On leaving Portsmouth

27 02 2012

20120227-235107.jpgSo the headline is: we’re moving on. From September 2012, I will be Tutor in Pioneer Ministry at St John’s College Nottingham and Pioneer Minister and Priest in Charge in the benefice of All Hallows, Lady Bay with St Edmund, Holme Pierrepont and Adbolton (Diocese of Southwell and Nottingham).

I share this news with a mix of excitement, trepidation and sadness.

I am excited to be looking forward to a new role in a new place that allows me to develop as a theological educator at the same time as continuing and developing as a mission practitioner in an entirely new setting. I look forward to my mission practice providing a rich source for theological reflection with ordinands and others as I help them grow into their own forthcoming ministries. And I look forward to that theological reflection being a rich source for the shaping of an authentic and appropriate mission practice. The potential for an enriching interplay between those two components was what first attracted me to the role.

Ever since I was identified as a ‘potential theological educator’ through my ordination training, I have wanted to become involved in helping others learn, develop and be formed for ministry. I have had some small, but not insignificant opportunities to do a bit of that with STETS in the southern region that I have enjoyed enormously. This, and my own continuing academic study of theology at Masters level confirmed that this was an area I wanted to develop. That the Principal — Canon Dr Christina Baxter — and others at St John’s College have also recognised that potential and been willing to invest sacrificially in growing that nascent ability is hugely affirming and encouraging. This is an opportunity not to be missed. After Easter I will begin an informal programme of theological study that will help prepare me for my new role. Alongside that I will continue to offer some pastoral and liturgical leadership to the Sunday Sanctuary on a house-for-duty basis. Then in August we will move to our new home in Nottingham in preparation for the full start of my new role in September.

It is also a great opportunity to develop still further the integration of my twin passions of art and spirituality as I am called to engage with an area where arts and media professionals make up a significant proportion of the local population. There is a high proportion of young families too. It is an area where again I will be able to grow new forms of church and mission that bring all ages together to learn from and stretch each other spiritually.

I am daunted because in both aspects this role will demand even more of me than what I am doing now — and that’s pretty stretching! Quite honestly, it’s beyond me. I say that knowing full well that those who appointed me may well read this. But I don’t think they’ll be worried or think I deceived them at my interviews. Christian ministry is always beyond us — whatever particular gifts and experience one brings into it. Being stretched beyond ourselves goes with the territory. You either try and muster the resources from within and face inevitable burnout or look outside and beyond yourself to the source and ground of all vitality, love and strength. In this new role, as here, I will need to stay close to that source. So I am daunted not because I think I have to do it all myself but because I know that, in common with others, ego makes this a struggle.

It is daunting for all of us as a family to make a new life together away from familiar places, support networks and friends. This is truly new territory in all kinds of ways.

It is sad because we are leaving so much that we love behind.

I was not looking for a move. There remain great opportunities and challenges here in Somerstown and the centre of Portsmouth that would keep me stimulated, entertained and excited for many years to come. The Sunday Sanctuary has still much capacity to grow and evolve. The forthcoming union of the two parishes in Somerstown, as well as their shared aspiration to develop a new centre for worship and mission in the heart of the city, will ask much of the Christian community here in the coming days. There remains a need for compassionate visionary leadership. The city centre aspect of my role was only just beginning to become clear with great opportunities opening up for being a significant contributor to the cultural life and development of the city. Engaging with this process of discernment meant setting aside an exciting arts project that was really beginning to take off.

I am sad to be leaving behind work with two great schools in the area and relationships with their leaders that are not just professional but personal. The depth of trust and understanding that we have developed is a rare and precious thing. It will not be easy to say goodbye to these new and special friends and colleagues or their wonderful staff teams.

I am sad to be leaving behind a fragile but vibrant small community of new Christians and old that has been a source of unbelievable blessing, delight and friendship for our whole family. We will miss our friends — new and longstanding — terribly.

