11 02 2010

As we considered embarking on our great venture of creating the Sunday Sanctuary, there was one concern that was the most persistently expressed: ‘how are we going to be sustained in our faith?’

In response, I had relayed the experience of people who had been part of the Friday Fridge — a mission project I was involved in establishing four years ago. A number of people consistently report that they have grown in their faith through their involvement on Friday nights more than through any other part of their involvement in church. I encouraged people to expect that being part of the Sunday Sanctuary would give them a similar experience. That hasn’t so far been entirely borne out.

What I had perhaps forgotten or maybe even glossed over (as much with myself as anyone else) was that the people involved in the Fridge had not had to give up any other part of their church participation to get involved. They still got their ‘fix’ on a Sunday of those things — whether it was singing, prayer, teaching or whatever — that helped them feel… well whatever it did make them feel… encouraged? refreshed? sustained? renewed?

For my companions in this new enterprise, they have given up Sunday morning as a place to receive; to find an oasis of prayerful calm. Instead Sunday morning has become a time of sacrifice; of giving out for the sake of others.

I think the thing that may be particularly hard is that people are not bearing the weight of this effort equally. There is (inevitably?) a range of levels of commitment. What’s harder, perhaps, is that where people are on the range is not entirely related to capacity or to perceptions of capacity.

In trying to offer spiritual and pastoral care to this group, I am walking a very fine line between trying to give space to those who might well grow into this missionary endeavour while at the same time protecting others from burnout or frustration.

I had hoped that our Tuesday night gatherings would offer enough to sustain us in our communal spiritual life. It’s becoming more apparent that as I am currently structuring them, they are not entirely. The question is: can they ever? Or will Sunday mornings need to offer more to the explicitly Christian community in order to sustain us in our faith and participation in mission?

Which brings me to the group I feel the most protective of: those new people — residents of the tower block in which we are now located — who have been coming week after week to share in the activities we’ve been offering.

I don’t want to rush them into doing stuff they’re not ready for because that stuff is what the ‘core community’ need to be doing. In my thinking the needs of ‘outsiders’ always come first. Because it seems to me that’s who Jesus is interested in. And maybe the Church is meant to be, as I’ve heard Pete Rollins describe it, the community of outsiders.

I’m running the risk here of painting this little Christian community in a light that might make them appear selfish. I think that would be grossly unfair. I am not expected as an individual Christian priest to spend myself utterly for the sake of others. Quite the opposite, I am encouraged, nay required, to have a lively prayer life that encourages, sustains, refreshes and renews me in my ministry. That requires that my first priority is to set time aside essentially for myself and my own spiritual health. I need to have deep wells to draw on. Every individual human being needs the same. But that requirement of a Christian priest is not just for me as an individual but is meant to make present the priestly ministry of the whole people of God. Together we are to be formed, encouraged, sustained, refreshed and renewed in prayer for our common participation in mission.

And if I’m completely honest, I know that I’m also just a little bit driven by a perverse desire to be ‘radical’. I am probably a little too conscious of my own reputation as a pioneer of things funky and unchurchlike. Because maybe our new friends would not find it so odd or difficult if this began to look a bit more like something more easily recognised as ‘church’ through the most superficial of indicators.

I always allow myself a little scoff when I hear the stories of things calling themselves ‘fresh expressions of church’ that still involve singing or preaching or other such churchy bunk. Pah! I say! We’ll none of that. We are mission-shaped not worship-shaped. But maybe people wouldn’t find it so awful to sing the odd song or listen to the odd talky bit. [Shock, horror: we have done this a little already — we’ve even had *gasp* the odd prayer or two.] We probably just need to ask the families who’ve joined us instead of trying to second guess them all the time.

So that’s my dilemma. That’s what’s keeping me from my sleep tonight (this morning now actually). But fortunately I don’t have to resolve it on my own. I have an excellent colleague to share it all with. And then there’s the community itself. It’s our issue together. We will engage in frank conversation about how we are finding it alongside some searching prayer. And try to find a way forward together for Tuesdays and Sundays that will keep ‘us’ alive. That might seem like we are putting the needs of those among whom we are working second — that’s an obvious and inescapable implication of how I am framing this — but it’s equally true that if this community collapses under the strain then we’ll have nothing at all to offer our new friends.

This is all beyond me, of course. But thank God there is prayer. Not that I think it will all be just dandy in a minute if I pray about it. But dandy or otherwise prayer offers the gift of peace — the peace that comes from knowing I don’t have to make it work at all costs. I can fail or I can succeed. And fail or succeed: all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

Of regeneration and resurrection.

