Sursum corda

5 01 2010

With my colleague’s permission, I’ve posted a copy of a brief email exchange we had over the liturgy for Christmas Day. As we had no Christmas Day service in the Sunday Sanctuary, I was presiding at St Peter’s. We were discussing the opening lines to the Eucharistic Prayer, known as the sursum corda. It is optional in Common Worship, the Church of England’s authorised liturgy whether to start with either:

  • ‘The Lord is here’, to which all respond: ‘His Spirit is with us’; or:
  • ‘The Lord be with you’, to which all respond: ‘And also with you’.

Here’s wot I writ:

I’ve generally preferred ‘The Lord is here’ because I’ve wondered whether the repetition of ‘the Lord be with you/and also with you’ through more catholic liturgy that I’ve experienced doesn’t focus attention on the priest and the people responding to her/him rather than on God and her presence with us. Any thoughts?

Alex responded:

With a catholic theology of the sacrament, to say ‘The Lord is here…’ immediately before the prayer of consecration seems a little previous…! That’s why I guess Protestants prefer to score the opposite point by saying that the ‘Lord is [already] here’, because they think that nothing actually happens to the elements in the eucharistic prayer (there is no ‘consecration’). Though of course all agree that the Lord is here always.

I think for me ‘The Lord be with you’, usually used at the start of the mass, before the reading of the Gospel, before the Eucharistic Prayer, and before the blessing, has an almost contractual – or better ‘covenental’ – function in establishing that the Lord is present in the whole community of God’s priestly people gathered for worship, but who collectively acknowledge the particular role of the ordained priest to preside on behalf of all in the Lord’s name. The ordained priest begins, as it were, by saying that the priesthood belongs to everybody, then everyone passes it back, so to speak.

Why should any of you reading this be interested in the finer points of Anglican liturgy. I guess if you are, you are and if not, then this isn’t going to set your heart-a-racing! And why am I posting this on a blog that puports to be about mission at the cutting edge? Well because that mission, as far as I am involved in it, is still Anglican mission. We can’t escape questions of liturgy, even if we’d like to. Personally, I wouldn’t like to (escape questions of liturgy). If anything they’re all the more pronounced when we’re outside the familiar territory. Because as much as I’m not in the business of fostering worship-shaped church, but mission-shaped church, that doesn’t mean there’s no worship!

Anyway, this little exchange helped me to understand the eucharist and priesthood from a more catholic perspective. Something I’ve explored quite a bit in my training but there‘s always more to learn. I’d welcome anybody else’s thoughts on this…

Getting all arty-farty

9 11 2009

anomie1The day I came back from the consultation in Salisbury, my colleague Alex and I went to see an avant garde theatre production at the New Theatre Royal in the centre of Portsmouth.

‘Anomie’ combined music, dance and video to weave together the narratives of alienated individuals living in an urban environment. It was presented by Precarious – a company from… actually I don’t know where they’re from. But they seem to have generated some interest at the Edinburgh festival with this one-act piece.

The first surprise was the theatre itself. Though Alex and I had spoken with the theatre director about our work in the city and explored possible connections, I hadn’t been before. I think it’s a great venue with a real intimate feel to it. It struck me as a place with a lot of potential, though I’m not sure I can say for what. I can just kind of imagine doing… stuff… there… I’ll let you know if anything more concrete occurs to me.

The second surprise was the performance itself. I really expected to like the mix of multimedia and dance. It was well done and imaginative but I think it was actually at its strongest when it was just the movement. And that applies to the speech in the piece too. The words reminded me of artist’s statements I’d heard – artists statements I’d written – at art college. Just trying a bit too hard to be meaningful. Again, the scenes where the movement was allowed to speak for itself were the strongest.

I think they’d invested quite a lot of effort in the intellectual content. There were layers of symbolism that I think I was supposed to engage with at a cerebral level. But trying to figure all that out got in the way. When I abandoned that mental effort and just allowed it to engage me at a more visceral level, I got much more into the performance. I think some of that content crept back in, but in a more subconscious way.