It is odd to be making this move so soon after writing on this very blog about how I thought this work needed someone prepared to be in it for the long haul. I have disparaged in conversation those agencies where people come for 3 years or less and then disappear. And yet I am doing the self same thing. This is a circle I am finding it nigh on impossible to square. Moving on does feel like a bit of a betrayal.

That is softened to quite some degree by knowing that I leave it all in the hands of a quite remarkable and outstanding colleague whom I am also privileged to call my friend. I don’t imagine how it could be possible to ever be so fortunate again as to be a partner in ministry and mission with such a gifted priest whom I’m sure will one day be called to high office in Christ’s Church. I will carry this experience with me wherever I go.

There is so much more to say — about the wider group of colleagues in cluster and deanery with whom I share in ministry and mission; about family and friends we’re leaving behind; about the sea when we will be so far from it; about the schools our children will be leaving behind; about this city’s fantastic (and troubled) football club and its passionate fans — but this will have to suffice for now. And this blog will in due course too have to draw to a close. It will not make sense to call myself the Pompey Pioneer once we are ensconced in Nottingham! But it will keep going for a while. Though it has necessarily been silenced through recent uncertain days, it will hopefully be a helpful record of a new Christian community and its guardian in transition. So even though the secret is out, I still invite you to watch this space…





I will try to fix you

5 12 2011

My last post was a look at one of the questions raised by the idea of relational mission: what’s our motivation? What is underlying our desire to befriend people? This is some further musing on the same question. But this time I’m looking at it from another angle – what have the people we have befriended gained from being our friends?

I guess I’m challenging the unspoken assumption that getting to know ‘us’ is a good thing. In all the Church’s talk about mission, it’s taken for granted that our outreach to new people not currently connected to the Church is beneficial for those new people. That’s a theological assumption, I think. But if we no longer believe that we take God to where God is not (which, thankfully, we don’t) what ‘goods’ do we bring? And dare we test empirically how good it really is for people to interact with the Church? For whose benefit is that interaction, really? For those with whom we interact or for ourselves?

We are at least in part motivated I reckon by wanting to see the Church grow. Why? To shore up our own fragile faith by persuading others to share it or by temporarily fending off the decline that so sorely tests our confidence? Sound cynical? It is a bit. If we believe we really have good news it would be selfish to keep it to ourselves. But at the same time we need to recognise that our proselytising tendency can be experienced by others as a threat, particularly if they are of another faith background or are avowedly secular or humanist. While others might be prepared to say that those people are just plain wrong, I am not. We have to share this world. We need to find ways to peacefully co-exist. That means I think according people a high degree of dignity and respect and taking their views seriously. That means putting ourselves in others’ shoes. For me that means being prepared to ask whether, from the perspective of, say, a secular humanist, we might ever be viewed as a positive presence. So again I find myself asking: what ‘goods’ do we bring?

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I was having a conversation recently with someone who used to work in retail. They were telling me the story of a retailer who tried to grow their business by increasing the sale value of each customer interaction. The net result of all their action was that the business stayed exactly the same. Setting out to grow the business resulted in stagnation. The concentration on what the business wanted from the customer interaction did not allow that business to meet its aims. When, instead, they focused on what their customers wanted from their interaction with the business, the business grew.

That’s an anecdote and not careful research. But it does suggest that the Church will fail to achieve its desired growth if that is what it thinks about. Instead it hints that concentrating on the people with whom the Church interacts, considering their needs and desires, will be the only way that growth can happen. It’s only while we’re looking the other way that growth can occur. That’s a pretty bold statement and it’s based on pretty flimsy evidence. But surely that is what we’re all about. No, not bold statements based on flimsy evidence. Though that is something of which we’re often accused! I mean putting others first. We should be seeking to generously strive for the benefit of others as an end – the end – in itself, not merely as a strategy for achieving our organisational goals.

