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.