13 02 2009

Well almost immediately after posting that last entry in the pub (via my iPhone), I was invited over by someone it turned out I had met before. (I was a welcome guest!) W had been on an Alpha course at St Jude’s (where I was curate). She was meeting her dad for lunch. It turned out that we had met before too, though completely independently of my knowing his daughter. We had a good chat about what I’m doing and what was going on for them. It was a gentle lead back into conversation for me. And it sort of helped me with a question I had in my mind as I walked to the pub.

When I had been doing some research in preparation for the Friday Fridge, I had gone into one or two of the pubs in Southsea wearing a dog collar. Then too I had invited myself into other people’s conversations. But I had also experienced being approached by others. Normally the conversation began with someone asking: ‘Are you a real vicar?’ (To which the technically correct answer would have been no, I was assistant curate. But what people meant was, ‘Are you a real church bod?’, not, ‘Are you really the incumbent of a Church of England parish, enjoying the right of Freehold to the Living of the Parish?!’) Now that was at a different time of day and in a different place. Lunchtime drinking is generally a more gentle and restrained affair than in the nighttime. People are probably more reserved during the day than when they are a little more ‘refreshed’ in the evening. But I wondered whether hanging around might lead to people asking me who I am and what the hell I think I’m doing! Well not quite, but it did remind me that building relationships with people is what it’s all about. I must state again that there’s no instrumentality in that. I’m not building relationships so that… Building relationships is what it’s all about.

After speaking with the people I found that I knew (a bit), I approached three people sitting together – G, C and L (one man and two women). We had a very interesting conversation. We shared some common experience as they were mature, part-time students and I have twice now been a mature, part-time student. (Actually now I come to think about it, I’m doing that a third time with my MA.) But we quickly got on to talking about my role and into a conversation about belief and how we shape our lives. Two of them had had negative experiences of church. G had recently left a new church, where he had for a time been a youth worker, because he found that church to be too judgemental. And C had devout family members, including a mother who had at one time been in a religious order. L was currently attending a church with her children.

I reflected on my experience that conversations about the deep questions of life are often of a better quality outside church settings because people don’t have the sense that they knew what answers they are supposed to give. Often, my experience of church is that there is a lack of honesty. People feel constrained to say the right thing, rather than what they really think. This was a reflection that was expressed at a clergy and church worker gathering I attended in October last year.

G expressed skepticism that I didn’t have an agenda. My agenda he suspected was to convert people and get them into my church. I understand why he felt that way. In fact, as he said, he had had that agenda when he had been a church youth worker in the past. I told them that I honestly don’t have that agenda.

I wonder if that worries some of you who are from a church and are reading this. I’ve thought about it since yesterday and I think I can honestly stand by that statement, as far as it relates to my role as city centre pioneer minister: I don’t have an agenda to convert people and get them into my church. Even in relation to my role as associate priest of St Luke’s, I’m much more interested in getting the church out among the people than in getting the people into the church – especially if church means the building. I would like to see the Christian community grow but not through presenting people with a bald choice and pressurising them to jump one way.

As I’ve said before on this blog, I want people to hear the invitation of Jesus to follow him. But I’m really not interested in trying to tell them what to think. I can’t convert anyone. If God is real (sorry if that ‘if’ offends – but that’s not a closed case for everyone reading this) – if God is real – then it’s up to God to reveal God’s self to people. I think I’m invited to be part of that process of revelation but not through beating people over the head with what I think! It’s much more about what sort of person my faith makes me. Who I am is more important than what I say. If my words badger and berate, then people don’t encounter the loving invitation of God through me. If my words, my manner and my whole being express a depth of respect, love and dignity, then maybe they will begin to wonder at what it is that makes me that way. (That’s a big if for a flawed human being!) But I am released and relaxed by the thought that it’s not my job to make anyone believe in God. It’s up to each person to make their own mind up. And as I’ve said, I don’t think belief is nearly as important as how we choose to shape our lives. I want to live my life as if God is real (mostly I fail) and quite a lot of the time I have a strong sense that God is. I think it can be a positive and transformative thing for an individual to live as if God is real; for themselves and more importantly, for the rest of the world.

I say ‘can’ because it rather depends on what you think God is like. Basically I’m with Adrian Plass: ‘God’s nice and he likes me’. (Though I would have  preferred it if Adrian hadn’t used a gendered pronoun!) I don‘t think convincing people by force of argument leads them into a living relationship with God. I’m fairly convinced that if I try to force or push a response it does nothing other than turn people off.

When I asked those people whether this couldn’t be church (‘this’ being the conversation we were having in the pub) C asked if people wouldn’t need to believe in God for that to be so. I said I didn’t think so.

It wasn’t a question that Jesus ever seemed to worry about. That’s of course because almost everyone he spoke with, did believe in God. But he didn’t seem that hung up on doctrine. He had the odd theological run in with people, like with the Sadducees when he challenged their denial of the possibility of a general resurrection, but mostly he was concerned about people’s faithfulness being expressed in mercy, love and inclusion. Following him didn’t mean saying a creed. It meant laying down your life for your friends.