6 01 2010

Tonight, with my sons, I re-watched David Tennant’s last ever(?) outing as the Doctor. I’m never quite sure whether it’s great telly or utter twoddle. Maybe it’s both.

This was the first time though, as many other commentators have said, that the Doctor has approached his regeneration as a kind of death. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Russell T Davies’ writing is intelligent — this is light entertainment after all — but this was certainly a new spin on a familiar event in the ‘Whoniverse’ and it got me thinking.

It took me back to some significant conversations on the subject of what might follow this life.

It’s less common these days to encounter people who would answer that question: ‘nothing’. There are all kinds of weird and wacky ideas out there. I sometimes feel I have more sympathy with those who have the integrity and directness to give the ‘nothing’ answer.

It was interesting recently to deal with a funeral where for one close relation that clearly was their answer. I am a Christian priest and so I will always want to talk about the hope of resurrection, but I wanted to do so sensitively in a way that recognised rather than obliterated this relative’s conviction. People often talk about how the loved one will ‘live on’ in the memories of those left behind and in particular in the way they have been influenced and shaped by their lost loved one. At this funeral, I said that would be enough for some or all they could honestly believe but that just for one moment I wanted to invite them to imagine the possibility of something more real and tangible — that there is some sort of real life beyond what we experience now. On the other hand, I always want to gently resist that desire to say (quoting a poem actually penned by a clergyman) ‘death is nothing at all’.

It might seem strange for a character that can cheat death and be ‘reborn’ after a fatal injury to be afraid of that process. But though his next incarnation will still be able to say ‘it’s me’, it won’t be this me. It won’t be exactly the same ‘me’ that is contemplating his end. It will be a new form that remembers exactly what it was like to be each of his previous incarnations but there is still a sense in which the tenth Doctor ceased to be. That thinking entity met its end. A new one came to be. There was a sense or continuity but only after a real ending; a real dying.

I think this has some resonance with the Christian idea of resurrection. This has often been confused with ideas of an eternal soul or spirit.

Jesus (according to the Authorised Version of the Bible) does say: ‘For what is a man (sic) profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?’ Indeed throughout the Bible the words ‘soul’ and ‘spirit’ appear. But I’m very doubtful whether when speaking in Hebrew or Aramaic, Jesus or anyone else had in mind the wafty ‘ghost in the machine’ suggested by those English words. There’s no sense I think in the Hebrew tradition of a person’s being ending up in some way detached from their physical existence. That’s not what resurrection is about. I don’t think Jesus would recognise what all those hellfire preachers were talking about when they asked people about the destiny of their eternal soul.

So I guess I’m of the monist persuasion when it comes to Christian anthropology. We are holistic, embodied beings. That’s my best guess anyway — what do I know really?! I don’t think that who I essentially am can be sensibly distinguished from the physical stuff of my presence in this world. I think that’s more biblically authentic and more readily reconciled with what neuroscience tells us about ourselves. The clincher for me is that the personality of brain injury patients can change so radically that they seem to be a wholly different person. If there’s some whispy stuff that is the real repository of our essential self, what could we realistically say is contained there? Nothing that makes any sense in terms of how we human beings relate to each other. And if our essential being utterly transcends how human beings experience each other and relate to each other then any disembodied continuance of that essence would be so strange as to render it incomprehensible to what we are now. It wouldn’t evade the continuity question I pose below. One might ask how such an existence could be deemed human at all.

It seems to me that the idea of resurrection is about the re-embodiment of a previously embodied psyche — by which I mean an emergent property/pattern of the brain. To talk about a disembodied part of us that is untouched by death makes us immortal rather than mortal. So if we are instead a holistic embodied being then death really is an ending. We do truly die.

The horror of this is that I will end.

Socrates the Greek philosopher (a believer in the soul in its ghostly sense I think) approached his death calmly. Jesus the Hebrew faced his end in agonies of sadness.

Resurrection is about a re-embodiment. The thing that sometimes keeps me awake at night is that even if a new being comes to be that can remember exactly what it was like to be me, do I really go on? Is there experiential continuity? The Doctor saw an end of himself coming, even though a being called the Doctor would still exist in the Universe. That’s just a fiction of course. But I know how that character feels.