Some will argue, I guess, that wanting the Church to grow is for the benefit of the (capital ‘O’) Other. It’s for the ‘Glory of God’, whatever that means. But the Christian story surely makes clear that God is always out for the benefit of the (lower case ‘o’) other (even if some parts of the Bible are a little more difficult to reconcile with that proposition).

I wonder if you can see what I’m getting at? If you can, you might be able to help me because I’m not quite sure! I think I’m just trying to push the question of motivation all the way – in this instance in non-theological terms. Why? Because I think we have to at least try to imagine what it might be like to encounter a community of people that, to some degree, have an agenda that includes seeing you change. The Church is not unique in that but it’s there. That doesn’t mean it’s all about progress. It might mean – it pretty much does for some church members here in Somerstown, I think – that people with insurmountable mental health or addiction problems at least find a place to belong and to find companionship in the midst of their struggles.

But [finally he gets to the point] what has it meant to the newer members of the Sunday Sanctuary to encounter this fragile community of Christians and become part of it? How has that been good for them?

I haven’t really asked. But others have. These are not desperate or broken people we’re talking about, at least no more desperate or broken than the rest of us. So we haven’t fixed anyone (as if we could). The sense I have is that our new friends, like the rest of us have found a deeper and growing sense of belonging, self-esteem and purpose. And they, like us (these distinctions seem so empty of meaning now) have found new friends. We are all discovering a wider – yes theological – framework in which our being, our living and dying, our meaning and our place in this universe make a bit more sense. For some reading this, of course, that framework is inherently delusional and so cannot be a ‘good’ but I do beg to differ here. We are inhabiting, a little more deeply and in some subtle and unexpected ways, the idea that – to borrow the title of Rob Bell’s book – love wins. We’re aligning our lives as individuals, as families and as a whole community with the idea of that gentle victory, just a little more each week. I think in a tiny, tiny way, that’s making the world a little bit of a better place. That’ll do for me.





I’ll be your friend Roland

25 11 2011

Now I’m really showing my age! Anyone else out there remember Roland Browning off of Grange Hill? He was the fat lad that all the bullies picked on in the BBC kids’ TV show in the 80s. However hard things got for Roland, he was never quite desperate enough to take up the offer of friendship from Janet St Clair. Janet’s catchphrase on the show was, ‘I’ll be your friend Row-land’. At least I think it was. Maybe it’s one of those catchphrases that people never said, like, ‘Beam me up Scotty’. Anyway, the point is that however desperate you get, there are some people you don’t want as your friends. It’s less embarrassing to be a Billy-no-mates than to count some people among your mates.

I think Christians are to the rest of the world what Janet St Clair was to Roland Browning – the people who want to be your friend; but you’d rather boil your own head than be seen anywhere near them. That has to be remembered, I think, when we talk about making friends with people. If we encounter a certain reluctance from people when invited to our soppy events, that may be magnified when we try and be their friends. First you have to persuade people that you really are quite normal, or at the very least that your lunacy is more like theirs than they’d ever really imagined.

There is a serious point here. I think people are suspicious of Christians trying to be their friends because they think there’s a hidden agenda. ‘You just want to be my friend so you can make me join your church.’ It’s an understandable suspicion because it’s, at least partly, true. What does it really mean to say that mission and ministry are going to have be relational? Lots of things. But translating it into everyday speak, it sounds very much like ‘make friends with people so that you can tell them about Jesus’.

Doesn’t everyone have an agenda? The drug and alcohol worker I talked about yesterday wanted to work relationally. Translation: I want to befriend people so that I can get them off drugs and alcohol. People not keen to get off drugs and alcohol might not want very much to be befriended by a drugs and alcohol worker with targets to reach.

If this sounds negative, I don’t mean it to. I just want to temper what I’ve been saying in the past couple of days with some realism and to encourage myself and maybe you too to put yourself in the shoes of someone who might be the subject of my/our efforts to befriend. Relational mission inevitably means that there is an agenda behind crossing social divides and making friends. Members of the Church will do that to some extent because they want to share their faith.