So I think it would be entirely possible for an emerging community in the pub that was exploring the questions of meaning together to be *church* without all of that community’s members being able to say that they believed in God. In fact for one member of that conversational group, the church she attends does feel like a safe place to be as someon uncertain of God’s reality. I didn’t get the impression that there was open conversation in that setting, but at least she didn’t feel pressured to become something she’s not.

If that all sounds vague and woolly, well probably you’re right. But again, if God is real, God can bring something out of that conversation. And I do bring something to the table. It’s not being the one with all the answers. As I said to G,C and L, I don’t think I’ve got what they need, any more than they’ve got what I need. I think it’s the space between us and within our conversation that’s really interesting. That’s the thing that offers an opportunity for us all to grow. What I bring comes back to something I said in response to a comment on a previous post: a willingness to open up a space for dialogue that is not bound by the niceties of being in church. I also think I bring a deep engagement with the story of Jesus as the church tells and experiences it. Through living that story, I have found a depth of personal encounter with *God* experienced as ‘immanent transcendence’: the Something-Bigger-Than-Ourselves-or-This-World encountered in real, everyday life – through wonder, joy, suffering, beauty, hope and human relationships and community.

That conversation yesterday was a very inspiring and exciting encounter. The parting comment from the little group I spoke with was, ‘We’re here most Thursdays.’ It suggested that they were not averse to continuing the conversation. It raised for me the possibility that yes, this pub or another like it, could be a place where *church* could begin to happen. Not as we know it Jim, but still in a fragile and emerging way, church. Let us boldly go…

Fleeting conversation

4 02 2009

I had intended to return to the pub for ¾ hour this morning but ended up writing up what happened on Tuesday. But I did go back for a couple of hours between 1:30 p.m.and 3:30 p.m. Today I decided I would initiate some conversations. I don’t mind admitting that I was nervous about how I’d be received.

First of all I saw ‘J’ – the man I’d met yesterday. I think he seemed slightly less friendly today. But he was still happy to exchange a greeting. He asked me, “what are you doing here again, shouldn’t you be looking after your church?” Which allowed me to reply: “this is my church!” I greeted another man who J obviously knew. He said that he was pleased to see a vicar in the pub. What it turned out he was most pleased about was to see a religious person in a pub drinking (I had a pint of Guinness). He had been a publican and had thought that the Sally Ann had been taking the p*** by coming in and selling the War Cry without actually ever buying a drink. Well you can see his point. That quote will help me when I come to claim my expenses and they include several pints of Guinness!

Next I introduced myself to a group of five students. They were perfectly happy to talk to me. They are gaming design students (one of them was studying computer science). We chatted about their courses and gaming and some of their other interests, which included for one of them, shooting, life in Portsmouth, where they’d come from and so on. They were a mixed group of four lads and one girl. It was really great to start with them. They were open and friendly and it put me at my ease.

I left them and wandered over to the other side of the pub to speak with another group. They were a mixed group of four girls and one lad. They were arts and humanities students and again they were quite friendly and open. They were interested in who I was and what I was doing and were happy to chat for a bit. The conversation was very similar to my chat with the first group.

With both groups, when the conversation seemed to reach a natural hiatus, I thanked them, wished them well and moved on.

With the next group I spoke to, I reached that point a lot quicker. They were five young men – all first year students studying more technical subjects like Civil Engineering and Sports Science. Their body language told me immediately that my presence wasn’t so comfortable for them as it had been for the previous two groups I’d approached. They were heads down and gave very short answers. They weren’t actually unfriendly and said more in conversation than their closed postures suggested they might but I didn’t trouble them for too long. I have to admit that did put me off my stride a bit and took some minutes to sit by myself and summon the courage to speak to some others.

Behind me was another large mixed group that seemed less like students to me and more like local young people (or was that prejudice). They were quite a loud group and the young men were quite ‘hands on’ with the young women. They looked like they would be a more difficult group to approach but I was working up to trying. Then they all left!

So I spoke to a little trio of young men who were sitting at a table near to this larger group. I had been feeling that they might react in a similar way to the other all-male group but actually they were one of the easiest groups to speak to. One of them wanted to take the conversation in a more spiritual direction too. He was remembering drunken conversations about religion and particularly a heated discussion with another friend of his (not present) who had become more understanding of religious faith (having previously been quite anti) following the death of his (quite religious) granny. For my conversation partner the question was one of whether we needed a book to tell us what to do. His feeling was that people these days were more than capable of working out what was right and wrong. It was quite interesting that he found it possible to sustain that view, but I didn’t challenge him. Instead I spoke about how faith was about finding a connection with what’s ultimate and was about deeper questions of purpose.

I want to resist the temptation to say that conversations that take a spiritual turn are automatically more highly to be valued than more ‘mundane’ chats. But I am always pleased if my presence gives people a tacit permission to chat about subjects that they might feel more wary of broaching with their mates. In this case, though, this young man clearly had recently been thinking and talking with friends about ‘religion’.