The thing that has offered some comfort has been to ask myself where the 5-year-old or 10-year-old or 15-year-old me has gone. There’s a real sense in which those children are gone from the world. My growth and learning has changed me so that the experiencing and thinking person I was at those ages does not exist anymore. And yet the sense of continuity with those people that I was is so strong that they are still alive within me. Maybe resurrection feels like that. Maybe the very different form that will exist eternally in the presence of God will be so profoundly identified with this me now that there will be a continuity with this experiencing self. But maybe in an even more beautiful way because it will not just be the ‘me’ as I am at the point of my death that is resurrected but the whole of me as I have been throughout space and time. That would truly be a much more profound existence than that offered by the regeneration of a Time Lord.

Nowhere to run to?

15 07 2009

418898_hiding_-_2Is there any place that’s just for ‘us’? That’s the issue I’m grappling with just now.

I’ve been asking the little congregation I’m with to effectively give up our Sunday gathering. Not to stop coming. I’m asking if we can do something else with the time together. I’m asking them to give it over to mission. Some are really up for it. Others are struggling to let go of something that has sustained them spiritually and that they have worked hard to sustain through some difficult times. I understand that.

But I think this is a push worth making for the sake of mission.

But maybe it was a step too far to ask those who were there at our Tuesday night gathering if they would be willing to give up those Tuesdays as we do them now in order to be part of something new in the week too. I had thought they’d be up for it. They really weren’t. And actually, though I was a little taken aback and disappointed then, I can empathise. Because this isn’t about hanging on to a worship style that suits. It’s been about building relationships and conversation that can really be safe space.

A number of us are, in one way or another, refugees from more conservative churches. A common thread that emerges in conversation is how often people didn’t feel able to be truly themselves. We have felt under pressure to say or do the expected thing. Where we have said what we really think, we have been made to feel, by well-meaning people, that it is not acceptable to either hold or express a particular viewpoint. We have managed to create in our Tuesday night gathering a place where people can be themselves; where they can be real and genuine without being slapped down with a quote from the Bible. That’s not to say there’s no Bible in our gathering. There is. It’s a partner in our dialogue. We find it embraces, encourages, challenges and frustrates us in equal measure. We don’t spend our time necessarily looking at a particular text, asking setup questions and then finding the answer where we’ve been told to look. Instead, we can draw on those parts of the Bible that have seeped deep into our souls and shaped us, as well as confronting and grappling with those parts that we find it harder to reconcile with our experience of life or our knowledge of the world. Our conversation is honest, compassionate and enlightening. We all grow and are fed through it. We’ve got something precious — space to be ourselves and to grow in faith and discipleship in a grown up and honest way.

The issue with conservatism is not conservative theology per se, but how some of us have experienced it. There would be plenty of space for a conservative viewpoint in our conversation as long as that viewpoint was expressed in a compassionate way that valued the relationships in the group above the ‘right’ view prevailing.

There’s not really a fear of engaging with people who wouldn’t consider themselves to be ‘christian’. In the experience of most of the members of the group, conversations about faith are often more real in this setting than in the churches we’ve known. The fear that was expressed was because my invitation was to be part of something else with some other christians we don’t yet know so well. People understandably were reluctant to risk a return to unreality or disapproval. And, given the relaxed, conversational feel of our gathering, they were reluctant to have to do something that felt very much more structured or formal or to have to do heavy Bible study as they’d experienced it in the past. There is also a feeling that if the intimacy of our small group is lost, we would find it hard to have the same quality or depth of conversation as we currently enjoy.

So I think all that is good. It’s encouraging to me that people value so much where we’ve got to as a group. What I find harder to reconcile is the potential exclusivity that might foster. We invite new people on our terms.

But actually is that so bad?
What are our terms?

  • Be real.
  • Don’t judge others.
  • Be compassionate in conversation.

These are not things, having achieved them to quite a degree, that we should recklessly give up. At the moment, this is a gathering that includes some people who don’t call themselves ‘christian’ or who are less certain about what that might mean for them. This offers a safe place for them to explore without any pressure. There is a growing sense of commitment, one to another. The challenge is how we can continue to reach out and be inclusive, perhaps to some who would find the views expressed at times difficult.

It has been helpful to me to consider the gospel for this coming Sunday as I’ve prepared to share my reflections on it on Sunday morning. In that episode, the apostles Jesus has sent out on mission come back excited but tired and hungry. Jesus invites them to come away with him – to find some space just to be with him. It doesn’t quite go to plan: they don’t even find the space to satisfy their hunger. But these twelve hungry men are the ones who serve bread and fish to the enormous crowd that gathers. And at the end, there are twelve baskets full of scraps left over. This suggests three things to me.