But that doesn’t have to translate into instrumentalism. We don’t have to see making friends as a means to the end of evangelism. That is how people have experienced their interaction with Christians. Some Christians lose interest in people who don’t quickly make some grand profession of faith. Truly relational mission must involve a commitment to love and care for people whatever their response to our faith. Sharing our faith will involve giving an account for the hope within, talking about our experiences, not preaching. But it must also include responding to people’s real needs with real practical love and care. And here’s the nub: being prepared to receive both those things too: listening to people’s real experience and allowing them to care for us too. Without that, we patronise people. We meet them as ‘clients’ imagining ourselves in a position of superiority – having the ‘goods’ people need – rather than engaging with people as fellow human beings. That means recognising and accepting that we have as much to receive as to give and that in the end the only resources we have to bring are ourselves. All we have to offer is who we are.

That’s a world away from thinking that we, charitable, middle-class people, will out of the goodness of our hearts give the poor people of this working class area what they need. But in offering ourselves, I think we do bring something unique. First of all, who we are is (however imperfectly) shaped by  the Christian story that we inhabit. Whatever truth there is in that story will not be communicated by argument and persuasion; it will communicated only by who we are. Secondly, in offering ourselves in real friendship, that anticipates receiving as well as giving, we honour, respect, value and love people in a way that few others do. It’s a way of expressing our belief in people. It’s a way of saying: ‘You’re worth getting to know’.





All of rabbit’s friends and relations

23 11 2011

20111123-093746.jpgWhat does ‘relational’ mean? It’s a word I used in my last post. It’s a word that gets bandied about a lot in blogs like this. I’ve heard it many times at the sort of church conferences and workshops I frequent. I’ve used it in conversation innumerable times. But is it just a buzzword? A sort of linguistic bandwagon onto which I have uncritically jumped?

Probably. A bit. But it has come to have some real content for me in recent weeks as I’ve reflected on our adventures in mission over the past two years.

Its meaning and implications really crystallised for me in a conversation with a drug and alcohol worker. I wasn’t the client, before you ask. I had been speaking at this person’s church. After the service they told me about their frustration with their work. Imagine yourself in their situation. You work three days a week. One of those days is taken up with paperwork. On the other two days you have a caseload of more than twenty clients. You can see how it would go. You’d never be able to do much more than a cursory monthly meeting with each of your clients. All you could do is to monitor progress, if there were to be any, any real support or intervention would be incredibly difficult, not to say impossible, to achieve.

Now imagine that you can work as this person really wanted to – relationally. Imagine your caseload is cut down to three or four people, maybe even just two or three. You can invest real time with people and build up a level of trust and understanding that are currently impossible to achieve.

The personal risk and cost are much higher, of course.

First of all you’d have to sacrifice your contact with 18, or 20 people from among your current clients. But what good are you actually doing for/with them? And in saying goodbye for now, you’re not necessarily saying goodbye forever. You’re focusing your energy on where you really might be able to make a difference and not spreading it so thinly that you can realistically achieve very little of value. And you might be able to get to some of those others in time.

Secondly, you’d be taking a much higher risk in terms of the potential for your efforts to fail to achieve a positive outcome. With a big client list, where you can achieve a very limited amount, you can at least spread the risk of failure and your measurable outcomes will, of necessity, be more modest. If you invest everything in a small number of people, you might expect (or at least your paymasters will expect) much more dramatic outcomes. The failures will be much more professionally and personally costly; professionally because your reputation suffers; personally because if you have any real empathy (and why would you do this sort of work if you didn’t?) your clients’ failures will really hurt you.

That’s the sort of approach I think has been developing in my ministry and in the life of the Sunday Sanctuary
. It’s less about trying to create something that will be a catch-all and draw in lots of people with whom we have minimal contact (if that were even possible) and more about investing focused time, energy and resources on a small number of people.

There’s much more to say about this. What does it imply about our motivation for befriending people? What are the implications for our community life? What does it actually mean? Or to use a well worn cliché – what does it mean where the rubber hits the road? These are some of the questions I’ll be pondering out loud on this blog in the coming days.





