We’re one, but we’re not the same

9 10 2010

So what do I need to tell you to bring you up to date with all that’s going on in the world of pioneering in Pompey? I suppose if I am going to stick to my new short post rule, it had better be one thing at a time. I think the last thing I reported (ignoring for a second my musings after a home communion) was that we, the Sunday Sanctuary, were about to embark on a process of discernment. We were going to try to work out the best way forward for us as a whole community — former members of St Luke’s and newer members from Wilmcote House. And by working out, I don’t mean just figuring it out for ourselves. I mean that through our reflection and sharing, we are intentionally looking to participate in the emergence of God’s future for our community. (I’ll unpack a bit more of what I mean by that in a future post.)

But just to explain how we actually went about it… On two consecutive Sundays, we gathered as usual and shared a welcome and breakfast together. Then, when it came to our circle/all-together time, we explained the three options that the PCC had come up with. These were meant to be a basis for conversation, not a straightjacket. We approached the process with an openness, an expectation, even, that something else could emerge that we hadn’t considered yet.

So after explaining the options, we encouraged people to spend some time in quiet, reflecting on each of the options. Adults and older children each had a sheet that invited them to write down one thing that excited them about each idea and one thing that concerned them. The younger children each had a sheet with smiley faces. They needed an adult to help them, reading the options to them and showing how to use the sheets. We then followed that with a time where everyone, of every age was encouraged to share in turn. We set some boundaries for this sharing. We went round the circle twice; first sharing our concern and then the second time around sharing what excited us about each idea. There was to be no comment from others as each person shared. Each person was to be listened to and their contribution allowed to stand. We followed that with a time of more freeflowing conversation.

I had intended to conclude this time by describing what I perceived to be the mind of the group and then inviting people to participate in a five-finger vote on what I would be suggesting. There was a little bit of disquiet from one or two of the church council members when we mentioned voting. I think I had not explained clearly enough what this meant. It wasn’t about taking a decision that properly belonged to the council, but simply a way for people to express their support or otherwise for what I would have been suggesting as a distillation of the conversation so far.

As it was, there wasn’t enough unanimity to formulate a single expression of the mind of the gathering. But that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t unity. I don’t think that unity is the same thing as unanimity (and this isn’t what you’re looking for in a discernment process anyway). But on what basis can I claim that there was unity? I can’t give you a concrete moment. It’s more a sense that I have, and others shared, that it mattered to everyone what happened; that our newer friends viewed themselves as belonging to the Sunday Sanctuary, not merely people who come to something.

I think I probably can identify a couple of explicit things that are signs of that. First, there was the fact that our newer members fully participated in the discernment process and were not embarrassed or reticent about sharing their responses. Second, those same newer members were concerned about making our time together more churchy and in expressing that, it became clear that they really value the way we do things together on a Sunday morning.

When you put that together with the desire from the more established members to share the discernment process with our newer members, I think it’s evident that we are well on the way to becoming one community. We’re not of one mind. But we are one body.

I’ll tell you more about how it has all worked out practically in another post, because this is already too long! But for now I think I’m happy to celebrate this moment. I am blown away that we have come together in this way so soon after we started.





New directions

23 06 2010

I know someone who got themselves in a right pickle by blogging about what had gone on in a PCC meeting. PCC? Parochial Church Council – it’s a Church of England parish’s very own baby church parliament. In other church traditions the whole membership of a local congregation takes decisions about the deployment of resources. In the Anglican setup, at least in England, these decisions are delegated to a small, elected, representative body: the PCC.

The Church of England is episcopally led and synodically governed. Basically that means that clergy have all the responsibility and none of the power! Which is a good thing, I think. No really it is. I aim to give away power and pursue influence instead.

Except tonight, the PCC gave genuine leadership itself I think. And I don’t think it will be a problem to blog about it – I’m bigging them up, not dissing them!

We finally, after a few days’ delay, met to kick start the process of discerning a way forward for our main activity. I was going to say, our main Sunday morning activity, but one of the options to emerge was that we should change the time when we meet. That suggestion came from me (and actually, initially from my colleague Alex, so I’ll steal no credit there).

After a short devotional introduction, and a bit of business, we began the process of examining where we’ve got to and where we might be going next. I was surprised by how positive we were about the first of those. There was no desire to roll back in terms of location or engagement or to attempt to work with a different ‘client group’. Young families are still the focus of our presence in Wilmcote House and Somerstown more generally. Measuring ourselves against each of the five values of a mission-shaped church, there was much to encourage us.