  1. Jesus does invite those who have responded most fully to his call to spend time alone with him. But…
  2. That time is snatched along the way – they get a bit of time in the boat with him before they’re right back in it. And…
  3. Their needs are met when they are stuck into mission; when they’re feeding the crowd, they get fed.

What does all that mean for us – this little group of pilgrims on the way? It suggests to me that I’m right to ask this bunch to give up Sunday for the sake of mission. And it suggests that they were right to refuse to give up Tuesday so that they preserve their special, intimate time away from the crowd: a place to share our stories and be with the one who calls and sends us.

Personal mission statement

10 03 2009

I’ve just got back from a weekend away with some members of the St Luke’s congregation. We had a mixed programme of sharing meals, simple acts of prayer and some sessions beginning to map the personal trajectories that have brought us together and the shared direction we might find for the future. Some of the material I prepared worked well, one or two bits didn’t work quite so well. That’s to be expected. But the most important outcome was that I think we had fun, got to know each other better and drew closer together as a result.

One of the sessions that my colleague, the Revd Alex Hughes (Priest-in-Charge of St Luke’s) ran was about preparing a personal mission statement. You can find the material here. Now generally speaking I’m not in favour of mission statements. Particularly for a parish church. I think it’s much better to work from a set of values and be open to all kinds of possibilities, not close them down. But on this occasion, as a personal exercise, it was a really inspiring. It helped me to clarify what I’m about.

Here’s what I ended up with:

My mission is to promote human flourishing by playfully and creatively encouraging the search for meaning, connectedness and community.

It’s a snapshot, or distillation, of where the conversations I’ve been having about working in other people’s space have taken me.

But what does it mean?

I hope ‘human flourishing’ might speak for itself. I believe in the unique and irreplaceable value and potential of every human being, no matter what limitations they face. To flourish we must each find a good degree of satisfaction at each level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This would include his late addition of the realm of ‘self-transcendence’ (what I would want to call spirituality). I think there’s a lot to be said for those critics of Maslow who find his hierarchy spurious whilst accepting the range of needs he described. In fact I often find myself saying to people that spirituality isn’t an add-on or something for the leisured and monied classes alone. It goes to the heart of our humanity. In other words, it’s not the thing you attend to once all the other ‘lower level’ needs have been met.

Our current economic and global situation suggests the reverse. Material abundance for many in the West has not led to human flourishing. Our spiritual poverty in comparison to much of the Global South is now evident. We must be careful of romanticising the Global South, of course. Its people suffer more than their fair share of violence and injustice.

A robust spiritiality can be seen to enable people to bear privations in some other areas of need. That doesn’t mean that it should anaesthetise people to their own suffering or that of others. (Marx called religion the opiate of the masses.) Quite the opposite. Spiritual flourishing will help people give voice to their suffering and to protest injustice and so inspire people to strive for peace, justice and well-being for all.

That’s implicit in that idea of ‘connectedness’. It us takes beyond seeing ourselves as an isolated individual, at odds with the world. It’s a recognition that our existence and worth is connected to other people, to the environment we share with other creatures and to ‘transcendent reality’. That’s what the theist calls God but something I think an atheist might recognise in their experience of awe and wonder in the face of the universe. An agnostic too will also recognise the experience of moments of connecting with something bigger than ourselves without wanting to be explicit about where the experience comes from.

‘Meaning’ is about finding a sense of personal and communal identity, worth and purpose. It’s about how we find and derive our values. I was talking today to someone responsible for the housing, care and education of socially excluded young people. I was suggesting to her that ‘spirituality’ is not peripheral for the young people she’s working with but that finding a sense of identity, purpose and worth is absolutely fundamental to their finding a place in the world as much as any practical skills they might need.

‘Community’ is perhaps already implicit in the other two words, especially ‘connectedness’. But it helps me to focus on the most important context in which that sense of connectedness can be realised. I don’t just mean community in terms of people in our locality but in the sense that we all need to find ourselves in a close-knit group. We are relational creatures. We need community. ‘Connectedness’ returns here as an important value if that close-knit group is not to become claustrophobic and tribal.

Those are all things that I believe are inherent in our common humanity but there are other drives and structures in the world that conspire to crush the human spirit.