A beautiful failure

22 11 2011

20111122-172653.jpgIt has been two years since the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s in Somerstown (in the heart of Portsmouth) moved out of its building and began gathering instead in one of the nearby tower blocks. On Advent Sunday in 2009, with the Bishop’s permission, we ceased Sunday services and opened instead what we have called the Sunday Sanctuary. This wasn’t simply the relocation of our services to another place. We went right back to almost nothing. We had breakfast together and invited residents of the tower block (mainly young families) to join us. We imagined that the typical encounter would involve a bite to eat, a chat and maybe something a bit hands on and – with a light touch – spiritual. Maybe people would stop for 20 minutes or so.

We had no idea whether anyone would come. But come they did. And those who came did not come for a brief visit. They came in the moment we opened the doors each week, stayed with us all morning and before long, unbidden, got stuck in with clearing up at the end of the morning. This very different sort of engagement than we had imagined meant we very quickly had to give the morning more structure and shape. It threw us back on the liturgy. What we do together now has the skeleton of an Anglican Eucharist – we gather over breakfast; we set aside all that we regret from the past week; we collect our thoughts and prayers; we share a story and reflect together on its meaning for us today; we look out to the needs of those around us and the wider world; we give thanks; we share bread and grape juice and we ask God’s blessing as we go on. Though the flesh on the bones might not be so immediately familiar, there is a family resemblance with our sister churches in the Church of England.

As I reflect on the past two years, and what we’ve learnt together, I am bound to ask: has it been a success?

That, of course, depends on what you mean by success. I think we set out on this journey with a little bit of a Field of Dreams mentality: ‘if you build it, they will come’. (That’s a misquote I know but I hope you’ll excuse a little creative license there.) I think we set out with the idea that if we changed what we do together; changed where we do it and changed who we invited to come, that we would make some sort of breakthrough in Somerstown and in particular in the block of flats (Wilmcote House) to which we had relocated.

In those terms, the Sunday Sanctuary has failed.

We have failed to make a big breakthrough in Wilmcote House or in Somerstown. We have engaged with a small number of families in the block, some who have stayed with us and others who have moved on after a little while. But most of the young families in the block pretty much ignore us.

Maybe our ‘offer’ is wrong. We insist on children coming with at least one grown up. We are running a family gathering in a place and at a time when a significant number of parents just want their kids out of the way or off their hands. We had a suspicion from the outset that a kids’ club would be overwhelmed. We had neither the people nor the resources to sustain something like that. So we set ourselves the parameter of barring unaccompanied primary- and pre-school age children at the very beginning. That has proved very difficult at times. I have hated having to turn away kids that are desperate to come in.

But even more fundamentally, I think, the biggest flaw in our thinking is that we were still ultimately operating an attractional model of mission. We were still creating an event that we expected people to come to. We made it as easy as possible for people to come – especially by moving ourselves much closer to where they live. But it still relies on people responding to an invitation from strangers to come to an event they know little about.

So though we took a massive step out of our comfort zone, I still don’t think we fully inhabited Jesus’s radical sending of his disciples to be guests, reliant on the hospitality of others in hostile territory.

As an initiative, then, in terms of measurable outcomes, it has failed.

But what a beautiful failure.

I write this a couple of days after we baptised five members of our community. Of those (four children and one adult), only one came from a family that I think would have explicitly defined themselves as Christians a couple of years ago. And as I write this I am looking forward to seeing six more members of our community confirmed at the cathedral. People whose connection to Christian faith has been very basic and tenuous have discovered a lively faith for themselves.

We have grown in numbers in a small way. We’ve also lost some more longstanding Christians. Some were not able to cope with being so far out of their comfort. Others have simply relocated. So we are not much bigger.

That is so often the measure by which people – consciously or otherwise – judge whether something has been a success. I hinted at it myself earlier by talking about a ‘big’ breakthrough. And on those terms, we have just about stayed steady. We have failed to achieve numerical growth.

