And so it begins

16 09 2012

Come and find my new blog here.

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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…





Long time, no blog

27 09 2010

Here I am again making an apology for not blogging for some weeks. Actually, sorry, but I’m not sorry. I have been trying (and failing) to complete the first draft of my MA dissertation. I have felt that any substantial writing time should be given over to that important enterprise.

Part of the problem is that my blog posts tend to be a little long-winded. That’s less than ideal in terms of the needs of readers. I could do with being more pithy and concise. Long posts are exhausting to write and exhausting to read.

But my blog fulfils more than one purpose. As well as, I hope, informing and inspiring others (whether positively or negatively) it also functions as something of a personal mission journal. It gives me a discipline and a means for a regular(ish) braindump. Still, there is probably a middle ground which involves shorter and more regular postings that can support, rather than distract from my more formal writing.

I’m sure that you’re reading this because you’ve been hardly able to sleep whilst you’ve been waiting to find out the conclusion of our discernment process at the end of the summer term.

Well if I am to make this an era of shorter posts that had better be the subject of a separate entry. Coming soon…





Home and away

24 06 2010

Yesterday I stood in for my colleague at the weekday parish eucharist and a home communion at one of the local retirement blocks. I was joined for both by the ordinand who has been on placement with us for the past few weeks. In the midst of all the discussions we’re having about the future and my expressions of anxiety if we revert to being too churchy in our current activity, it’s ironic that I found it enormously comforting to do some straightforward ‘vicaring’. Both services were simple, intimate and undemanding. I was able to step aside from all that’s going on in my head and be properly present to these two little groups of people and offer some straightforward sacramental ministry. I found a safe retreat in familiar, churchy stuff and perhaps more importantly with relaxed and, frankly, uncomplicated interaction with some appreciative people.

I had a similar experience conducting a funeral Monday lunchtime. It takes care and attention to lead a funeral well. But a lot of the time, it’s not difficult. I know what I’m doing. It feels like a privilege not a chore. And again, the family and friends of the lady we buried were appreciative.

In both these sorts of ministry encounter you get an immediate sense that you’re making a difference. And an immediate sense of satisfaction of a job well done. It’s not a challenge to work out what you need to do. You just need to do it well and with real presence and attention.

Part of me is not pioneering at all. Part of me, yearns for the comfort of the familiar, straightforward and instantly rewarding. I’m not sorry. It’s human. It’s normal. I just need to remember and make sure I’m not too quick to condemn others for feeling the same. We all enjoy the comforts of ‘home’.

I actually don’t know if I’m a natural pioneer or entrepreneur at all. But what has driven me to this sort of role is that I believe ‘home’ as we’ve known it is disappearing. The generation of people who would wish to have a home communion in their retirement flats complex is passing away. Passing away, of course, is what will ensure there are always funerals to conduct. But the number of people for whom a Church of England, even a Christian funeral will be relevant is also declining. And those are just symptoms of the bigger change – church just ain’t working for the majority of people. It isn’t even on their radar.

There is an argument that says that evangelical and charismatic churches are growing, so it’s all about church having a contemporary style and a clear message. But I don’t buy the argument. The evidence is much more mixed I think. Churches of all traditions are experiencing decline (and growth). And at the end of the day, whether it’s happy clappy or smells and bells, a significant and growing proportion of the population just ain’t interested.

It’s easy to get depressed about all that. But I think this is a providential moment for the Church to experience growth in depth. To rediscover its roots and find that home isn’t all about the familiar building and the familiar religious trappings – be they fuddy-duddy or ersatz contemporary, it’s about being alongside others as they and we encounter the mystery we call God in our lives. It will ask us to give up our settled existence and become a pilgrim people again, finding that wherever we are ‘away’, we’re home because we’re there with the One who calls us out of the immediate comforts of Ur to find new life in new places.

In that situation, we will, I’m sure find that some of our trappings are invested with new depth, meaning and vitality and that some are left aside. As a community, the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s, of which I am a part, is right in the middle of that process of re/discovery. We’ve pushed ourselves out beyond our comfort zone and found that there are some things we can’t do without just at the moment. But it is a moment and I’m beginning again to dare to hope that in the midst of all this, we will forge some genuinely new and most importantly authentic-for-our-locality ways of being and journeying with God.





Spiritual discernment in pioneer ministry.

3 10 2009

1187877_pile_of_books__1As well as the million and one other things I have to do this Autumn, I am finally making some substantial progress with my MA dissertation. I am studying for a Master of Arts in Theology for Christian Ministry and Mission with STETS.

Originally I had planned for my MA dissertation to track and evaluate the process of discernment I had outlined before taking up my post. The research aspect of the dissertation would have come from the ethnography I was planning to undertake in each of the potential mission contexts I identified. The trouble was firstly that I struggled to find time alongside this work to make progress on the dissertation. And secondly as I spent time in each setting, it was decreasingly recognisable as research and more like the raw stuff of mission. I don’t approach these places as a research student but as a christian priest. I’ve written elsewhere on why that might tend to make one a poor researcher.