It is therefore not irrelevant for there to be people who work to awaken and encourage each person’s latent spirituality. That’s what my faith motivates me to do and that’s very much my personal sense of vocation. I’m increasingly convinced that this search requires a significant degree of cognitive openness and imagination. That I see most evident in children and in the creative arts. Adults have then, so much to learn from the open, exploratory, learning and playful way that children approach the world. I want to work with children both to enable them to flourish as human beings in their own right but also because I have so much to learn from them for myself and on behalf of others.

So what. Why should you be interested in my personal mission statement?

I am a big old show off but even I feel a little embarrassed about parading my values in this public space. But this is about recording the process of discernment and that must surely include any developments in my personal sense of vocation. In fact I think it would be hard to separate the two. Writing my statement had been for me a moment of crystalisation of what I think I’m all about and so what I think my work might end up being all about.

Some Christian colleagues and friends reading this might find it a bit vague and woolly. It says nothing about wanting to preach the gospel or grow the Christian church. Partly that’s a result of finding myself increasingly drawn to arenas where proselytisation is expressly off the agenda. I don’t think the Church should withdraw from engaging in those public spaces — that’s what pioneer ministry is about (as is chaplaincy often too).

But have I completely given up on any desire that people would hear Jesus’s call to follow him and so become part of the community of his followers? No. But that doesn’t mean I have a covert agenda. It’s following Jesus that motivates me to work for human flourishing and spiritual awakening. I will not be hiding the fact that I’m a Christian priest. The resources I have to draw upon are the riches of the Christian spiritual tradition. And I can’t imagine (though this makes me think that I haven’t actually asked) that people responsible for the places I’m asking to work in would object to me honestly responding to questions about my own spirituality or even helping genuine enquirers to discover more.

I do think it can be a good thing to find Christian faith. I don’t think it automatically makes you a better human being. History tells a different story. But maybe that’s because Christianity hasn’t always been very true to Jesus, as the Church’s many casualties throughout the ages and today can testify…


13 02 2009

Well almost immediately after posting that last entry in the pub (via my iPhone), I was invited over by someone it turned out I had met before. (I was a welcome guest!) W had been on an Alpha course at St Jude’s (where I was curate). She was meeting her dad for lunch. It turned out that we had met before too, though completely independently of my knowing his daughter. We had a good chat about what I’m doing and what was going on for them. It was a gentle lead back into conversation for me. And it sort of helped me with a question I had in my mind as I walked to the pub.

When I had been doing some research in preparation for the Friday Fridge, I had gone into one or two of the pubs in Southsea wearing a dog collar. Then too I had invited myself into other people’s conversations. But I had also experienced being approached by others. Normally the conversation began with someone asking: ‘Are you a real vicar?’ (To which the technically correct answer would have been no, I was assistant curate. But what people meant was, ‘Are you a real church bod?’, not, ‘Are you really the incumbent of a Church of England parish, enjoying the right of Freehold to the Living of the Parish?!’) Now that was at a different time of day and in a different place. Lunchtime drinking is generally a more gentle and restrained affair than in the nighttime. People are probably more reserved during the day than when they are a little more ‘refreshed’ in the evening. But I wondered whether hanging around might lead to people asking me who I am and what the hell I think I’m doing! Well not quite, but it did remind me that building relationships with people is what it’s all about. I must state again that there’s no instrumentality in that. I’m not building relationships so that… Building relationships is what it’s all about.

After speaking with the people I found that I knew (a bit), I approached three people sitting together – G, C and L (one man and two women). We had a very interesting conversation. We shared some common experience as they were mature, part-time students and I have twice now been a mature, part-time student. (Actually now I come to think about it, I’m doing that a third time with my MA.) But we quickly got on to talking about my role and into a conversation about belief and how we shape our lives. Two of them had had negative experiences of church. G had recently left a new church, where he had for a time been a youth worker, because he found that church to be too judgemental. And C had devout family members, including a mother who had at one time been in a religious order. L was currently attending a church with her children.

I reflected on my experience that conversations about the deep questions of life are often of a better quality outside church settings because people don’t have the sense that they knew what answers they are supposed to give. Often, my experience of church is that there is a lack of honesty. People feel constrained to say the right thing, rather than what they really think. This was a reflection that was expressed at a clergy and church worker gathering I attended in October last year.

G expressed skepticism that I didn’t have an agenda. My agenda he suspected was to convert people and get them into my church. I understand why he felt that way. In fact, as he said, he had had that agenda when he had been a church youth worker in the past. I told them that I honestly don’t have that agenda.

