How do I meet SABRINA?

19 11 2009

How do I meet SABRINA? That’s the question that’s occupying my mind at the moment.

Not the Teenage Witch – well not especially. No, actually it’s SABRINAs (plural) of either gender. By which I mean Spiritually Active But Religious-Institution-Non-Affiliated. Another way of putting it is SBNRSpiritual But Not Religious.

I hope that’s a self-explanatory term. I’m looking to hook up with people who are interested in spirituality or actively engaging their spirit, but who – as some of my publicity for my Sunday night pub conversations says – don’t do church.

Why?

Well first off, let me state clearly and categorically, not to convert them. It’s not my business to convert anyone. That’s not because I don’t think ‘conversion’ can happen in the conversational space I’m trying to create. But if, as I believe, the mystery we call ‘God’ is going to be active in that space then conversion is something that can and will happen for all and any of us. To put it more simply, I’m not trying to meet people and open up a conversation in order to persuade people to become christians. I’m not trying to gather an audience to hear me preach. This isn’t backdoor Alpha. There’s no programme or agenda that includes a vision of moving people from one place to another along a particular route. I just want to open up a conversation and see what happens.

So that’s why not. It still leaves the question of why?

My answer is to do with the mission of the Church but also something more personal. As you’re reading this, you might discover that what I’ve said so far seems more designed to answer the question for people who don’t have explicit christian faith than for those who do. I’m trying to reassure SABRINAs that I’m not out to get them. I’m genuinely interested in their experience and to create a space for genuine conversation.

That’s because as I’ve said before, what I’ve often encountered in churches is that people can be infantilised by learning a language that shapes and to a degree controls their world view. It’s very difficult to articulate in that space real doubt or struggle or, perhaps more subtly, to celebrate real moments of grace. I think we often miss them because we’re conditioned to look for them in very specific, structured ways that doesn’t help us to recognise the Spirit blowing where she pleases. Speaking personally, I find conversation with people who haven’t been conditioned in that way more stimulating, challenging and real. So one aspect of why is, to be honest, for me. It’s part of the attraction of working outside the bounds of what normally constitutes church.

But I am being paid by the Church. This isn’t just about me having the sort of conversations I enjoy and want to stimulate. So if it isn’t about getting bums on pews, what does it do for the Church’s mission? Well, it is possible of course that some bums might find their way onto pews through this. I’m not setting out to make that happen, but that doesn’t mean it can’t. I would celebrate if someone who was regularly part of the conversation found faith where they wouldn’t have said they had it before. I would celebrate too if there emerged from this a little community of people who were wanting to take a Jesus-shaped life more seriously. But again, I don’t think it’s even possible for me to make that happen, so I’m certainly not seeing it as my job. That allows me to relax and let God do whatever God does in the midst of that. I hope it allows others to relax too and not worry that they’ll come under any sort of pressure to adopt any particular belief system.

So do I bring anything to the table other than creating a space for this sort of conversation? I think so. Because the church isn’t all bad news as far as spirituality is concerned. That’s the great shame of our (somewhat deserved) bad press. The christian tradition does have a wealth of resources to offer those pursuing a spiritual life – particularly one earthed in real, everyday experience. What I can do, therefore, is to put those resources, indeed christian faith itself back on the agenda in the broader conversation about spirituality. At least for those who join me. There’s also a gentle challenge that I can offer to people to think about the value of being in the stream of a broad tradition, rather than simply being a free-floating individual. There’s something about the ‘bigger-than-usness’ of faith that means there’s value in negotiating faith in the midst of a community that includes not just those immediately present but those who have gone before too. (In the language of the Church: the Communion of Saints.)

So far, the group, being mostly people I know already, is numerically dominated, by people who would call themselves ‘christian’. (As I’ve said before, that’s a descriptor that is not always helpful.) I say numerically, because I don’t think that so far, those people are dominating. They have got it when it comes to the attitude to different viewpoints that I’m attempting to cultivate. And I value them all being there. But if I’m just gathering interesting/ed christians together, then it does kind of defeat the object.

So I’m going, somehow, to try and make contact with SABRINA and her friends. Perhaps a website, perhaps some cards to give out, perhaps some media stuff. And just some of that providence sort of stuff that can happen when you just hang about and meet people. I’ll let you know how it goes…

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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.