But our growth in depth has been marked. Those longstanding Christians who have been able to stick with it have grown in faith as they’ve engaged with new people in an unfamiliar setting. Newer members who had only the most nominal faith have reached a point where they are making a public commitment to live as a Christian. We’ve all grown in the breadth of our spiritual experience as we’ve moved closer to becoming united with our sister parish of St Peter’s.

But above all we’ve grown in the depth of our relationships. The newer members aren’t people who’ve joined us any longer. They are us. We have become one family.

There are lots of things we’ve learnt through this whole experience.

First, I think we’ve been reminded of something we already knew, even explicitly remarked upon. People in this place don’t come to stuff. It’s not a matter of tweaking our event to get it just right and then people will come. They won’t. They’re not interested. They don’t care what we have to say. Maybe we could cast our net a bit wider (leaflet all the tower blocks instead of just one) and maybe we’d get one or two more families like the lovely ones who found their way to us and became part of us. We will probably do that. But the fundamental and stark reality still holds. If we build it, they will not come.

Second, we can’t look to the handful of local families who are part of our community to reach their neighbours all by themselves. That’s because they are not the hard to reach, troubled families. Those who have joined us are really nice, together people. If that sounds judgemental on the rest of the families around, I’m sorry. But most of us know what we mean by ‘nice’ people. These are they. Sunday Sanctuary really was a sanctuary for them from the troubles and menace around them. It would take incredible courage, confidence and faith for these brand new Christians to reach out to the most challenging of their neighbours.

Third, that means this is no ‘hit and run’ sort of ministry for me. The idea I started out with that I could spend about three years here and, during that time, get something off the ground, train up local leaders and then move on to the next place (I really thought this!) – well that just seems laughable now. I am going to have to be here for the long haul.

Finally what has dropped like a great big penny is that ministry here has to be relational. Again, I’ve said that before. Right at the outset. But I’m only just beginning to understand what that means. What we’ve discovered, because this is what’s actually happened, is that if we’re going to make a difference in Somerstown, it will be one family at a time. It will be about investing in real friendship – giving time, attention, love and practical support to a small number of people at any one time. It’s like the old story of the little boy throwing starfish back into the sea after a storm. The beach is covered in starfish as far as the eye can see. A man says to the boy: ‘how on earth do you hope to make any difference?’ Picking up another starfish, and casting it back into the safety of the sea, the boy says, ‘made a difference to that one.’





Losing faith in the pub

23 01 2011

After another Sunday night in the pub pretty much on my own, I am beginning to wonder whether this is an idea that has had its day. Indeed, I wonder whether it ever really had legs.

I’ve persisted with what became known as ‘PUB:FAITH’ for a year now. The idea is that on a Sunday night in a city centre pub I host a conversation for spiritually inclined people who ‘don’t do church’. I start each evening with a ‘skinny ritual’ — a brief, symbolic activity to lead us into ‘spirited conversation’. I usually choose a topic based on the Church of England lectionary, after thinking about the broadly spiritual issues reflected in one of the set readings for each Sunday. My question as I approach the text is, ‘What are the experiences, questions or challenges that non-religious spiritual people might connect with?’

There have been nights when there’s been a good turnout and a good conversation. But in the main, most of the people who’ve come have been people who do ‘do church’. They haven’t all been finding their experience of church to be entirely helpful. And there have been some, even some who have come reasonably frequently, who are not churchgoers or people of acknowledged Christian faith at all. But I am not now, and haven’t been since the outset, making many connections with people who are, in the terrible churchy jargon, ‘unchurched’ or even many who are, as yet, ‘de-churched’.

I value what I’ve been able to share with people who have come, and I’m grateful for those who have supported me by turning up. But if it doesn’t really do what it says in the tin, I’m not sure it’s what I should be doing with my time. Especially if, as now, I am only seeing one person each week and that person is well connected with another nearby church.