I wonder if that worries some of you who are from a church and are reading this. I’ve thought about it since yesterday and I think I can honestly stand by that statement, as far as it relates to my role as city centre pioneer minister: I don’t have an agenda to convert people and get them into my church. Even in relation to my role as associate priest of St Luke’s, I’m much more interested in getting the church out among the people than in getting the people into the church – especially if church means the building. I would like to see the Christian community grow but not through presenting people with a bald choice and pressurising them to jump one way.

As I’ve said before on this blog, I want people to hear the invitation of Jesus to follow him. But I’m really not interested in trying to tell them what to think. I can’t convert anyone. If God is real (sorry if that ‘if’ offends – but that’s not a closed case for everyone reading this) – if God is real – then it’s up to God to reveal God’s self to people. I think I’m invited to be part of that process of revelation but not through beating people over the head with what I think! It’s much more about what sort of person my faith makes me. Who I am is more important than what I say. If my words badger and berate, then people don’t encounter the loving invitation of God through me. If my words, my manner and my whole being express a depth of respect, love and dignity, then maybe they will begin to wonder at what it is that makes me that way. (That’s a big if for a flawed human being!) But I am released and relaxed by the thought that it’s not my job to make anyone believe in God. It’s up to each person to make their own mind up. And as I’ve said, I don’t think belief is nearly as important as how we choose to shape our lives. I want to live my life as if God is real (mostly I fail) and quite a lot of the time I have a strong sense that God is. I think it can be a positive and transformative thing for an individual to live as if God is real; for themselves and more importantly, for the rest of the world.

I say ‘can’ because it rather depends on what you think God is like. Basically I’m with Adrian Plass: ‘God’s nice and he likes me’. (Though I would have  preferred it if Adrian hadn’t used a gendered pronoun!) I don‘t think convincing people by force of argument leads them into a living relationship with God. I’m fairly convinced that if I try to force or push a response it does nothing other than turn people off.

When I asked those people whether this couldn’t be church (‘this’ being the conversation we were having in the pub) C asked if people wouldn’t need to believe in God for that to be so. I said I didn’t think so.

It wasn’t a question that Jesus ever seemed to worry about. That’s of course because almost everyone he spoke with, did believe in God. But he didn’t seem that hung up on doctrine. He had the odd theological run in with people, like with the Sadducees when he challenged their denial of the possibility of a general resurrection, but mostly he was concerned about people’s faithfulness being expressed in mercy, love and inclusion. Following him didn’t mean saying a creed. It meant laying down your life for your friends.

So I think it would be entirely possible for an emerging community in the pub that was exploring the questions of meaning together to be *church* without all of that community’s members being able to say that they believed in God. In fact for one member of that conversational group, the church she attends does feel like a safe place to be as someon uncertain of God’s reality. I didn’t get the impression that there was open conversation in that setting, but at least she didn’t feel pressured to become something she’s not.

If that all sounds vague and woolly, well probably you’re right. But again, if God is real, God can bring something out of that conversation. And I do bring something to the table. It’s not being the one with all the answers. As I said to G,C and L, I don’t think I’ve got what they need, any more than they’ve got what I need. I think it’s the space between us and within our conversation that’s really interesting. That’s the thing that offers an opportunity for us all to grow. What I bring comes back to something I said in response to a comment on a previous post: a willingness to open up a space for dialogue that is not bound by the niceties of being in church. I also think I bring a deep engagement with the story of Jesus as the church tells and experiences it. Through living that story, I have found a depth of personal encounter with *God* experienced as ‘immanent transcendence’: the Something-Bigger-Than-Ourselves-or-This-World encountered in real, everyday life – through wonder, joy, suffering, beauty, hope and human relationships and community.

That conversation yesterday was a very inspiring and exciting encounter. The parting comment from the little group I spoke with was, ‘We’re here most Thursdays.’ It suggested that they were not averse to continuing the conversation. It raised for me the possibility that yes, this pub or another like it, could be a place where *church* could begin to happen. Not as we know it Jim, but still in a fragile and emerging way, church. Let us boldly go…

Fleeting moments

12 02 2009

So here I am in the Fleet once again. Your ace reporter is on the scene bringing you the latest from this popular pub in the Guildhall Square.

Actually it seems more popular today (Thursday 12th February 2009) than it did yesterday. Way back then, the afternoon was quieter. Yesterday, I just sat and looked and worked on some stuff for Sunday. Most of the groups around the pub were sat together a bit defensively. What I mean by that is that there was no way to join them without invading their personal/group space. To an extent of course I will inevitably invade a group’s space whenever I invite myself into their conversation (shades of Jesus with Zacchaeus?). But I am nervous enough of approaching people without the need to push my way into a group whose circle is closed. I’m not prepared to do that.