The narrative strands were drawn together in such a way at the end that I think I became more consciously aware of them retrospectively than I had been during the show. That struck me as an interesting metaphor for our own lives – individually and collectively. Do we only find narrative integrity in retrospect? Or is this something we can experience or expect along the way?

I would have liked to have seen it with my wife, Barbara. She’s less pretentious than me. I would have been interested to see whether she would have loved it or whether she would have thought it was all a bit affected. For me, it was both. I haven’t seen much dance in my time, but I think the human body in movement is one of the most profoundly poetic art forms. But there was a sense in which this was trying a bit too hard. It had the feel of a student piece that hadn’t been edited enough to find a pure and profound voice. A work in progress/development, rather than something finished. But then maybe that’s more appropriate for a postmodern audience. Maybe that gives the audience to be part of the performance, to continue to form and process the ideas-in-formation that we’ve encountered.

It has set me thinking about liturgy for postmodern worshippers/spiritual explorers. Alternative worship that I experienced or that I have been involved in creating has that sense of trying too hard, of throwing too much in, of words that are stretching for profundity. But maybe again, that’s okay, because in its failure and its self-indulgence it opens up a space for those engaging with it to find their own voice…

…or am I now trying too hard?! 😉

Alex suggested that my Sunday night conversations could be enriched if the people taking part were sharing experiences together in this sort of arts space. I have to say it set the juices a-flowing. Watch this space…

Surprised by joy (and chicken kebabs)

16 07 2009

1066287_barbecueTonight as I was preparing a meal, I experienced a moment of sheer joy and connectedness. What was going on? This was the second time that day I had cooked the same meal. Earlier, my kids, who had been moaning as they saw their herb-covered chicken kebabs going into the oven, actually tucked into what I finally lay before them and then followed it up by eating loads of fruit. I couldn’t quite believe it. My little junk food junkies were eating real food. And loving it. It’s like the usual order of the universe had been inverted for some short period. It was a real Doctor Who moment. (Doctor Who and not Torchwood because if it had been Torchwood they would probably have instantaneously combusted immediately after eating their healthy supper.)

So that was the first thing that contributed. Second, José González’s Heartbeats was playing on the CD player. I challenge anyone to feel bad listening to that track. But this was something more than just feeling good. This was a moment of being overtaken by joy. Not just happiness or contentment. Joy. What’s the difference? It wasn’t just about a happy feeling. It was about feeling that everything is connected and that everything is pure gift.

It hit me when I was chopping tomatoes for the salad that Barbara and I would share with our dinner guest – a colleague from Barbara’s school who is shortly to leave for a new job in Spain. So there was a sense of being able to provide for the people I love – first the kids and then Barbara and to be able to sustain and support her in a relationship that matters to her (and so to me).

And then there was the beautiful redness and fullness of the tomatoes I was chopping. Just the goodness of these gifts in front of me. Chopping them felt like a ritual action (in a good way). It was like an act of worship or thanksgiving to prepare them. It was fulfilling in itself but I was also anticipating that greater fulfilment to come when I would eat these tomatoes and I would experience their taste as well as the resistance of their physical presence against the action of my knife. I’m starting to sound a bit mad now. But this is honestly how I felt. It took me by surprise because I am physically very tired and not quite 100% well I suspect but I was just aware of feeling really great.

And there was also the thought that I was doing something both profoundly and simply creative. I was taking the stuff of the earth and reshaping it in a way such that others could enjoy and experience it. It was a moment of artistic expression. [This must sound so pretentious!]

The sad thing was I thought how rarely such an experience happens in the context of Christian worship. It made me think that Christian worship might offer more of this sort of experience if it gets more basic and grounded in these sorts of real, everyday human experience. It reminded me how preparing and sharing meals has been central to my thinking in the past and on occasion more recently. Before I was ordained, I remember saying to someone once that I wanted to be remembered as the ‘cooking curate’. I have just this week started cooking again after months (years?) of just heating stuff from the supermarket. This whole (quite freaky) experience has reminded me that this might be a real feature of my vocation and what I think human community and the faith community might be all about.

