock to sand and back again. Attention was wandering a bit again, but I think some of them at least connected with the sense of awe and wonder I was trying to convey through this and through asking about how many stones there might be on the beach and relating that to the number of people in the world. I asked them to choose a stone to represent themselves and remarked that each of them, like each of their stones is unique and precious. Finally I spoke about how none of the stones has become what it is on its own, but that each has helped to shape the others. I then suggested that we too are shaped by the people we bump up against and that we shape others too.

There was a lot of me talking in that first activity. I wonder whether some of that might have been better interspersed with the other activities, but I think they coped as well as they were going to at any point in the day with that sort of input. And it wasn’t devoid of hands on content, we skimmed stones and chose stones and lots of them also picked up other things that interested them: shells mostly.

By this time, it was apparent that making them wait until after the next activity to have lunch (as had been the plan) wasn’t going to work. It was already very nearly their usual lunch break time and they were expressing their need for food! So we walked on to the planned lunch stop. It was a salient reminder for me, if I needed one, that providing for children’s basic everyday needs must be a priority. That’s true of itself and it’s true if you want them to do anything that makes demands on their brains! This is stuff I know from my own children too. I’ve learnt to spot when they are hungry from very obvious changes in mood or behaviour.

After lunch, we headed down to the beach to make some pebble pictures. I divided the class into two groups and got them to collect two different shades of stones in the two buckets I had brought. Then I asked each group to collaborate on making a picture. Overall the children seemed to really engage well with this and enjoy the activity. It was interesting to watch the dynamics of each group. There were one or two who didn’t participate at all in either group. Others who took issue with the way things were progressing in the group, drew aside and did their own thing. Others still seemed more prepared to argue their case in the group. With a little prompting they also divided their labour. At this point some of those who had found themselves on the margin while the creative work was dominated by a smaller group, found they could have a renewed involvement and seemed to revel in the responsibility. I think some self-excluded and others did get pushed out to the margins by the larger group because their involvement was more disruptive. Partly that came about because the size of the pictures they were producing meant there were only so many children that could fit around the artwork. There were two children who hadn’t reintegrated with their group who produced their own artwork using the sand on the beach and stones and shell fragments. One of those was particularly fine and I have just realised that we didn’t record it photographically as we did for the group artworks. Perhaps it’s right that we didn’t because it would be inappopriate to celebrate non-participation in a required group activity, but it was an especially gratifying piece of work because this particular child finds much of the classroom work very challenging.

We then walked on further and stopped on the beach on the western side of South Parade Pier. Here I invited the children to use their non visual senses to take in the experience of being on the beach for a moment. They  have found some of the more meditative work a bit difficult so I was pleasantly surprised to find that they all, almost, were happy to do this without much silliness. I asked them to take out the stone they had chosen a couple of hours before and to think about how they would feel about leaving it behind to represent their individual mark on the world. I asked them to decorate their stone with the paints we had brought and then to do just that: to leave it behind on the beach. While half the class started on that, the other half built a cairn as a way of marking their presence as a group. The children seemed very engaged by both activities. They entered into them without protest. Members of each half of the class expressed disappointment about having to swap to the other activity because, it seemed they were really engaged with what they were doing.

Time was running short by this point, so we began the walk back, stopping for a toilet break. The children’s behaviour was pretty good all day and despite there being the usual challenges with sustaining attention at some points, my impression was that they were engaging well and enjoying what we were doing. I didn’t provide the same sort of opportunities for reflective feedback as I have on other days. I hadn’t planned to because of the pressure of time. So I don’t know how much of this has really gone in. I look forward to seeing over the next couple of days with some of the reflective activities I’ve planned what response I might get.

It was a good day. Once again, I was proud of the children.

[This post has been cleared with the school’s headteacher.]

What your soul sings

3 05 2009

So there’s me, saying I don’t think singing is where it’s at. And two significant things today revolved around singing.

First. This morning.

It was rather discouraging in a way that there were just eleven of us at the Sunday morning service at St Luke’s today. I console myself with the fact that it’s a bank holiday weekend and that there probably aren’t so many around at the mo. And we didn’t have a musician. I knew our most regular musician was away. But I planned that we would listen to one song and sing another.