I haven’t made as much effort to promote it as perhaps I might. I have advertised — just recently, in fact. I placed an ad in a local publication that goes to 10,000 homes. Nobody came or even made contact as a result. In fact it’s since that ad went out that it’s been the quietest it’s ever been! I haven’t ever done the other thing I’ve vaguely pondered doing — handing out postcards in the Guildhall Square. But even if I had, I would have been likely to reach far fewer people than 10,000. I send out an invitation each week on Facebook. But it’s a sad reflection of just how churchy have been the circles I’ve moved in that overwhelmingly the people I’ve invited are Christians, or even fellow clergy. I guess I just thought that the website and word of mouth might lead people to come along.

Whatever the failings or inadequacies of my marketing strategy, though, in the end I wonder whether it’s just a flawed idea. Are non-religious, but spiritually inclined people really going to want to go to the pub to speak with some vicar bloke they’ve never met before?

I probably wouldn’t, to be honest. And it’s not really about meeting people where they are. It’s still a ‘come to me’ sort of approach, even if the place I’m inviting people to come to is a pub instead of a church.

There have been some good times. And I’ve learnt through the experience. But maybe it is pretty much dead and I just need to put it out of its misery.

Maybe you think I’m being hard on myself. And to be honest I am feeling a little despondent about it. But if this sort of work is going to achieve anything, I need to be really robustly truthful with myself and name my failures. I’m not beating myself up over it. Lesson learned. Move on.

That is itself a substantial challenge. What do I move on to? I’m not talking about moving on from my current post. I mean what do I do instead to meet spiritual questers who are making their journey outside of the Church. Not to show them the error of their ways but to join the conversation and offer some insight from the Christian Tradition. And to open that tradition up to challenge, question and reinterpretation in the light of people’s experience. Real, risky dialogue is what I’m seeking. I’ll share some thoughts about that in the coming days.





One step forward…

11 10 2010

I posted at the weekend about the hugely encouraging breakthrough that there had been in forging one community among those who gather Sunday by Sunday in Wilmcote House, despite some clear differences of approach to what that gathering should be about. I wanted to celebrate that, and I still do. I hope not to lose sight of that in what follows.

But it does often feel that renewed challenges follow hot on the heels of every ‘win’.

It was a relatively simple matter for the PCC in the end to complete the review of the Sunday Sanctuary and gather all the fragments of our discernment process together. Because there had emerged at the same time as that was all going on, between my colleague Alex and myself, a desire; an intention to create a new evening service, that would offer a different sort of space from both Sunday mornings in Wilmcote House and Sunday mornings in St Peter’s. More of that in another post.

The upshot, though, was that there would be an outlet for the more established members of the Sunday Sanctuary to express their spirituality through contemporary sung worship and quiet contemplation. Thus it no longer felt necessary, or appropriate (given the response to the suggestion from our newer friends) to try and shoehorn those things into Sunday mornings at Wilmcote House. So far, so positive.

It was clear from our wider discernment that we didn’t need to persist with keeping the Sunday Sanctuary open for two hours. Residents of Wilmcote House liked the idea of a slightly later start and others were finding the long morning hard going, especially those working to keep the kitchen open.

We had been moving towards closing the kitchen at about 11:00 and I had often notified people of that with ‘last orders’ announcement; which, unfortunately, frequently had the effect of creating a rush and making it more difficult to gather people for our all together time. (It made it virtually impossible for kitchen workers to join the all-together time as they had to clear up a new batch of dirty plates, cups and so on.)

So we decided that the Sunday Sanctuary would open at 10:30 instead of 10:00. The kitchen would close at 11:00 and be followed immediately by our all-together time. 11:45-12:00 would be tidy up time, which we would all share together, not simply as a clear up after the real activity but an important part of the expression of our life as a new community. (Kitchen clear-up was to wait until then too, so that kitchen helpers could join the all-together time.)

We also thought that the time between 11:30 and 11:45 might involve differentiated activities so each age group got the sort of stimulation that reflected its unique needs.

