Retreat! Retreat!

23 03 2009

I spent last week travelling to, being at and returning from an organized retreat for pioneer ministers at Lee Abbey in North Devon. It was a time for deep spiritual reflection. It was hard work. There was no raucous singing round a beach fire and definitely no late night card playing or whisky drinking. Honest.

There were 24 of us involved in all kinds of projects. I was particularly in awe of Paul and Jo who are running a pub in Coventry. You’ve got to admire anyone prepared to live in Coventry. Only joking J+P. Coventry’s lovely!

Quite a few of us were in ‘mixed economy’ appointments — part pioneer, part parish. Others were struggling to pioneer new forms in conventional appointments. There was a good deal of experience of frustration and misunderstanding being shared. I’m thankful that I have experienced such strong support this far in the Diocese of Portsmouth. I just have to cope with the pressure of expectation!

Soul space
The retreat programme included ‘soul space’ groups. We met in small groups with a facilitator. Each person who wanted to, shared something of what was going on for them each day of the retreat. The others in the group just listened in silence without comment. We kept silence after each speaker. We maintained a sort of double confidentiality. Anything shared in the group was kept private and we agreed not to approach each other to speak about anything that had been said. There were a few skeptical murmurings, but my experience of the group I was in was positive. I thought this was powerful and helpful. I think it could work in an adapted form with children as well as adults. You’d need two adults present for accountability and need to be careful about the degree of confidentiality that was guaranteed. You’d have to make it clear that you’d pass on anything that the school, for instance, needed to know. Children might find it more difficult to maintain the ‘no further discussion’ rule.

Prophet of boom!
Former President of the Methodist Conference, Tom Stuckey led a Bible reflection each day from Acts. He interpreted the current state of the world and the Church in prophetic terms. We’re in an in-between time, he said. We’re on the cusp of a Pentecostal explosion of Sprit. He didn’t mean Pentecostal in terms of Pentecostalism or charismatic renewal. He was speaking more about an explosion of missionary enterprise and the growth of the church in new forms (fresh expressions).

I’d love to go with his interpretation. It was certainly an exciting vision. I recognize absolutely his portrayal of where we are now as being in a liminal space. It definitely feels like we’re in uncharted territory. And it’s not comfortable even for those of us who spin ourselves as adventurous.

Sound the retreat
But ‘retreat’, ironically, feels like quite a good analogy for where the Church is at present to me.

There is a strong drive to retreat into forms of church and worship that make us feel safe or as I keep finding myself saying at the moment — like we’re on the winning side.

Church people always look at me askance when I say that. I’m sure they’re thinking (because sometimes they say so) ‘of course we’re on the winning side’. That’s the eschatological promise that Julian of Norwich spoke of when she said ‘all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well’. It would be difficult to carry on if I didn’t have hope that in the end justice, peace, joy and love will overcome (underwhelm?) the forces arrayed against them.

But that is not the same thing as the triumphalism that characterizes some churches — the sort of churches that others want to retreat into. And to be honest, at times, I feel like retreating into. When I’m involved in a tiny, struggling church and we’re surrounded by mega church on every side, it can feel like you’ve got it wrong. Those closest to me aren’t wholly persuaded by my analysis that big church isn’t the way forward.

And when there’s pressure from within the congregation to try and emulate that soft rock style of gathered worship, perhaps with the idea that we too will become mega church somehow — it can be discouraging. Because in giving in to that pressure a bit we’re ending up with something that satisfies no-one and affirms our death rather than our life.

I think the future of the Church is as tiny, struggling congregations. But not struggling because we’re trying to recover past glories or copy someone else’s admittedly impressive present ones. Mega church is, I think, the last gasp of Christendom. It marshalls impressive resources and fosters a particular form of committed discipleship, but it fails, I believe to incarnate the gospel in the plethora of cultures around us. It expresses the gospel in a sub-culture that’s often more sub than culture. And in the end it doesn’t always provide the depth of spirituality people need to bear life’s complexities in faith. That’s my experience anyway.

I think if we take seriously the call to mission as a way of life and not just something we do ‘out there’ then it will shape our whole life — including what sustains us spiritually, individually and corporately. If we can’t find God in the forms of our immediate culture how on earth do we imagine we’ll help others to?