The News: Church gets room at the inn for chat about faith

8 01 2010

Nice article about Sanctuary in the News today and comment in the leader column. The News is Portsmouth’s local newspaper. Now I know we’re not doing anything particularly earth shatteringly new here, but it’s nice to get some positive coverage.

Climate change vigilance

17 12 2009

Several weeks back, I was approached by the Diocesan Environmental Adviser to see if St Luke’s parish church could be used as a venue for one of a series of prayer vigils that were going to take place across the Diocese. These were timed to coincide with the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, meeting in Copenhagen. Andrew (for that is his name) was looking for a venue for a centre of Portsmouth vigil. I asked him whether he was aiming at just Anglican christians in the city or whether he wanted this to be something that could take in people across the spectrum of faiths or no faith. I suggested a gathering in the public space of the Guildhall Square in Portsmouth would offer a greater opportunity to connect with more people.

It was a steep learning curve for me in what you need to do to get an event approved by the city council’s events team. They were helpful and friendly at every turn, even if, after multiple requests for the same document, I was left wondering on occasion about their internal communication. Insurance requirements and available time also left us with a rather strange placement for the event.

In the end, after a week off sick, I ended up putting the event together in a very frantic day – the day of the vigil: Monday 14th December. The content of the event was as I had hoped it would be, though. In that regard, it was successful.

I created three stations. The first of which was a large map of the world which I chalked out on the pavement with some help from some of the first arrivals. Participants were invited to light a tealight in a glass jar and place it on the map. The guidance notes then invited them to pray this prayer (in its shorter form), written by Brian McClaren and Tim Costello. At one point, a member of the Cathedral chapter (at the request of some others) led some of those attending in this prayer.

The next station, invited people to take a ‘bauble’ – essentially a view of the earth from space, printed on card and trimmed to a circle – write a prayer or reflection on it and hang it on a ‘prayer tree’. The guide invited people to quietly say the words of the 104th psalm, either by themselves or with someone else. Some of the prayers I retrieved from this tree at the end included the following:

Dear Lord, we are making a mess of your world – please come and sort us out before we ruin your Creation. Thank you.

The first gift of Christmas was a child. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son to save the world. Help us to save the world for our children.

Only one earth.

Lord, save the rainforest in South America.

Let there be life on earth – and forever not spoilt by me.

Lord, yours is the world, and all that is in it.

Lord, let selfishness be overcome; may justice prevail, that the rich nations will help the poor so the world can be saved.

Father – give courage to our leaders and embolden them to take the right decisions.

The third and final station had materials for people to make a windmill and add it to our ‘windfarm’. The guide leaflet I had created invited people to use a kyrie confession from New Patterns for Worship:

We confess to you our lack of care for the world you have given us.
Lord, have mercy.

We confess to you our selfishness in not sharing the earth’s bounty fairly. Christ, have mercy.

We confess to you our failure to protect resources for others. Lord, have mercy.

Finally we offered those attending a cup of soup. There were three varieties, no less. Just as an aside, getting enough flasks to keep enough soup hot for enough people was quite a challenge!

It’s tempting to measure the success or otherwise of this in terms of numbers. We had about forty people on the night. On one level, it didn’t achieve what I had hoped it might. We didn’t create an event in which a big mix of people from within and without the church participated. I didn’t know everyone so I’m making assumptions about some, but I’m guessing that most of the people who came were from Anglican churches. We catered for 100 people. That is, we had enough individual items at each station, enough guide leaflets and enough soup for that many. So the turnout was on the face of it disappointing. I think that’s more down to how we marketed the event than any problem with the event itself. I think with a bit more media work we could have generated more interest and attendance.

And as it was, there were some really worthwhile encounters along the way that might have been difficult to make count in the same way with a bigger event. There was the small group of teenagers who made windmills right at the beginning and seemed fascinated to discover what was going on. There was the gentleman who wanted to light a candle to remember his wife whom he’d lost recently. There was the young mum who chatted for 45 minutes with my wife and a friend over a cup of soup. And there were the city wardens who enjoyed a cup of soup and a friendly chat for some time too.