As I write this, I think this all sounds right and good. But we haven’t perhaps been as good as we might have been at sticking to that schedule and that may be at the root of some of our problems this half term.

Because it hasn’t felt to me as if we have really been hitting the mark since our restart. There have been lots of good things. The barbecue our first week back was a really good way to come back together. And of course it was encouraging after something of a break that we did all come back together. I think taking a break in future might seem a little odd. It felt odd, actually, during the summer. Projects take a break. Communities – churches? – do not.

Somehow, in between making a clear choice not to include sung worship and an ongoing effort to avoid cutting and sticking (for those who hated the ‘Sunday School’ feel that it had on occasion) we have ended up with a lot of up-front talking. Storytelling has been and remains an essential part of our shared identity. And I’m a firm believer in storytelling as an art form in its own right. There is a place for a variety of ways to share stories – story sacks, puppetry, pictures, film clips – but above all I think a really engaging storyteller simply speaking a tale can hold the attention of a group. But somehow our style (mostly delivered by me) has become flabby, unengaging and drawn out. Instead of being punchy and exciting, the stories and most especially the reflection following have become long-winded and talky.

In the past few weeks I have noticed that nobody has really been engaged. The youngest children are gravitating back to the Lego, which in a very echoey room is very distracting. The parents and older children are trying to draw their children/siblings’ attention back and the adults without children there are distracted by all of that going on. And on occasion when I’ve been speaking, I’ve been wondering who I’m actually speaking to!

It has brought me for the first time in ages to question my personal commitment to intergenerational community/church. Is it really possible to hold the attention of a middle-aged professional at the same time as you’re engaging a pre-schooler from a refugee family with next to no English? If your comparison is with school, then you’d say: ‘Of course not!’ Vertical teaching groups can work, but the age span is not normally more than two years. But if your comparison is not with education but with, say, a family meal, especially a special celebratory meal like Christmas dinner, then it’s not nearly so clear cut. But maybe I have confused the idea that ‘we only do apart what we cannot do together’ with some notion that we do nothing apart.

[Editor’s note – and I’m the editor! – this post has well and truly now broken the short post rule. Commitments are dropping like flies all around. 😉 ]

Of course, we are rather stuck in that we are in one room. There are not alternative spaces except for outside in the good weather (we have taken children outside for a game or activity). But when it’s getting colder, it becomes much more of a challenge to create discrete spaces – especially with the awful acoustics that this room has (very echoey).

The lesson I’ve learnt from being married to a teacher and being involved in a local primary school is that if we are not engaging people, children especially, it’s because we’re not engaging not because the people are not responding appropriately.

So what to do?

Funnily enough, the thought that has occurred to me is to go back to the liturgy. To look back into the shape of the Eucharist and see how the moments and movements of that might be reinterpreted in our setting. It may be that we need to make the occasional simple sharing of bread and wine into a more regular feature.

That might seem like quite a conceptual leap from talking too much not working to let’s have a simple sort-of-communion each week. But there’s something about the way we’re having to reinvent the wheel each week that I think is giving us a bit of a headache. And actually to start with sharing a meal: breakfast; and to conclude with sharing a simple commemorative meal: bread and wine (grape juice actually) gives the whole thing something of a shape that maybe it’s lacking. Within that, there are moments for gathering, self-examination and reflection, hearing and reflecting on one of our inherited stories, looking out to the wider world and giving thanks, that might just give us the structure that will keep things moving along in a much more dynamic way. It might also help us to express our newfound community-ness more wholeheartedly in the content and shape of our mornings together, not just in the sheer fact of our coming together. And I think the times that have worked best have been those occasions when we have shared food that has some symbolic, nay sacramental, significance – a high point for me, was the simple passover we shared when we were journeying through the stories of Moses.

I’ll let you know how things develop…

[If you’ve made it this far, thanks for sticking with me. I’d welcome your comments. 🙂 ]