There is a proper place for listening and observing as one enters new realms of human experience, but I have also felt the need to attempt to bring something real and positive into each place I come to – to make a contribution to the life I encounter from the outset of that encounter.

So as I pick up my dissertation again after summer break, I need to rethink how I might attack it. I still want to focus on discernment as it seems to me that this is a key charism for pioneers as they found and lead new missional communities and embark in new forms if mission. If our task is to participate in the mission of God in the world, we need to be able to discern what God might be doing where we are. And we need to be able to discern how we are being called to participate.

It just so happens that this coincides with the St Luke’s PCC taking a decision on my proposal to relocate our Sunday gathering in one of the nearby tower blocks and to change the nature of what we do. With the encouragement of my colleague, I introduced some Ignatian style prayer to the proceedings. Each participant was given a sheet that invited them to write down what excited them and what concerned them about the proposal. We then took a turn to share our concerns, and then again to share our excitement. Writing first meant that we were more likely to listen to each other instead of mentally preparing our contribution while others were speaking. Then we went away on our own for a few minutes to silently reflect and pray on what we’d learnt. I suggested people might want to imagine themselves in the scene of Jesus and the woman of Samaria at the well from John 4. They could imagine themselves as the woman or as an observer. I asked them to focus on the moment when Jesus says ‘true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth’ and hold a conversation with him in their imagination about what that means for us now.

There are deep, deep wells in the Christian tradition, offering spiritual practices of discernment. The Jesuit (Ignatian) tradition is very strong on this, but it occurs to me that there are other approaches too. There are more ecstatic approaches to discernment in the Pentecostal/Charismatic traditions for instance. I have begun to delve a bit deeper to see what else there is in the tradition. I am looking at the Desert Fathers and Benedict. I will take a look at Richard Hooker and perhaps the more recent experience of Indaba groups at the Lambeth conference.

Given that discernment is so important, I wondered how well prepared pioneer ministers are for approaching those moments. I wasn’t trained on the pioneer track – I came to this mode of ministry later. But when you take a look at the guidance on starting a fresh expression of church, for instance, prayer is mentioned as something one would naturally want to do, but that’s where it stops. If we ask the question of the Christian tradition, ‘Are there ways of praying that will help us to discern our calling?’, then the answer is clearly yes.

There are of course, other important moments in the process of discerning a way forward. But if we are to go beyond something that looks a lot like market research, there surely has to be a strong spirituality component. I have a sense that the managerialism that John Millbank decries in his incendiary ‘Stale expressions: the management-shaped church’ is somewhat evident in the way pioneer ministers (including myself) are encouraged and so do conceive of the new form of church/mission that might be appropriate for their context. (His critique goes deeper than that, of course.)

So I am now working towards researching the question of the extent to which pioneer ministers reach their decisions by drawing on those spiritual practices of discernment from the tradition.

Here’s my working title:
Spiritual discernment in pioneer ministry.
To what extent have spiritual practices of discernment from the Christian tradition informed four Anglican pioneer ministers as they have engaged in the process of determining their response to their particular mission context?

And here’s the first paragraph of my draft proposal:

This author contends that those appointed ‘pioneer’ by the Church of England are not as well versed in the spiritual practices of discernment that the Christian tradition has to offer as might be helpful or appropriate in the exercise of their ministry. It could be instructive for the development of initial and ongoing pioneer ministerial training and formation to test this hypothesis. It may also yield insights into the appropriateness of particular spiritual practices of discernment for the particular situations into which pioneer ministers are sent. The proposed research could thus begin to indicate both the need for, and the content of, an additional component of ministerial formation.

I am proposing to examine my own practice and that of three other volunteers (victims?) and to test this hypothesis. I will make contact with as many of the training institutions as I can to see whether spiritual practices of discernment are part of their curricula and I hope to keep a conversation going here as I discover more.

If anyone out there in the blogosphere is interested in taking part – as one of my interviewees perhaps – I’d be really pleased to speak to you. If you just want to share your experience through commenting on this post or others that follow, I’d be really grateful to receive that input too.





Pioneer, pastor or manager?

24 09 2009

748066_ihs_iiMark Berry started an interesting discussion recently. He was expressing a degree of frustration at the extent to which he finds himself having to engage in managerial and pastoral tasks when he really wants to be pioneering. I know how Mark feels. And I too appreciate his honesty. The whole idea of creating a new ministry stream was to set innovators free from the administrative and pastoral responsibilities of parochial ministry so that they’re free to experiment and spark off new forms of mission.