And there was also the value of the event for those who did come. From the things they said, I think that value was real. It made a difference to those participating. It helped them to feel that they were making a difference. Not a huge one. We didn’t change the world. We just stood in solidarity with those who are the most affected by climate change, who are, as ever, the poor.

There were some strange inconsistencies about the event. There was the not insignificant amount of driving around that my wife and I did that day as we rushed from pillar to post to get everything ready. There was the waste of soup and the gas burned to heat it as we overcatered. Using polystyrene cups to serve the soup was not exactly environmentally friendly.  There was even something a bit incongruous about burning something (candles) as part of an event that was expressing concern about CO2 production. And there was the use of paper (that now needs to be recycled) to make the windmills.

But overall, I think this was a another step along the way of creating a presence in the centre of the city and that presence expressing the full range of the marks of mission. I learnt a lot doing it and will (hopefully) be better prepared for the next event and more able to maximise its impact for individuals and the life of the city as a whole.

In the midst of all that, I don’t want to lose sight of the difference it made to the people we encountered on that cold Monday night. I was shattered, but I slept a satisfied sleep. Not because I’d got everything right – far from it – but because I had the sense that it had made the right difference to the right people on this occasion, whatever I’d do differently next time.

How soon is now?

26 10 2009

themozmeisterIt was a disaster. Except that it wasn’t. I should have checked a bit more carefully. Should have been a bit more pushy. Should have made sure. Except that I didn’t.

The invitation to the opening never came and I never visited before tonight as I knew I should. So when I turned up tonight at 6:30 p.m. to the city centre pub I had been touting as the new home of my Sunday night conversation and found it more than a little closed, I wasn’t very much surprised. Disappointed, yes. Especially as this week I’d arranged for a thousand postcards to be printed advertising this as the venue for a conversation for spiritual people who don’t do church. Oh foolish boy. If only you’d checked.

So I hurriedly had to revert to my former venue. Posting a temporary notice at the advertised venue, I decamped to the Fleet. Only to find it was quiz night. Not a very conducive environment for ‘spirited conversation and skinny ritual’ as my postcards and event on Facebook had promised.

But still there I was. After one of those hugely enjoyable ‘are you a real priest?’ conversations with a group of quite inebriated young women, I found that four people I know had joined me. And, bless them, they really engaged with tonight’s topic: how soon is now?

Strangley (in)appropriate given Mozza’s recent poor health. But we began with the ‘skinny ritual’ that was in danger of fattening those who participated. A bowl full of large, dark, chocolate buttons. I invited my guests to eat one. I joined them. I commented on how we’d all munched them up quite quickly and then invited them to join me in just letting one melt in the mouth.

The point? I referred to the notion from the Christian Tradition of ‘the sacrament of the present moment’. We talked about how much our work and the education system pushes us ever onward; forces us to feel inadequate – underachieving. It was a cycle we all found hard to break and yet was ‘complemented’ in a strange way by a common capacity for distraction and idleness. Neither frenetic, pressured busyness nor indolent distractedness enabled any of us to be present to the here and now: something we all desired, especially as we’d all had little tastes of it from time to time.

We all reported moments of ‘flow’, when deeply engaged in an activity it had seemed that the flow of time had been suspended and we’d entered an eternal, deep present moment: like Fry’s state after 100 cups of coffee in Futurama. These moments were a rare treasure.

We touched on the scope for self-forgiveness and celebration of achievement over failure and the frustrations of unrealistic expectations – most especially those we placed on ourselves. Perhaps a key to this was the ability to see today – now – as a new moment of opportunity where past failures and future pressure was forgotten in favour of what we might achieve and be in the here and now.

It was deep man. And good. I enjoyed it. I hope those who came did too. I think it might have done exactly what it said on the tin.

Here are the discussion topics for the next few weeks:

  • Who wants to live forever?
  • Why does it always rain on me?
  • What’s going on?
  • Who’s in the house?
  • Is there something I should know?
  • Where is the love?
  • Wouldn’t it be good?

All I need now is the right venue…

Power to the people

9 06 2009

Inspired by a similar event in Liverpool, I sent out a whole bunch of requests for people to come and be part of a flashmob in the Guildhall Square in Portsmouth to mark Pentecost Sunday. I posted an event of Facebook and invited loads of people, I sent emails, I sent texts, I tweeted, I gave out little flyers. I got a lot of positive responses and interest. Actually signed up on Facebook? Eight people. Yes, count ’em. Eight.