We all know, though, that there are frustrations for some of our number – the lack of opportunities to encounter God in sung worship, the lack of extended Bible teaching and opportunities for corporate prayer, the relentless hard work required to do what we’re doing now and the smaller numbers we’re seeing on Sunday mornings these days.

I don’t share many of these concerns personally, but is undeniable that they are very much in evidence among us and that these have the potential to break our communion. Sorry if that phraseology sounds too grand. This is not on the scale or intensity of the things threatening to break the Anglican Communion. But it is clear that we cannot carry the unresolved tension any further without people feeling compelled to walk away.

So, we try and move forward together; to preserve all that we have invested in each other. At the same time, we were keen to preserve the relationships we’ve established with our new friends in Wilmcote House. I was concerned that in our desire to reinstate some aspects of worship as we have experienced we might be loading people up with some unhelpful ‘baggage’ or, worse (is it worse?) put them off completely so that they never darken their door again.

We had an involved, and at odd moments, difficult, conversation. But we managed to conduct it in a spirit of honesty, humility and compassion. At the end of that discussion, we formulated three options:

  1. Integrate more familiar elements of worship throughout the morning.
    We would shorten our opening times. Instead of opening at 10 am, we would open at 10:30. As now, the first half hour would be set aside for welcome, breakfast and conversation. The next hour would incorporate singing, preaching and prayer alongside some more all-age focused activities.
  2. Add a ‘service’ at the end.
    The start and finish times would remain the same, and the time between 10:30 and 11:15 would remain predominated by all-age focused activities, but the time between 11:15 and 11:45 would be a more concentrated and structured service of worship including the elements identified in option 1.
  3. Move to the afternoon.
    Given that research suggests family activities are most successful in the afternoon, we thought we should consider as one of our options moving our activity to that time. This would involve an hour focused on hospitality and storytelling between 5pm and 6pm and then a contemporary music style service at 6:30 pm.

The master stroke that came out of our discussion was that the Wilmcote House families who are part of ‘us’ now should also be invited to participate in our discernment process. We could have invited them to come to our Tuesday evening gatherings that we have set aside for this purpose. But the suggestion that we should instead move our communal discernment to Sunday mornings for the next few weeks was recognised by all as the best way forward. It allows all ages to participate and allows the broadest possible participation in terms of residents, more longstanding members of the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s and some of that latter group who don’t normally make Tuesday evenings.

I am troubled by the possibility that we might be becoming more worship-shaped and less mission-shaped, slightly more stale than fresh expression, but I have to recognise the reality of where people are, what they’re able to give and what they need to receive. I just hope and pray that, whatever the final shape of what we do together, this is a necessary corrective to ensure we grow and develop as a pioneering community and not a withdrawal into more safe and familiar territory. That way lies our demise, I fear.





Which way(s) now?

15 06 2010

So enough of me and my angst (for now 😉 ). This week the PCC meet to kick of the process of reviewing where we’ve got to with what we’re currently doing and how we might develop. The discussion will be in two parts. The first part takes us through the values of a mission-shaped church, as we have been paraphrasing them. The second is about trying to determine what options there are for taking things forward.

PART ONE: Where have we got to?

Are our Sunday and Tuesday gatherings:

  • INSPIRED BY GOD?
    Are we* all drawn closer to God?
  • RELATED TO CONTEXT?
    Are we* connecting with the locality and its culture?
    Are we* relating to the right context? (Are we where we’re being called to be?)
  • MAKING A DIFFERENCE?
    Are we* making life better for the community we serve?
    Are we* making enough of a difference to enough people?
  • CHANGING PEOPLE’S LIVES?
    Are we* active in calling and helping each other to become disciples of Christ?
  • BUILDING COMMUNITY?
    Is all that we* do characterised by welcome and hospitality.
    Are our* ethos and style open to change as new people join?

* To what extent should we consider newer members from Wilmcote House as being part of our community in these questions? Is it us/them, or we? That’s not an entirely straightforward question. The way we have responded to newer members needs in practical ways suggests the members of the Congregation Formerly Known as St Luke’s (TCFKASL) see these newer people as part of our community. And the way they have got involved in helping to make our Sunday mornings happen suggests they have a sense of ownership and investment in who we are together. On the other hand, these newer members have not yet taken the steps (such as baptism) that would allow them to officially participate in the governance of the parish.

Where do we go from here?

The original vision for TCFKASL, that I laid out last summer, is that we would become a mission community, spending a period rooted in particular places in order to found new, indigenous and eventually self-sustaining congregations in Somerstown. TCFKASL would be sustained in its mission spirituality by forging and living a shared ‘rule’ (in the neo-monastic vein) in our Tuesday gatherings and our everyday lives.