It’s that thing about being a guest again.

Jesus was not always a polite guest (I’m looking as someone used to English manners, not first century Jewish ones). He could be quite direct with his hosts (Lk 7.44-47) but not because he had no regard for etiquette. He just gave a much higher priority to real love and compassion than any social pretense.

This whole issue of being a guest is becoming more and more prominent in my own thinking. I think it might be the defining characteristic of pioneer ministry if not mission in general. We spoke about it at the St Luke’s home group this week. I was recalling the story of the 12 and the 72 being sent out. Barbara (my wife) pointed out that it’s central to Jesus’s ministry as he is so often the guest of others. I’ve said that on this blog before but the thing that Barbara reminded me about was that Jesus was a guest when he was born as Luke relates it. According to that story, he was born in a borrowed room that wasn’t his family’s normal home; probably not a stable, but the ground floor room in a house where the household animals are sheltered overnight. That the family, including a heavily pregnant young girl, had to stay in that part of the house suggests to me that they weren’t honoured guests. They were unwelcome.

This might require a massive reorientation in our thinking. We have tended to approach mission in attractional ways. [No scoop there, ace!] We have focused on our buildings. It’s been about filling a space where we are the host but, though ‘foxes have dens, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man doesn’t have a place to call his own’ (Lk 9.58). The Incarnation is about the One through whom all things were created, being a (mostly unwelcome) guest in Creation.

Maybe being involved in God’s mission, following Jesus to where he is today, by his Spirit, means being an unwelcome guest in other people’s spaces. All of which does nothing to ease my nerves or reluctance to speak to people!

But here goes…

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 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.

Future Church with Mike Frost

23 01 2009

The first thing I did after being licensed to my new post was to go to that other city down the road to hear an Aussie bloke called Mike Frost talking about missional church. He was an inspiring and engaging speaker. He was obviously on top of his material. He spoke without notes.

Max is missing
The first of three sessions was in the evening of Friday 3rd October. He told the story of how he had a life-changing experience of engaging in mission in a biker’s pub in Elizabeth; a tough area near Adelaide. Mike was working as an evangelist and was invited to accompany somebody he met at a conference to come and see what he was doing at the Rose and Crown Hotel. It didn’t seem very cutting edge at first. A bad gospel song accompanied by some very ripe jeering from the audience, followed by a talk which Mike was asked to give, also accompanied by jeering. Then Mike asked if anyone wanted him to pray for anyone. This huge tattooed biker called Max asked him to pray for the lads (soldiers) in East Timor. Then Mike and the man who’d asked him along sat at the bar. The man than asked everyone sat at the bar what question they’d ask God if they had the chance to ask just one.

When it came to Max’s turn, he said he would ask God: ‘Who am I?’

That story, even though it’s second hand, bore repeating I thought. Mike Frost used it to illustrate how people for whom church is ‘the last cab off the rank’ were nonetheless engaged in a deep and profound spiritual quest. But it’s clear that in most of our churches, Max is missing.

What is church?
According to Mike Frost, there were four aspects of church life that were pretty much common to all protestant churches:

  1. worship
  2. community
  3. discipleship
  4. mission

The problem, according to Mike Frost, is that worship has become the central principle around which the others are organised. All our effort goes into keeping the church machine running. If we identify people with gifts we give them a job to do that’s about the worship gathering. The finances are all spent on sustaining the gathered worship. The machine becomes self-serving. Church planting has been about setting up a worship service and then inviting people to come along. Why are we surprised when they don’t? Or if they do, don’t they usually turn out to be Christians who are just fed up with their usual church and wanting to be part of something new?

What if mission was to be the organising principle?

That’s not just a question of re-ordering our common life because the wheels have come off (which I think they have) but because, as Mike Frost was saying, it’s, theologically speaking, the proper way to reflect the God we love, worship and serve.

Being ‘sent’ is fundamental to the nature of God. God sends God sends God, sends us. The Creator and source of all being ‘sends’ the divine nature in the generation of the One through whom Creation comes to be. That same One is sent as Redeemer. The Creator breathes out the Spirit who sustains and enlivens Creation. The Redeemer sends the enlivening Spirit out to fill the people God has called to participate in the work of Redemption. The Spirit sends those same people out in mission. Sending and ‘sent-ness’ pervades the whole economy of creation and salvation.

So what does it look like if mission is the principle around which everything else is organised?