As it was, on the night, 56 people turned out, took off their shoes and socks, gathered and sat in the shape of a cross, prayed silently for two minutes, sung a single note, lit candles and then dispersed – either to the pub or to their homes. If you want to see a video clip of the event, you can find it here. There are photographs here. The taking off of the shoes thing was to symbolise that we were on holy ground. God is everywhere. Where God is, is holy. So the Guildhall Square on a Sunday night is holy. The singing a single note thing was a way of symbolising the whole rushing wind vibe from the first Pentecost experience. The lighting candles thing was a way of representing the whole tongues of fire vibe from the first Pentecost experience. The going to the pub thing was a way of symbolising the whole ‘I quite fancy a pint afterwards anyone else want to join me’ vibe.

Funny thing was about thirty people did (want to join me for a pint) but my usual Sunday night haunt, the Fleet, was ‘at capacity’ that night and so we couldn’t go in. The one night in three I’ve actually got quite a big bunch of people with me and they turn us away. Oh well. Not to be frustrated we went to the Isambard Kingdom Brunel instead. Refreshment and conversation was much enjoyed all round.

I knew it wouldn’t be that busy in the Guildhall Square (apart from in the Fleet obviously!) This first time for a ‘guerrila worship’ event in the city was a way of dipping a toe in the water and seeing what it felt like as a group of people to gather together and do something beyond the safe confines of our usual church buildings. Broadly speaking, it was successful, I think. Several people found it quite a profound experience. The big screen showing BBC News 24 was a little distracting and I might encourage everyone to do what some had worked out for themselves beforehand (a candle lit outdoors is much less likely to go out if it’s in a jam jar). And of course with it not being that busy, we didn’t make a hugh impact on the night life of Portsmouth. But that’s for another occasion. Some people did have conversations with passers-by, including one I had with a very drunk young lady who insisted that Jesus loved her despite some offences that were such that if she had really committed them all it’s possible the abolition of the death penalty may have been temporarily revoked for her benefit. Actually as I said on BBC Radio Solent the next day – yes Radio Solent, that’s how cutting edge I am – it’s not about preaching to people, so conversations may not be so important as what my colleague has, somewhat pretentiously, called ripping a hole in people’s reality. That doesn’t sound at all friendly. But it can be if people’s reality has become unrelentingly mundane. This sort of unexpected event just breaks the monotony. Introduces the unexpected. Reminds us that life doesn’t always have to be predictable and boring. That strange and unusual things can happen. That we can have some fun occasionally.

So a big thank you to all those who came and to those who thought about it! Next time I think we’ll go for something a bit more high impact, at a busier time of day and not necessarily in that place. Watch this space. I feel like Citizen Smith. Does anyone else remember that series with Robert Lindsay? ‘Power to the people’.

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.

Hanging out

27 04 2009

Last night was the second week of hanging out in the Fleet on a Sunday evening. Last week, I met with one friend. I later heard that two others had looked for me, but hadn’t been in the right pub. I invited people to come via Facebook, email and face to face invitations. This week there were eleven people who joined me for beer and conversation. It was an interesting group. There was another anglican priest from Gosport; a baptist church planter from Leigh Park and his sister; a Friday Fridger who mainly attends one of the new churches in Southsea; a chap I’ve been having some informal conversations with about life and faith and a group from the St Jude’s evening service. (St Jude’s is where I served as curate between 2005 and 2008.)

The conversation was wide-ranging, relaxed and informal. I had wondered about suggesting a topic for conversation, but I thought this week, I’d just see what happened. The conversation was largely about mission, but it also took in questions about the range of styles of church (my colleague from Gosport is Anglo-Catholic). I can’t determine who will come and be part of the conversation (I wouldn’t want to) or where this might be headed, but I do have a sense that if there is to be a mission with the pub culture in the city centre, there needs to be a group of people who are making sense of faith in that setting. I don’t just want to draw in Christians I know, but to connect with some of the people already in the pub, but this might be a way to make a start – to begin a conversation that others could be drawn into.