  • How does that look now that we have begun to engage?
  • Is the original vision still sound?
    If not, how do we go about forging a new vision?
  • How do we change what we do now in order to address its current shortcomings and to allow for the emergence/evolution of our vision for our place in this locality? This might include consideration of our target group, the location of our activities, their timing, format and frequency as well as how we make best use of our current resources and personnel.
  • Do we need to change what we do now radically or more gradually?
  • What different possibilities are there that we can agree to take forward into the discernment process with the wider congregation in the coming weeks?




Power to the people!

9 06 2010

Another 70s TV reference! Robert Lindsay as ‘Wolfie’ from Citizen Smith.

So when the PCC of St Luke’s agreed to relocate our main Sunday activity to Wilmcote House — one of the local tower blocks — it was, at my suggestion, for the period of one year. We agreed that we would review before the summer break.

And here we are. That review is about to take place. And it’s clear that some members of the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s are wanting to ask some pretty searching questions about what we do. Let me be clear: that’s a good thing. I should be welcoming it. I do. But I also feel somewhat nervous about it.

Why is that?

Perhaps there are two reasons.

FIRST: THIS IS MY BABY

It isn’t of course. This is not my church or my mission. But its current form is an expression of a vision I’ve been articulating – that we would become a mission community, spending a period rooted in particular places in order to found new, indigenous and eventually self-sustaining congregations in Somerstown. TCFKASL (The Congregation Formerly Known As St Luke’s) would be sustained in its mission spirituality by forging and living a shared ‘rule’ in our Tuesday gatherings and our everyday lives.

So I’ve got a lot invested in this enterprise, emotionally, spiritually and, dare I say it, in terms of my reputation. Now some of you more saintly readers of this blog will perhaps be shocked that such a consideration as the last of those should even feature. But there it is. I admit it. I have an ego. It matters what people think. It’s not decisive, but it’s there. Perhaps because I acknowledge it, I’m better able to mediate against its less favourable influence. Time will tell.

By suggesting that we keep the arrangement to a year, I was attempting to save us from getting stuck in yet another set way of being and doing. It was my intention that the arrangement should never become fixed, but always provisional, under constant review. The funny thing is that I think of all of us involved, I have become the most ‘stuck’ in what we’re currently doing. I do genuinely think we might need to give it a bit longer to see how it might work. Even though this is the annual review, we’ve actually only been going for seven months.

SECOND: WHAT ABOUT US?

I am nervous because in part the motivation for some of the questioning is that perennial question ‘what about us?’ I don’t blame or condemn people for that question. It’s a perfectly legitimate question. I’ve been saying for all those months we’ve been operating and for several before that, that if we engage with God in God’s mission we will be fed. And I’ve been saying that if we engage with children, like whom we are invited to become, we will meet God. I’ve been saying it. But for some at least, the experience hasn’t lived up to my rhetoric. There is a degree to which I wonder whether people have been as open to those sorts of experience as they might. But the fact remains. What I said would happen for people has only happened really for those who already found spiritual fulfilment in those ways.

So my nervousness comes from the desire I hear being expressed to pull back from the ecclesiological edge to somewhere a little more familiar. It worries me that the new people we’ve got to know could be sidelined as longstanding Christians look for more of what they’ve known in their church experience.

This is such a difficult balance to tread. In one sense, I am tempted (alongside my recognition that ‘I’m a failure’) to see this as a failure of my leadership. I have not managed to persuade people or demonstrate to them in our shared enterprise that the presence of God is to be found and that this is of itself worship and offers opportunities for discipleship. I am actually not so sure of this position as I once was. I need to look into the Tradition and recent experience to explore more deeply how it is that a mission community on the edge is spiritually sustained.

But on another level, I think I can allow myself to recognise, without blowing my own trumpet – well all right, maybe just a little – that this paradoxically represents an endorsement of my leadership. Because alongside the mission stuff (and in fact not separable from it) is the community stuff. I have worked hard to foster investment in relationships that are open, honest and trusting. People expect and feel safe to share how they’re really finding their journey. And in looking for and implementing ways that we can share in communal discernment, I have encouraged this community to develop a flat structure and an ethos of shared responsibility.

We find our way forward together. So that’s what we’re doing. We are going to try to find a way forward together that allows space for people to be resourced spiritually in more familiar ways as well as engaging in adventurous mission.





I’m a failure :-D

6 06 2010

I am thinking of renaming this weblog. ‘Failblog’ is my favourite. Unfortunately it’s taken.