It looks like Jesus!

Where is Jesus? On the street. With the outsiders, the poor, the irreligious. He breaks down the separation between the holy and the material; the sacred and the stuff of everyday life. He takes the holy water set aside for worship – for ritual washing – and turns it into wine for a party. 17 barrells of it! What would most churches do if that happened now?

This sort of re-ordering will challenge us to decide whether we want to be missionaries or members of the audience. Will we be part of God’s move in the world or consumers of religious goods and services.

If mission bceomes the organising principle then we’ll worship as we go – celebrating as we find grace at work among the people to whom we’re sent and mourning their loss with them. We’ll become disciples in the same way the first disciples of Jesus did: watching him at work among the crowd. And we’ll enjoy the deep fellowship of those who share in an ordeal – the life of ‘communitas’.

Waterskiing church
Mike Frost told several stories to illustrate what this might look like. One that stuck in my mind was of a man who gave up going to a ‘normal’ church on a Sunday and invited his friends to go waterskiing with him.

The first time they went he said that they’d be sharing a really good time together and that as he’d been brought up to say ‘grace’ before enjoying a good meal they ought to say grace before they enjoyed what they were about to receive. His friends looked a bit taken aback but they went along with it. Then he said that as they were praying, they might as well see if there was anything else any of them wanted to pray about. After an awkward silence, one of them hesitantly said he was worried about his job. Another mentioned his sick grandma. So the bloke prays for his friend’s work situation and for the other fella’s grandma. And they get on the water and have a fantastic time skiing.

Next week, the same thing, except this time the man who was worried about his job, says how much better things are for him at work and the other fella says his grandma has improved. Now here’s the bit in the story as I’m hearing it when I want to get clever. I’ve never believed or experienced that prayer is as simple or straightforward as that. I don’t think God is into delivering the shopping! But I decide to give Mike Frost a break and go with the story.

Anyway the story goes that more and more people come along, so that now there’s a couple of hundred each week. They’re baptising people in the river where they ski and sharing bread and wine at the picnic tables at the riverside.

My question about the understanding of prayer that story implies hasn’t gone away, but I think it would be fun to try it out, no? And the thing that really excites is that this story is about church happening where people are. It’s about worship and fellowship and discipleship flowing out of being part of God’s mission.

Fishing for people
One of the things that also really struck me was what Mike Frost said about Jesus calling those Galilean fishermen to become ‘fishers of people’. We tend to instantly imagine the individual on the riverbank with his rod and line. The questions then are about how do we bait our hook and how do we reel them in. He reminded us of what was right in front of our noses: Peter and Andrew, James and John didn’t fish like that. They used nets. And how did they spend their days? Not fishing at all. They spent very little time actually hawling in a catch. They spent the days cleaning and mending their nets.

Mike Frost suggested this as a very powerful image for the networks of relationships that Jesus was inviting his first disciples to invest their time in. Now I’m wary of any suggestion that we view our relationships in any instrumental way. We don’t make friends with people because we want to snare them in our net! But if we can see that as God working through us, as we are, who we are, where we are, I think it can be a powerful image.

It also reminds us that we don’t ever go alone. Fishing for these men was a collective activity. They shared the task and helped each other. None of them on their own would be strong enough to bring in the catch, they needed each other.

So we’re called to be missionaries but not solo missionaries.
We’re called to be missional communities.

Ringing the Bells
Mike Frost’s own missional community expresses its common identity through adopting a rule of life. It’s a much more monastic model that it is an ecclesial one. That’s something you pick up on again and again as you think about missional communities and the emerging church.

For Small Boat, Big Sea, the simple rhythm they adopt is captured in the acronym ‘B-E-L-L-S’ which stands for:


There are more details here.

It looks to me to be very much a reflection of the first Christian community’s life as recorded by the writer of Acts in 2.42-47. I think this could be a really fruitful way forward for the congregation of St Luke’s and for any other missional community that emerges as I work in the city centre.

I haven’t here being particularly critical of Mike Frost’s thesis. That’s mainly because I find it so convincing and it chimes so readily with my own emerging thinking on mission in the heart of Portsmouth. There are some questions to be answered though about what mission might be for. What’s the purpose of our being ‘sent’? What are we uniquely bringing to those to whom we are sent? What about the affirmation that you’ll find in every part of the church, whether high catholic or new church, that our ultimate human vocation is to worship God? Doesn’t that conflict with the primacy of mission that Frost’s/my approach calls for? Answers on a postcard, please…