A year in the life

27 04 2010

Thought you might be interested to read the report I wrote for the APCM of the parish of St Luke, Southsea on the 20th April, 2010.

Last April, Alex spoke about the past, present and future of the parish of St Luke’s.

Looking at the past, we heard that from its inception, St Luke’s has struggled to engage with the troubled area it has served. And from the outset too, the congregation has found its building difficult to sustain.

In some periods, the church grew by attraction: people came from across the city and beyond because they liked its style. Good attendance looks like success. But that ignores the question of whether the church is remaining faithful to the original vision that inspired its founders. That vision was and is an expression of the very heart of what it means to be the Church of England: a commitment to each and every locality and its people.

Responding to the needs, material, social and spiritual of all the people in the geographical parish is clearly beyond us. We are a tiny, fragile and diverse Christian community. But in recognising that, we have found freedom to seek to express our identity in a fresh way. Though tentative and unsure, we have found the courage to take a significant step towards leaving behind a familiar and comfortable way of being church and embarking on a new adventure in mission.

Instead of trying to be all things to all people, we have focused our energy and resources on engaging in mission with one very specific locality. Our ‘parish’ has in effect got a lot smaller! Our mission field is essentially one tower block of 108 flats housing approximately 400 people. On some Sundays we have welcomed getting on for a tenth of that population. Most churches would be delighted with attendance like that!

Of course the rest of the actual parish hasn’t gone away. And neither have we abandoned those who don’t live in Wilmcote House. We don’t have the capacity on our own to sustain the traditional parish model of mission. But the possibility of uniting with our sister congregation in Somerstown offers the opportunity to develop complementary expressions of mission that nourish and nurture each other.

One of the constant challenges for us since our move into Wilmcote House has been the question of how we will be sustained in our faith. Those familiar and comfortable ways of being church I mentioned earlier offered real resources for our individual and communal discipleship (even though they were failing to provide an opportunity to respond to God’s call to join in God’s mission in this locality).

That challenge remains and we continue to reshape what we do in response to our own needs and the needs of those with whom we now find ourselves gathering. Uniting with St Peter’s means that we don’t have to do it all ourselves and within our own capacity. Our particular expression of the Anglican mission in Somerstown needs to be able to become church in its own right, but alongside that we have the opportunity to find spiritual resources as part of a bigger whole. That will not be entirely comfortable as the tradition of our sister parish is not what many of us are used to. But in coming together, we will find, I believe, that we will all grow as disciples of Christ.

The issues we identified last year haven’t been resolved over the last twelve months. If anything, they’ve intensified. We now need to consider together the immediate maintenance and future of two parish church buildings, alongside an intriguing and, for some, unsettling offer from the city council. We were talking about the parishes coming together this time last year. It might seem like there has been little progress. But Alex has been doing significant work in the intervening months preparing the ground for uniting St Peter’s and St Luke’s with a little assistance from the associate priest. And we have taken a significant step in beginning to inhabit our vocation as a ‘fresh expression’ of the Anglican mission in Somerstown.

There are enormous challenges ahead for all of us and in particular the members of the new PCC. But I think we should be encouraged by what we have already achieved together. The future’s bright!

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Hanging with the abbot

8 07 2009

MarkBerryPortraitMark Berry speaks passionately about the values of the ‘Safespace’ community in Telford– hospitality and mission, diversity and inclusion, openness and commitment. Those are my words for what I heard Mark articulating in several different conversations — with me, with an American journalist, and with the community itself.

I wonder to what extent those are Mark’s values and how much they are understood and owned by the individual members of the community. What I’ve outlined above is broad and open enough for anyone to find a home within it. That’s not to say it’s vacuous. It does have content. In fact it is best expressed not systematically, but narratively. The bible and particularly the gospels are normative for all Christian communities (although sometimes you wonder if people are reading the same gospels as you are!). But in addition to the Bible, the story of St Brendan is particularly formational for this community. And in one sense it doesn’t matter if every individual is completely sold on every aspect. The creeds represent the Church’s corporate affirmation of faith but there’s probably not one individual who would go to the stake for each and every line. So people in this community can recognise and affirm their corporate story without being subsumed within it.

I suppose I‘d like to explore with Mark how that story came to be part of this community’s story. Did Mark’s articulation of this set of values and the story of Brendan lead to the forming of a community around that narrative? Or did Mark bring the story into a community that grew out of relationships? The two are not mutually exclusive of course. But the reason I would like to explore this is twofold – first because of Mark’s skepticism about leadership, and second because the question of how a community determines its values/vision is a live one for me and the community I *lead*.

I think Mark gives quite a strong lead to this community. I don’t mean that negatively. It’s not that he imposes his will. It’s more that they look to Mark for direction and inspiration. At least that’s my impression after the few days I spent with Mark and his community.

Mark spoke about being guardian of the community rather than its leader. He seems to me to be more like an abbot. This is a community that models itself on the monasticism of previous times. So in this regard it perhaps matters more than in other sorts of ecclesial community whether individual members buy into its vision and identity. The members of this community are asked to live out the values, not just in what they do together but to take them on as a ‘rule of life’ wherever they are as individuals too. So they do stuff together and they do stuff apart but still trying to live out the values when they are apart. All the members I met, apart from Mark and his family, are members of churches. There are some, whom I didn’t meet on this occasion, who are leaders of churches. But the members of the community are also involved in running Sank•tuary together – an initiative which Mark says grew out of the community. And though it’s very open and welcoming of new people, whether as fellow travellers for a time or as new members, there is a sort of novitiate of a year, after which people are given a St Brendan cross to indicate their belonging and adoption of the community’s shared values. The interesting question is the extent to which the community adapts its identity and values to accommodate new members and the extent to which new members are required to adapt themselves to join the community.

If I have to write the word ‘community’ one more time, I will be physically sick. It has to be the most overused word ever. I find myself using it far too much when I talk about our two parishes’ involvement in Somers Town. I said to someone just yesterday that we want to ‘engage with the community’.

Oh dear, there I go. Excuse me a second. Bleeuurrghh!

Actually one of the things about Somers Town is that it isn’t a c*******y. It doesn’t have that social coherence that would make it a… you know what. I should start using the word ‘locality’. That would be a much more accurate word to describe the social situation in the… erm… locality.

Anyway, I digress. Safespace probably does justify that word that I’m no longer mentioning, because it’s intentional about being it. And in that regard it is further along the road than the congregation of St Luke’s is currently. I would love us to get to a point where our shared life provides a framework for each of us living missionally in every part of our lives as well as directly being involved together in the locality for which we have a responsibility. The Fresh Expressions/Pioneer Ministry agenda should encourage us to think beyond the parish system, but if we disconnect from ‘place’ as our locus for mission, we have forgotten the central and defining feature of what it means to be Anglican. Some of us may not care about that but this is where – to pick up on my previous post – my role as priest is to keep our connection to a wider story ever in front of us.