It’s maybe a bit ironic then that it was reported recently in the Church press that there are lots of people who have trained as ordained pioneer ministers who have been unable to find pioneer appointments. For some, I’m guessing, that’s because they’re looking for a ready-made fresh expression of church to look after. And I’m not dissing them for that. We need people like them. These will be the people that will release the really adventurous mission entrepreneurs to move on and try something new. But I think calling these people ‘pioneer ministers’ is muddying the waters a bit. Maybe ‘pastor to an established mission community’ is more descriptive if a little challenged on the catchiness front. The majority of those people will be ordained, I guess, especially if those communities are to receive sacramental ministry — pretty fundamental to any recognisably Anglican ecclesiology.

Mark Berry often wonders out loud about the necessity of ordination. He often talks about ‘models’ of ministry and ‘models’ of church. So do I. But I am decreasingly comfortable using this language. It suggests that the forms of ministry we have inherited were established as pragmatically determined forms that got stuck. That’s a very post/evangelical perspective, I think. The more I engage with thinking from a more catholic perspective, the less satisfied I am with approaches that ignore the ‘Tradition’, by which I mean the received form of the church. I am a pioneer through and through but I don’t think I’m free to ignore the Tradition. In my view it’s as important a source of authority within Christian faith and practice as any other — including Scripture. I want therefore to face up to the deeply searching questions that it asks of the emerging church, fresh expressions and pioneer ministry. That doesn’t mean I am ready to give up the adventure of reimagining mission and ministry for the 21st century but neither does it mean I can ignore the deep insights and experience of the previous centuries.

So, much as I think the Incarnation should inspire us to fashion indigenous forms of church, I also want to affirm that any ecclesial community is a local expression of the church catholic. Catholicity is something I am taking increasingly seriously. And the holy orders of bishop, priest and deacon are part of what ensures we are genuinely connected to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. I’m attracted by Mark’s idea of ordination for a time and a place but I think it reduces ordination to something functional and ignores the ontological dimension of priesthood particularly that has been part of the traditional understanding.

But then of course, I would say that wouldn’t I? I’m part of that cadre of religious ‘professionals’. But once you’ve had your consciousness awakened to a hermeneutic of suspicion, you can’t just switch it off. And that was a feature of my critical education. So I can see the bid for power that nestles inside that particular theological assertion. I have a lot of sympathy with George Bernard Shaw’s description of professions as a ‘conspiracy against the laity’. Actually I think ordained ministers of every order should see themselves as amateurs in the true sense of that word. Colloquially ‘amateur’ has connotations of operating at a low standard of competence. But at its root it means people who do something for love. It’s only then that the distinction between a stipend and a salary makes sense.

So as an ordained pioneer minister I think I cannot escape, so easily as Mark might, the broad set of responsibilities my ordination as priest entails. That includes ‘sustain[ing] the community of the faithful by the ministry of word and sacrament, that we all may grow into the fullness of Christ and be a living sacrifice acceptable to God.’ So even if there’s an extent to which as an ordained pioneer minister pastoral care might be less of a priority than for a parish priest, it’s not a responsbility I can expect to evade entirely. And neither would I want to. I think it would be deeply hurtful to found a new community without seeing through at least some of that early fragile period by offering a degree of care and nurture to its members.

And when it comes to administration, I am minded to remember that I am a clerk in holy orders. Again there’s a different balance to be struck. But I don’t think it’s legitimate to confine ourselves to what we like doing. We don’t want pioneers to be demotivated by overburdensome administration. But neither do we want to train people who are unrealistic about the need to get stuck in with doing some boring stuff from time to time. Because it’s often necessary to do that hard groundwork in order to release the vision we’ve had.

I spent part of my week working on a hall hire agreement. Part of my role includes helping a struggling parish congregation to find a renewed engagement in mission. That parish includes some buildings that are the main source of income for the parish.

Part of the struggle for this congregation has been finding resources of time among themselves for the oversight of what is effectively a business. It wouldn’t be a viable business if you took a cold, hard look at it. But it provides funds that would otherwise be difficult to find.

I am temporarily plugging a gap by doing some of this work (though it has to be said that my colleague Alex, who is actually Priest-in-Charge of the parish, has taken the lion’s share of this sort of admin). I don’t intend to do it indefinitely. But doing it now is part of a strategy for getting everything on a surer footing going forward.

And getting things off the ground — pioneering — isn’t ever, I think, just about dreaming dreams. There is always some hard grind and detailed work to do to make the dream a reality. We don’t all necessarily have to be completer-finishers but we do need to be able to see some things through to the end. If we are truly pioneering, starting things from scratch, then it’s inevitable that there won’t be enough people to ensure that nobody has to work outside their comfort zones. Now we might argue that pioneering puts us permanently outside of a comfort zone. There’s some truth in that but there’s also a degree to which we might be letting ourselves off the hook a bit too easily. On the frontier is kind of a natural home for mavericks. Being systematic, methodical, institutional — all those things are probably much more outside of a comfort zone for entrepreneuring types. But if the analogy is business, then you only need to watch Dragons Den to know that you have to do a bit more solid work than dreaming up a great idea to actually get the money!