End of a (very brief) era

28 06 2009

This Sunday morning was the last of the four in June that the St Luke’s congregation have spent in the community room at the bottom of Wilmcote House — one of the high rise housing blocks at the centre of the northern strip of Somers Town (an area of concentrated social housing in the centre of Portsmouth). It has been an amazing and exhausting experience.

The headline for me is that in the third week a new family joined us. And they came back again this week. And mum is saying that they’re going to keep on coming when we return to the church building. They found us friendly, relaxed, informal and unintimidating. But the thing that clinched it for them was the trouble my wife took to recognise the step they’d taken in coming along and to explain everything that was happening as the morning progressed. How do I know that? Because that’s what mum told me.

So is that job done? Not really. I know from the feedback sheets I’ve been giving out each week that for some members of the existing congregation, this has been a worthwhile adventure in *outreach* but a real test in terms of a satisfying worship experience.

I recognise that. There are practical problems with the room we’ve been using. It’s a visually and aurally noisy environment. It’s hard to ‘be still and know that I am God’. It’s hard too to engage in the sort of deep reflection on the Bible that some people quite reasonably expect to be part of their experience when they participate in Christian corporate worship. That reflects the wider concern that some people are expressing when I ask them to give their regular gathered worship time over to mission: ‘how are we to be fed?’

Partly my response is that as adults — both literally and metaphorically (by which I mean having a degree if maturity in our faith) we are ultimately responsible for feeding ourselves. We should be dependent on God, the source of our life, and interdependent on each other but not dependent on a ‘parent/priest’ to spiritually spoon feed us. Our own spiritual life through the week should be nourishing us. I have to set that against the authority that is conferred upon a Christian priest in the context of the Church to teach. But, much as with teaching in schools, though there is knowledge to be imparted, the ultimate aim is to equip people to be active, self-motivated learners in the world.

But maybe a bigger problem is that I am confusing mission and worship. Maybe in a new way I am falling into that old trap of just trying to get people ‘in church’. So often that has been the be all and end all of mission. We imagine that if we can get people to come, some strange magic will work upon them and they’ll just suddenly get what we’ve got.

If all we’re doing is attractional church in a different building, then we might as well give up and ‘run home to momma’. But I don’t think it is quite that. I’ve been trying — and succeeding and failing in equal measure — to change the shape and content of what we do so that it is less about asking people to come and join our party and more about a sort of party that is new for all of us.

It’s most important that we build relationships, have fun and begin to share stories, personal and communal. So we could just run fun activities in this place — do ‘outreach’ in effect — probably mostly among and with children to begin with (there have been loads of them hovering around and peering through the windows). And then save *worship* for the explicitly Christian community at another time.

My problem with that is that we’re still trying to get people to another place — our place. We’re laying on things for people where they’re at. So in one sense we have gone to them where they are. But we have made no inner journey towards them. We are only befriending them in order to get them ultimately to be like us. ‘We will come to you and give you fun. But God is for us. If you want some of that you’ll have to become like us.’ And people don’t yet — may never — know that ‘God’ is what they’re searching for. But they might be looking for *G-d*; that ineffable mystery at the heart of being that is bigger than the god named by any particular faith tradition. We have some pretty substantive truth-claims about the shape of that mystery. But we haven’t got it all worked out. Dare we risk the adventure of saying: ‘We’ll come and be with you and find *G-d* together in ways that will belong to us all and in a place that will become home for us all and that will continue to be open to transformation as each new person comes to share the adventure.’ Spirituality is for all or it’s for no-one. Just having fun is something that I would absolutely want to hold up as a spiritually enriching experience. But there should be something about what we do in Wilmcote House (it’s my hope that we’ll soon return) that provokes deeper reflection in the light of the Christian story for ALL.