The song I thought we would listen to has been bugging me all week. I first heard it last summer at New Wine — a happy clappy church conference. It isn’t a naturally comfortable place for me, but last year as curate of a church that was going it allowed me time away with the family without using up holiday entitlement. So it was a no brainer really. The kids loved it and so despite myself, we’ve booked to go this year too.

Anyway, the song is called ‘Mighty to save’ and it’s from Hillsong (Aussie mega church). Now there are things about it that trouble me. First it’s that whole conservative, Pentecostal mega-church thing with its hardline morality and prosperity teaching. But then singing a song doesn’t mean you’re buying into the theology of the church what wrote it. But then the song is very definitely in that Christian soft rock style about which I have been so disparaging. Then it’s troubling on so many levels: ‘saviour, he can move the mountains/my God is mighty to save/he is mighty to save’. First off there’s all that ‘mighty’ language — there in the Bible of course (in relation to the crossing of the Red Sea especially) but the song is about Christ and if he is mighty then it’s such a different sort of might as to render the word irrelevant. I see the cross as representing God’s vulnerability in the world; God’s frailty; dare I say: weakness. Then there’s the (male) gendered pronouns for God (not uncommon I know but a personal bugbear of mine). It just means that as much as I studiously avoid gendered pronouns in my leading of liturgy, I am undermined by songwriters. And finally there’s the possessive in relation to God: ‘my God’. It just has too much of a hint of the ‘God on our side’ mentality for me, which, by extension, suggests not on the side of others. God is either for all the peoples of the world or none of them. The Bible is chock full of stories that show the danger of imagining that we possess God rather than being possessed by her.

And yet… Despite all that, this song has been buzzing round my head all week. It’s catchy so it’s just the sort of song one finds one’s self singing/humming, but why this week? It does have a hook that makes it appropriate in Easter time: ‘he rose and conquered the grave/Jesus conquered the grave’. So I put the words up on the screen and as well as listening, we all sang along. (‘All’ here covering a very small number of people!) I have learned/am still learning to trust those moments where something comes at you or you have an inner sense that suggests doing a particular thing. I think this song might be just what a couple of people needed this morning. That would always be important but even more so when they represent, as they did this morning, a significant perecentage of the congregation! So, much as I might harp on about singing actually being offputting for people in our locality, this tiny community is going to feel bereft if there are no opportunities to sing these sorts of songs.

Second. This evening.

I was a couple of minutes late arriving at the Fleet. For no good reason really. I just didn’t get myself moving quickly enough. Actually the same thing happened last week except that I was an hour ahead of myself. I set off late for 7:45 pm and arrived at about 7:50. But I was actually 55 minutes early instead of 5 minutes late: I invited people to come at 8:45. There’s no way I’d be late for a service in the church building so why did I act as if it is okay when meeting people in the pub? This coming week I’m determined to be there early.

All that meant I was worried this week. If people had arrived and not found me, maybe they would just have cleared off again. Especially as I hadn’t realized that it was karaoke night. Anyone arriving for a discussion evening would have thought they were in the wrong place. It was heaving and loud.

So not finding anyone I knew, I got myself a drink and stood in the archway next to a fruit machine to see if anyone was going to arrive. At one point I was gathered up in an embrace by one chap I’d met through my previous ministry at St Jude’s. He was at that moment, as most of the other times I’ve met him, quite well refreshed. What’s amazing is that he always expresses great appreciation for what I do, when all I can remember is just having spoken to him. Maybe I’m being a bit disingenuous there because I do think simple conversation is hugely important and that for some just having someone take the trouble to talk to them (and listen) can be very significant.

Anyway after that I decided to plant myself at a table and watch the door to see if any of my crew were arriving. I was joined after a little while by a group of people I didn’t know who asked if they could sit at the table. What was interesting was that there were empty tables so I wasn’t occupying a space they needed. It was pretty central for the entertainment. After a little while of getting used to sitting around the same table, we gently eased into conversation (shouted over the music). They were a group of three girls and two chaps who know each other from having studied at the Uni a few years’ previously. They didn’t all live in Portsmouth. They were having a sort of reunion time in their old student boozer.


We actually got on really well. Our conversation was a mix of friendly banter and joking about the karaoke performances along with some deeper stuff about faith or my work, usually prefaced with: ‘Can I just ask you a question…’

I was persuaded, ostensibly by being bought a Guinness, to have a crack at the karaoke. While someone was off getting a round in, one person I had been expecting did turn up. She quickly joined in the shouted conversation and banter too and was warmly welcomed by this very friendly bunch.