So really I am just trying to hang out here, week after week, invite people to share in conversation and see what happens. Maybe nothing. Maybe something new will emerge. And maybe that something new might be the heart of some more adventurous mission in the city centre. Only time will tell.

Please do join me on a Sunday night if you’d like to share the journey with me. I think this Sunday, I’ll see what happens if I invite people to share in a conversation around ‘heaven and hell’. Why? Why not…

A doorkeeper in the house of the Lord

4 03 2009

Interesting time last night as our home group gathered to meet in the Fleet. One of our number had no ID and the door staff wouldn’t let him in. So after some unsuccessful attempts at persuasion, we decided to move on. That’s the second time, by the way, that I’ve offered to vouch for someone. Both times, unsurprisingly, the offer has been shrugged off. I have to laugh at myself – as if wearing a dog collar carries any sort of status. It was a bit pompous of me to imagine it might! Actually I’m a bit embarrassed that I even entertained the thought. Certainly I think it’s a marker for who I am and what I represent, but if I ever get to imagine that any privilege attaches to it, then I’m something else than a follower of Christ!

We ended up in a pub called the Trafalgar. We played the FAST game. Which was kind of funny, because, as one of our number commented, it looked a little bit like a Ouija board. In fact I’m sure someone going past commented to that effect. It worked well as a way of engaging with a story and drawing out significance for ourselves in a light-hearted way. A friend of one of our more regular members who joined us for the night joined in and really enjoyed taking part. It helped him to think about a serious issue in his life too.

So after a wobbly start (which included me having to abandon half a pint of Guinness – never a good thing), it was good night for the group. But it didn’t take us a lot further as far as our/my involvement with the Fleet.

Preparations for the church community’s weekend away have meant it’s been difficult to get out much more than this, though I did have a good chat over coffee with another church leader in the city. He’s well connected in the council. I was talking about running a two-week pilot before the summer break of a temporary chill-out space in the Guildhall Square. He was encouraging and thought it could be a flyer. I need to do some work now on putting a more concrete proposal together. I also emailed a housing officer about spending some time in one of the Somerstown tower blocks. I’m meeting with the SureStart people today to explore possibilities there.

The placements are coming together and I have maybe taken a step closer to finding a supervisor for my MA dissertation.

That’s all just a bit of a report on what’s been happening – which I know some of you are interested in, but I don’t have much deeper reflection to offer this morning. Too many late nights watching stuff on YouTube have mashed my brain.

Chaplain of the Fleet

4 02 2009

Yesterday was the first day of the couple of weeks I’m intending to spend in a city centre pub. I arrived at around midday and just took a walk down Guildhall walk, photographing all the pub/bar exteriors on my iPhone and thinking about where I would start.

I didn’t intend to try and get round them all but to chose one to focus on and spend the next fortnight in there. That in itself was a difficult call. Perhaps the way forward would have been to go on a crawl and then by the end I wouldn’t have cared.

But as I had in mind that I wanted to organise Beer and Hymns in a pub for Easter Day night, I could fairly easily rule out the Isambard Kingdom Brunel – a Weatherspoons pub as they don’t have music. I guessed that the clientele would be a little more transient than one of the others that might draw in a particular crowd. From the outset, my hunch was that the Fleet along King Henry I Street, next door to Weatherspoons would be a good bet so I went with my hunch.

I wandered in, bought a drink at the bar, chatted to the barmaid a bit and then bought a sandwich and sat down at a table next to a group of lads. I thought about approaching them and initiating a conversation but it was my intention to start my time there engaged in ‘surveillance’. I’m following the process used by the Church on the Edge project, and I guess familiar to people trained in detached youth work.

One of the project leaders, Richard Passmore, describes the stages on his blog.

Basically, you start with observing a wide area to identify where you want to begin. That can take quite a long time and I’ve shortcut that massively, but I do only have two weeks (and even then it’s an interrupted two weeks). So I haven’t – as one might if following this process more fully – gone into every pub. But I thought it would be important before diving in to spend my first day observing the life in the pub over the sort of period I’m likely to be there each day. I’ll be missing another whole part of its life – the night. Given my last post, you might have thought this is where I’d want to start, but these are just tasters really and I wanted to make this manageable.