So in the end, I think pioneer ministry inevitably does mean getting our hands dirty with both pastoral care and even in the grubbiness of management.





Canvassing opinion

2 09 2009

1021125_under_canopies_3It was a bit longer than a week or so wasn’t it! It’s been a busy summer with a real variety of experiences. And now I am looking down the barrel of a very challenging autumn.

The summer started with the family at ‘New Wine’. This is a week long christian event run by the New Wine network.

This isn’t the place to dis’ other people’s spirituality, so I will refrain. But this was not a happy experience for me. I have been before so I wasn’t surprised, but I am so far away from this sort of muscular christianity. We only went again because the children enjoyed it last year (when I went with my then training incumbent). When they enjoy it and ask to go and when the rest of the time they have very little contact with other children in a church setting, it feels mean not to take them. I was concerned at times about the level of indoctrination my children might have been subject to, but actually, they seem to be able to make quite mature judgements about what’s being said to them. And we’ve got the rest of the year to give them a broader range of experiences.

A friend and colleague recently gave me (mischievously I think) a copy of an article by John Milbank called ‘Stale Expressions: The Management-Shaped Church’. As well as critiquing the fresh expressions agenda, Milbank gives the managerialism of evangelical Christianity a bit of a going over too. This article is uncomfortable reading for people like me who have adopted an emerging/missional ecclesiology and I will return to it as I grapple with it in the coming weeks (because he makes a lot of good points).

The managerialism of evo Xty is very much evident at something like New Wine. Milbank’s analysis is quite persuasive but when you’re at a big event away from home with your children, you notice when it’s well run. So in that regard alone, I was appreciative of evo managerialism.

It stood in stark contrast to the frankly shambolic nature of Greenbelt. This was my third time at Greenbelt (a christian arts festival over the Bank Holiday weekend). I had been in ’06 and ’07 and really enjoyed it. Both times previously I had been without children. The laid back feel had been part of the attraction on those occasions. But this time around with kids in tow, I didn’t find it quite so amusing.

The contrast was all the more stark because not only had we been to the (well run but bonkers) New Wine conference at the beginning of the summer, but also because we had been only two days previously at EuroDisney (or Disneyland Resort Paris as we must now call it). Now that is well run!

We’d been there to meet up with my brother and his family, whom we hadn’t seen since last summer. Good times. If a little tiring.

Now you’d think after 3 days in Disneyland, we’d be used to queueing. But in Disneyland, you queue for 30 minutes to share a thrilling ride with excited children. At Greenbelt, we queued for an hour for a plastic token to get our children into an activity session. At the end of the queue, there were tokens for only one out of three. The venues for our two junior age children were already full. And they wouldn’t give us tokens for the afternoon session. We’d have to come back and queue again for that (for an hour and a half as it turned out). But even before that queue, when we came back an hour after collecting the morning session token for the actual session, we queued to get through the front gate, and then again at the venue inside the children’s compound and then the same again when we came back 2½ hours later to pick her up.

Now I’m sure the properly spiritual response would have been to have appreciated the unexpected downtime and to just chill enjoying the view of ominously gathering rainclouds overhead (It never did quite properly rain – unlike New Wine where we had a monsoon). But after a night of shivering in the tent, I was having a bit of a sense of humour failure, to be honest.

That all said, Greenbelt was enjoyable. The children did have a good time and did get to see a very different expression of christianity from what they’d experienced at New Wine. They loved watching Shlomo and the Vocal Orchestra on the mainstage. But Athlete on Monday night was just a bit too late for them to really enjoy it without needing to ask after every song: ‘is it finished now – can we go home?’

So now, back home, and back to work, I face the challenge of needing to write a proposal for an extension to my licence in the autumn of next year. When I started back in October, I knew this point would arrive. My job for year one was to explore possibilities and suggest a focus for ongoing work. A licence extension wasn’t exactly a foregone conclusion, but it seemed like that’s what everyone expected. But the situation has changed. The bishop is retiring this month. The diocese is facing some pretty severe financial constraints. So the question I need to answer is no longer merely, ‘what will I do?’ but ‘why is it necessary?’ I need to answer that question not just for the locality but for the whole diocese, which is facing all sorts of cuts. I’m confident I can make a strong case for why this work is needed here and why an investment should be made here particularly. I’m also confident I can demonstrate how this is vital for the whole diocese. But it’s a big piece of work. If you’re the praying kind. Pray for me. If you’re not, and you don’t feel like giving praying a go, touch wood or do whatever you do to send out your positive encouragement!