We also spoke about future direction and aspirations. I closed the conversation this time when I felt I had taken up enough of this group’s time. There was not the same natural hiatus as with the previous groups.

Next I spoke to a couple of girls who were having a bite of lunch before their afternoon exam. Most of the others had just finished an exam or all of their exams before lectures restarted next week. In fact one member of the second group had remarked, jokingly, that it was a shame they hadn’t bumped into me in the morning so that I could pray for them before their exams. Again, despite me actually catching the these two young women whilst they were trying to eat, they were friendly and open to talk.

After a friend joined them, I wished them all the best for their exams and wandered over to the bar. I spoke with the barman briefly and then sat with an older man who was drinking and watching the cricket by himself. I had been worrying about approaching him in case he thought I was trying to pick him up. But again, once I summoned the courage to approach him, it was fine and we spoke for a little while before he headed for the loo.

The last people I approached were a pair of late middle aged men who looked like well seasoned drinkers. When i asked if they minded if I joined them, they replied that they did – they didn’t want any of that God rubbish. I apologised  for interrupting them, wished them a pleasant afternoon and, after saying goodbye to the barman, I left.

It was all round a pretty encouraging experience. I am feeling that I will gain in confidence as the next few days wear on and gain some valuable experience. I wondered today, during the pause I took after speaking with the third group, what it is I am looking to find out that I don’t currently know. This is not a natural question for me, I was just imagining what questions anyone taking a hard-nosed look at how I was spending my time my want to ask. I didn’t come up with an answer to that and that seems okay at the moment. I don’t know what my questions are really at the moment. I’m just seeing where this will all take me.

I shall return at lunchtime on 5th February and let you know how I get on.

Chaplain of the Fleet

4 02 2009

Yesterday was the first day of the couple of weeks I’m intending to spend in a city centre pub. I arrived at around midday and just took a walk down Guildhall walk, photographing all the pub/bar exteriors on my iPhone and thinking about where I would start.

I didn’t intend to try and get round them all but to chose one to focus on and spend the next fortnight in there. That in itself was a difficult call. Perhaps the way forward would have been to go on a crawl and then by the end I wouldn’t have cared.

But as I had in mind that I wanted to organise Beer and Hymns in a pub for Easter Day night, I could fairly easily rule out the Isambard Kingdom Brunel – a Weatherspoons pub as they don’t have music. I guessed that the clientele would be a little more transient than one of the others that might draw in a particular crowd. From the outset, my hunch was that the Fleet along King Henry I Street, next door to Weatherspoons would be a good bet so I went with my hunch.

I wandered in, bought a drink at the bar, chatted to the barmaid a bit and then bought a sandwich and sat down at a table next to a group of lads. I thought about approaching them and initiating a conversation but it was my intention to start my time there engaged in ‘surveillance’. I’m following the process used by the Church on the Edge project, and I guess familiar to people trained in detached youth work.

One of the project leaders, Richard Passmore, describes the stages on his blog.

Basically, you start with observing a wide area to identify where you want to begin. That can take quite a long time and I’ve shortcut that massively, but I do only have two weeks (and even then it’s an interrupted two weeks). So I haven’t – as one might if following this process more fully – gone into every pub. But I thought it would be important before diving in to spend my first day observing the life in the pub over the sort of period I’m likely to be there each day. I’ll be missing another whole part of its life – the night. Given my last post, you might have thought this is where I’d want to start, but these are just tasters really and I wanted to make this manageable.

The people I saw during the day were overwhelmingly young. They came in pairs, small groups and occasionally large groups. They appeared to be students in the main and bar staff confirmed that impression. There were some others too. Lone older drinkers, middle-aged couples and other young people who I’m guessing were not students.

People generally stayed for quite a long time. It looked to me as if I would be hard, not to say rude, to break into the groups of people as their conversation was animated. These were groups of friends having a good time together – why would they want to speak to a vicar? (Even if he does have ripped jeans and spiky hair.)

The only way to find out will be to try. That’s what I’ll be doing tomorrow.

I spent quite a lot of time just supping and looking (nice work if you can get it!). That was quite hard actually. It doesn’t feel like especially productive time, when I’ve been used to recently ‘getting things done’. And I wondered how people might feel about the presence of this lone cleric just hanging around. People did look at me inquisitively on occasion and I just caught hints of conversation that suggested people were intrigued. I didn’t get the feeling that people were especially creeped out by my being there.

I did have some conversations. I said a hello to a lone drinker who I’ll call ‘J’. I chatted to the busy bar staff when I could and managed to have a bit of a longer conversation with the shift manager. I asked him about the possibility of a Beer and Hymns night and he seemed up for it. He was also very relaxed about me hanging around for the next couple of weeks and initiating conversations with people.

So I’m good to go. I’ll keep you posted on what happens!

The Fleet from King Henry I Street 

The Fleet from King Henry I Street

The Fleet entrance from Spring Gardens

The Fleet entrance from Spring Gardens

30 p.m.

Inside the Fleet at about 3:30 p.m.