That’s much more challenging and risky but much more exciting to me. It poses some questions to an Anglican priest and an Anglican community of faith that lives with some given criteria for what constitutes worship and authentic church. That can be both helpful and restrictive. But the deeper challenge is to us all to give up our desire to get what we want from church, especially as that has been conditioned by churchiness, and to open ourselves to newness.


26 02 2009

On Tuesday, the St Luke’s ‘home group’ met in the Fleet. I put home group in quote marks there because it wasn’t in a home!

It was a very different experience for us all. But I think a positive and enjoyable one. We all like going to a pub, I think. It’s a social occasion. Most of us enjoy a drink. So the home group didn’t take a lot of persuading! They were pleased too, I think, to come to the place where I’ve been spending some of my time recently. Barbara and I arrived early for a bite to eat and met up with some friends (also members of the home group). We were beginning to think the others weren’t coming when they all arrived.

After settling in, getting drinks and so on, we spent a little bit of time, picking up our theme from Sunday, thinking about prayer. I wanted to do this in a light-hearted and fun way. So I made some cards (laminated to protect them from beer stains!) with a whole lot (54 in fact) of different words that people might associate with prayer. You can see the words I produced here. The file is called ‘prayer labels.pdf’. I spread them all out on the table and asked each person to choose the three that chimed most with their understanding or experience of prayer. I deliberately made sure that there were no duplicates so that everyone had to choose three that were unique to them. I then invited each person, if they wanted to, to share in turn, ‘Why those three words?’ I then asked people to put their words back. I then invited everyone to join in as we placed as many of the words as we could in one of five circles. (The file is called ‘Lords prayer circles.pdf’ [with apologies to Lynn Truss for the lack of an apostrophe]) Each circle had one phrase from St Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. (That’s St Luke the gospel writer, not St Luke’s as in our church!)

I think that second exercise got people thinking but nobody really responded to my invitation to talk about what had come out of it for them. That was okay. I then made a connection with the season of Lent which was going to begin the next day, and spread out a series of forty cards on the table with suggestions for things people might want to consider either giving up or taking on for the season. They were all pretty light-hearted in tone. There were twenty suggestions each for things to fast from and things to take on as a discipline during the forty days of Lent. I invited everyone to take one card away with them, not necessarily to do what it says on the card but just as something that would prompt them to think during Lent. Of course, if people did want to use them as a commitment, that was fine too.

I tried to show a film (a slideshow of Simon Smith’s wonderful illustrations of Jesus’s forty days in the desert) on my iPhone. Partly just because I could. (Look at my iPhone… shiny…!) That didn’t really work. Maybe because it’s slow and meditative. [I’m planning to use it on Sunday instead] Maybe really short, arresting little films could work. I’ll let you know. The other reason it might not have worked is that the pub was showing the Champions’ League match between United and Inter. I ended up watching that instead too!

What struck me as I was preparing those materials and after Tuesday night, was how what we were doing was like a game. And actually how appropriate things that were game-like would be in that setting. People play games in the pub. What if we could play games with some spiritual content? I want to get hold of a copy of Richard Passmore’s ‘FaST game’ for next Tuesday. (Which kind of blows my plan to run a lent course out of the water [or should that be beer? 😉 ]) I’ll let you know how that goes…

It was really great to see what would happen if you took church into the pub. On this occasion, it worked. I wonder what it would be like to share a eucharist in that setting. This is a different way round from what I have been working on over the previous couple of weeks. That was about the pub becoming a setting for new church. This was existing church making its home in the pub. Compared to what church is often like, it was a lot of fun, I thought. There’s a buzz of conversation and fun that can *sometimes* be lacking in a church building. Just having a lot more people around than there are normally in the particular church building where I’m associate priest was good! Even if they were unconnected with what we were doing.

The challenge will be to ask if this group would be happy to make this their permanent home. As the evening went on, and the footie finished, the music was much louder and the conversation was harder…

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…