It was soon my turn to sing with the band. (It was live karaoke.) I sang ‘Spirit in the sky’ — in a knowing and ironic way, of course! It was highly amusing (if to no-one else then at least to me) to be singing ‘gotta have a friend in Jesus/so you know that when you die/he’s gonna recommend you to the Spirit in the sky’ to this pub full of quite drunk people who were in some corners engaged in some pretty advanced affectionate activity! Funnily enough it seemed to go down a storm.

Another drink was enough to persuade me to have another go. There followed an awful rendition of Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Heaven is a place in earth’. That was me. And then a third priestly performance. This time I discovered that one of the girls on our table — table ten — had set me up to sing Shania Twain’s ‘Man, I feel like a woman’. I’m game for a laugh so what else could I do but to go for it and ham it up completely. Again, the performance, complete with backing vocals from one of the girls from table ten, was greatly appreciated. I do wonder though, after camping it up a but, how I managed to get out of the place alive!

I really don’t think this crew were just having a laugh at my expense. A couple of them took a turn at the mike thenselves and I think we genuinely enjoyed each other’s company.

So, once again, after a wobbly start, I found myself meeting some new people, sharing the experience with a Christian friend and maybe even getting a bit of profile in the pub as someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously. All in all a good night’s work and huge fun to boot. And singing, even about Jesus (!) was very definitely a part if it.

I can’t wait for next week. I have no idea what will happen. But that’s what makes it so exciting.


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…

A meeting of minds

23 01 2009

Last week, I had a very positive meeting with one of the leaders of one of the new churches in the city.

We found that our approaches to mission converged a great deal. It was encouraging to find so much common ground with someone from a different tradition. Several points from our conversation were particularly stimulating.

First, we both identified a tendency within the city, whether we called it a cathedral or a mega-church mentality, that wanted to attract people into a large, gathered congregation. The problem we identified with this approach was that, again, as welcoming and hospitable as we might actually be, we were still expecting people to come to our party.

This prompted me to reflect on Jesus’s style. He’s always at parties. But he is always at somebody else’s party. It reminded me particularly of Jesus’s encounter with Zacchaeus. Zach responds with openness to Jesus. Jesus doesn’t tell Zach to come and join his gang. Instead he says, “the kingdom is here, so let’s have a party at your house!”

We also reflected again that the overwhelming proportion of Jesus’s time with his disciples isn’t spent on the ‘mountaintop’ but in, with and for the crowd.

Perhaps more controversially we both wanted to affirm that Jesus has no strategy. I have heard people talk about Jesus’s strategy but that’s always seemed anachronistic to me. It’s trying to impose 20th century management speak on a first century wanderer. He may well have a good idea of where he is headed. He also has strong and clear values based on what he understands God’s kingdom to look like. But he mostly avoids a mission statement, vision and strategy in favour of just making relationships, seeing what his Father is doing and getting stuck in to that. Very pioneering!

The crowds press on around him and he sometimes as a result wants for rest but there’s no sense that there’s any frenetic drive from him. It looks to me that although his awareness of where this is all probably leading brings a certain sadness and seriousness from time to time, he’s mostly relaxed and (back to those parties again) having a lot of fun.

We also had a more challenging discussion on the appropriateness of or need for ‘sacred space’ as part of our mission. We had a difference of emphasis here. We both recognized from our own experience, he from chaplaincy, me from the Friday Fridge, the primacy of conversation. But though my friend, a fan of Celtic spirituality, recognized the value of sacred space for himself, he was not so ready to recognize its pertinence in mission in public spaces. For me sacred space provides both a reflective response to or follow on from conversation and also, if it’s sufficiently arresting in its conception and implementation, a focal point for conversation. It can provoke interest and question. Going back to the reflection above on how Jesus works might suggest it’s superfluous but I think he creates sacred space and sacred moments through his very presence and where he takes people them in conversation. Sometimes people run away. More often they break down and found healing, peace and new direction. I think we need to be creative to enable those moments of opportunity and encounter for people. We don’t quite have the same force of presence!

So I still think sacred space is worth pursuing in the city centre. We need to pray for some premises! Be they permanent or provisional is yet to become clear but my hunch is that the latter speaks more of the kingdom of God.