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. 🙂 ]

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Finding sanctuary in a tower block

6 12 2009

Two weeks into our great adventure, it’s time to bring you all out there in blogland up to date.

Maybe you don’t know what I’m talking about. So I’ll tell you.

On Sunday, 22nd November, 2009, the tiny congregation meeting in the parish church building in the Church of England parish of St Luke, Southsea, said goodbye to that building. In a special service, we moved around the building, stopping at various points — the main entrance, the font, etc. At each ‘station’ we marked some feature or character of the church’s life, symbolised by the piece of church furniture at which we were stopping. We committed ourselves to carry that aspect of our common life forward into our new future.

Why did we do that? Because from then on, we would be ceasing to hold our 11 a.m. Sunday service in the church building. Instead, we have since been gathering in the community room attached to one of the nearby tower blocks. But it’s not just a matter of geography. We haven’t moved our Sunday service of Anglican liturgical worship. We’ve ended it.

The time for the intentionally Christian community’s worship is now on a Tuesday evening as part of our home group. Each week we share a meal, a Eucharist and prayer and engagement with the Bible in my home.

On Sundays, now, between 10 a.m. and midday, we open what we’re calling the Sunday Sanctuary.

We provide breakfast and refreshments all morning and some sort of craft-based activity. Alongside that, there’s one or two light, reflective activities on offer. We’ve been describing it as a family drop-in in the publicity material. Is that what it’s been?

In the first week, six people we hadn’t met before came: a brother and sister, a child who came with one of our members who lives in the block, and three young teenage boys. So all of our guests were children, without their parents. This isn’t what we were aiming for but it is, to a degree, what we expected. We have tried to avoid becoming a child-minding service by insisting that children below secondary school age should be accompanied by a parent, another adult or an older sibling.

In the second week, we had nine guests, three of whom we had seen the week before. The brother and sister returned and brought their younger brother with them. One of the teenage boys from last week returned and brought a friend with him. One of our members who lives in the block brought a different child with them this week and in the second half of the morning a mum and her two children joined us. I hope, dear reader, you can understand that when I say that we were encouraged by the presence of this family (at our family drop-in) it doesn’t reflect any sense of disappointment with, or devaluing of, our other guests. We have been encouraged and pleased to meet, serve and share with all those we’ve met. But meeting this family this week has suggested that our ‘model’ might just work; it might be the right one.

Already, we have experienced a steep learning curve. I anticipate that our Tuesday night gatherings will include some lively conversations from now on. The first surprise was that people are staying all morning. In fact this week, we had a job on our hands dissuading two people from coming in before we opened at 10. That job lasted for nearly 50 minutes. We had been working on the assumption that people might come for 30 or 45 minutes and then go. One or two craft activities can sustain that but not if people are there for 2 hours. So we are rapidly having to think about creating a broader range of things for people to do. This requires more work from us, which presents its own challenge for a community where there is not an evenness of either commitment or capacity.

Some of those we’re engaging with have somewhat chaotic lives. Just being able to provide some decent nutrition and some positive adult contact and attention is more, I suspect than some are regularly getting. That all presents its own challenges, as I’m sure you can imagine.

There are so many sensitivities here that it’s difficult to say too much more. It might sound as if all these reflections are practical, rather than spiritual. But at the forefront of our minds is the need to ensure that all we do is intentionally spiritual. It would be easy in lots of ways to respond to our challenges by resorting to entertainment. Just (as we’re frequently asked) to get the pool table and other games out. But we aren’t a youth club or a kids’ club. We’re a church operating a family drop in. We’re not about forcing anything on anyone. Everything is optional. But everything we offer comes from who we are.

That’s the unique contribution we bring: ourselves and our faith. That’s not an imposition, I believe, it’s a positive gift. It motivates us to love each and every person and to believe in everyone we meet. Other people find different motivations and end up in the same place. But this is our motivation. So faith has a positive contribution to make to the extent that it provokes us as a community to draw alongside people living in this difficult locality.

But I’m also excited about the positive contribution that finding faith can make for each person we meet. Faith brings positive transformation. What I’m trying to say is that if people discover faith for themselves through this, that is an outcome I would celebrate. (I think it’s at least as likely that those of us who consider ourselves to have faith already will rediscover faith.)

The difference between what we’re doing here and a regular church service is that we’re not expecting people to come to us and do what we do without space for question or doubt or just exploration in conversation. The activities we offer share some of the things that we have found meaningful. They invite others to imaginatively enter into that world of meaning — to ‘try it on for size’. But we will always respect people’s freedom and if people find themselves taking a different point of view, it will not affect our welcome of them.