The people I saw during the day were overwhelmingly young. They came in pairs, small groups and occasionally large groups. They appeared to be students in the main and bar staff confirmed that impression. There were some others too. Lone older drinkers, middle-aged couples and other young people who I’m guessing were not students.

People generally stayed for quite a long time. It looked to me as if I would be hard, not to say rude, to break into the groups of people as their conversation was animated. These were groups of friends having a good time together – why would they want to speak to a vicar? (Even if he does have ripped jeans and spiky hair.)

The only way to find out will be to try. That’s what I’ll be doing tomorrow.

I spent quite a lot of time just supping and looking (nice work if you can get it!). That was quite hard actually. It doesn’t feel like especially productive time, when I’ve been used to recently ‘getting things done’. And I wondered how people might feel about the presence of this lone cleric just hanging around. People did look at me inquisitively on occasion and I just caught hints of conversation that suggested people were intrigued. I didn’t get the feeling that people were especially creeped out by my being there.

I did have some conversations. I said a hello to a lone drinker who I’ll call ‘J’. I chatted to the busy bar staff when I could and managed to have a bit of a longer conversation with the shift manager. I asked him about the possibility of a Beer and Hymns night and he seemed up for it. He was also very relaxed about me hanging around for the next couple of weeks and initiating conversations with people.

So I’m good to go. I’ll keep you posted on what happens!

The Fleet from King Henry I Street 

The Fleet from King Henry I Street

The Fleet entrance from Spring Gardens

The Fleet entrance from Spring Gardens

30 p.m.

Inside the Fleet at about 3:30 p.m.

One trick? Pony.

30 01 2009

I’ve got a process I’m setting in place. I’ve got a plan. The periods I’ll spend immersed in each mission context give me a chance to ground my discernment in some real engagement and experience. (By the way, when I say ‘my discernment’ I don’t mean it’s just me. I will involve a whole range of people.) I don’t want to shortcut that process but there have been some tantalising nudges so far.

One of the biggest is the express desire of the Portsmouth Street Pastors co-ordinator to link up with another project that would provide a refuge/safe space for people they encounter in the Guildhall Square in the late/early hours of a Friday and Saturday. It’s one of the possibilities I saw straight away. Linking up with an existing and well known enterprise such as Street Pastors could shortcut a lot of the inevitably time-consuming work with city ‘gatekeepers’.

I think the model that Street Pastors have in mind is the Friday Fridge. It’s a model that would maybe work really well if it was recontextualised for the Guildhall Square pub culture – an area which is quite different from Southsea’s own pub culture. (Though I suspect one would meet a number of the same individuals.)

If you’re reading this and thinking ‘Friday Fridge… qué?’, first of all well done for reading a blog in English rather than your native Spanish. Secondly, Manuel, let me explain…

The Fridge was a mission project I helped get off the ground in the neighbouring parish of St Jude while I was curate. Basically some of the side rooms in the church building are temporarily redecorated with drapes, low lighting, funky furniture, screens, projectors and the like every Friday night between 22:30 and 01:30. This creates different zones: a Café, a quiet area and what’s called the encounter zone. This is basically sacred space with contemporary prayer/reflection stations. The chilled out Café serves hot drinks and bacon sarnies and most importantly, a chance to share in conversation with people who won’t judge you or try to evangelise you but will be genuinely interested in your story and offer what care they can out of their Christian commitment and experience. The encounter zone is a place to do something more explicitly spiritual if people want to.

People out and about on a Friday night first encounter the Fridge on the street. There’s often a couple of people out there serving tea and hot chocolate and again, the all important conversation. That conversation often includes an invitation to visit the Fridge itself.

It’s been very positively received generally. People know about it and think it’s an okay place to go and hang out.

A handful of other people (as well as myself and the Street Pastors co-ordinator) have independently [maybe – one never knows what conversations have taken place] identified it as a model that could be really effective and helpful in the Guildhall Square; including some of the people involved in the Fridge in Southsea.

I said from the outset of the conversations I had that led to this appointment that I didn’t want to just import a brand I’d devised into another setting. Because, 1. I didn’t devise the brand on my jack – it was a collaborative invention; and, 2. different contexts require different responses. The history of mission is littered with examples where a model of the Christian community has been imposed on a setting in a way that crushes the local culture and polarises the local people. Now there are sayings of Jesus (and stories about Paul) that suggest that the latter (polarisation) is an inevitable response to the gospel. But the whole point of the Incarnation is that God is found in the midst of culture. The kingdom breaks out among people, not wholly over against them. There is an internal critique of the prevailing culture but Jesus’s response to the indigenous culture (in which he lives) is not like Caesar’s. Basically I have wanted to avoid anything that smacked of colonialism.

I didn’t ask for this job just to peddle my product. I wanted to operate in a more sophisticated way than that. Funnily enough, I think I may have detected the tiniest bit of disappointment at that! I even heard of one parish expressing the desire that Fridge be set up in their patch too.

Back when I had a proper job, I was a graphic designer. So I have a background in corporate identity and small-scale branding. So in one way, developing and exporting a brand is something I’m quite well positioned to do. And brands aren’t always a bad thing. Street Pastors is itself a brand. Brands build awareness and understanding if they’re used well. Think how much easier it is to get street ministry going in urban areas both for the churches and secular authorities. I’ve even seen fresh expressions ‘brands’ developed in this diocese (Portsmouth) too – I’m thinking of Messy Church. The danger is when buying into a brand shortcuts the really hard contextual exploration that needs to be done before discerning the christian community’s particular vocation in any setting. 

There’s another part of me that’s also wary of getting a reputation as being a one trick pony. Now actually if the thing I’ve already been involved in would be the most appropriate model for the city centre, I guess I’m going to have to get over it. What people think of me should be neither here nor there. But it does come into my thinking. I admit it. I’m human. I have an ego. So sue me! Actually I think if I did have only one trick, that would be pony. But it just may be these nudges turn out to be the Spirit’s gentle prompting. If that’s so, I will just have to get over myself and go with it. Just like I once asked the Bishop’s staff not to rule out the possibility that where I already was (St Jude’s) might be the best place for my curacy, so I’ll have to remain open to the possibility that what I’ve already been involved in might be the best model for where I am now.

The point is that despite the tantalising suggestions, there really is no other way to discern what the vocation is for the city centre than listening, through prayer, through study, through conversation and through immersing myself in the place. I really don’t want to be a one trick pony. But I have to let that one trick be a runner. It might just be the winner at the end.

A man with a plan

23 01 2009

So one of the great things about having a close colleague is that they just from time to time prompt you, in the nicest possible way to get on with it. Alex and I were having an extended meeting the other day where we were going to talk about where the pioneer stuff was headed. Preparing for that meeting just made me get my head around what I am going to do.

So here’s the plan.

Over the next six months I’ll spend the best part of two or three weeks in each month immersing myself in one of the potential mission contexts I have begun to identify. None of the arrangements are fixed yet, but I reckon these will be

  • one of the pubs in the Guildhall Square area
  • the Guildhall Square itself
  • one of the substantial tower blocks in the Northern half of Somerstown
  • A Somerstown primary School
  • A Somerstown secondary School
  • an area that includes a Surestart centre,
    a community café and a community arts centre.

There are other areas, such as the train station, the law courts and the police station that might also be interesting to explore, but I have had to make some choices. So I’ve gone for the places where it looks like there’s scope to grow a community.

After my time in each place I’ll take a quiet day retreat and then have a long chat with Alex about what I’ve found. I’ll record some of my thoughts on here too (as much as confidentiality will allow) so that perhaps this blog too can be part of discerning the vocation.

I’ll be speaking with others too – cluster and deanery colleagues, leaders of other churches, those working in secular organisations – later in the Spring and early Summer. This will all form the basis of my MA dissertation, so I hope I can keep some academic depth and rigour in the discernment process.

I will then look for a more sustained immersion in the Autumn in whichever of the potential mission contexts emerges from the early discernment period as the most likely to correspond to God’s calling for me and others with me in the next few years.

Sound okay to you? Well I’m going to go for it! I’ll keep you posted on what happens.