If you get the reference here, you’re too old for all this cutting edge stuff! It is, of course, the hapless Frank Spencer.

I am just very conscious of my failings at the moment. I’ve posted nothing on here for a month at least. I have failed to write a single word of the dissertation chapter I intended to write this half term holiday. Instead I faffed about tidying the study and serfing (sic) t’Internet. I have also stayed up way too late, far too often playing video games. So it’s not even as if my failure to do any work (which I shouldn’t really have been doing anyway) resulted in my family getting quality attention from me. Pottering around the edges of a bit of work meant that nothing and nobody really got any good attention. *Sigh*

I am my own worst enemy.

Being tired, of course, doesn’t tend to lead to feelings of joyous hopefulness. I just need a good night’s sleep or seven.

I am writing this sitting at the table in the pub hosting my Sunday evening conversation. Except of course the fact that I’m typing this dear listener should be a massive hint that there ain’t much conversation happening! I’m not particularly bothered about that. I am happy to just be here on occasion to maintain the presence. I am conscious though that this weekly event hasn’t connected as yet with any new constituency of people. To be honest it’s mostly christian friends I’ve met in various ways in my previous ministry and a few others. It’s clearly meeting some sort of need for them for more ‘edgy’ spiritual/theological conversation. But I haven’t made contact with those other people — the spiritual but not religious people in the city — who might be interested to discuss what the Christian Tradition might have to offer.

I know that I’m repeating myself now. I have said this before. I can even think of the actual post title where I’ve said this before. I suppose this is then just to report: no progress! Fail.

Failure and success are slippery categories in my view. There is something of the immediate results culture that has touched the Church. And with resources being so tight, it’s right that hard questions should be asked about the value of this particular investment over another – those are the choices that have to be made. I am sometimes guilty of letting myself off the hook. It’s all too easy in the worlds of pioneer ministry and fresh expressions to hide laziness and lazy thinking behind funky words. With me I think it’s not so much that I don’t work hard enough (though I can’t evade that entirely) but rather that I don’t always work intelligently enough. And I do too easily allow myself to become distracted. For instance, this morning, looking for a nice picture of Michael Crawford as Frank Spencer led me into a period of reading about both the real actor and the fictional character on t’interweb.

Life is full of strange consonance, conjunctions and coincidences. It’s rare in my experience so far that anything is ever completely wasted. There is something about the quality of a spiritual life that allows I think for idleness; that values human life as a whole, not just for its productivity or effectiveness. Alongside that, of course, one has to set the call to discipleship which is a hard road. So I recognise myself as a failure. I look for opportunities to grow and be more attentive to life and those with whom I share it. But at the same time, I can, like Frank Spencer, express that recognition with joy, because that call to grow never takes me beyond the confines of grace. I am loved. There is One who delights in me despite, maybe even because of, the fact that I’m a failure.





A year in the life

27 04 2010

Thought you might be interested to read the report I wrote for the APCM of the parish of St Luke, Southsea on the 20th April, 2010.

Last April, Alex spoke about the past, present and future of the parish of St Luke’s.

Looking at the past, we heard that from its inception, St Luke’s has struggled to engage with the troubled area it has served. And from the outset too, the congregation has found its building difficult to sustain.

In some periods, the church grew by attraction: people came from across the city and beyond because they liked its style. Good attendance looks like success. But that ignores the question of whether the church is remaining faithful to the original vision that inspired its founders. That vision was and is an expression of the very heart of what it means to be the Church of England: a commitment to each and every locality and its people.

Responding to the needs, material, social and spiritual of all the people in the geographical parish is clearly beyond us. We are a tiny, fragile and diverse Christian community. But in recognising that, we have found freedom to seek to express our identity in a fresh way. Though tentative and unsure, we have found the courage to take a significant step towards leaving behind a familiar and comfortable way of being church and embarking on a new adventure in mission.

Instead of trying to be all things to all people, we have focused our energy and resources on engaging in mission with one very specific locality. Our ‘parish’ has in effect got a lot smaller! Our mission field is essentially one tower block of 108 flats housing approximately 400 people. On some Sundays we have welcomed getting on for a tenth of that population. Most churches would be delighted with attendance like that!

Of course the rest of the actual parish hasn’t gone away. And neither have we abandoned those who don’t live in Wilmcote House. We don’t have the capacity on our own to sustain the traditional parish model of mission. But the possibility of uniting with our sister congregation in Somerstown offers the opportunity to develop complementary expressions of mission that nourish and nurture each other.

One of the constant challenges for us since our move into Wilmcote House has been the question of how we will be sustained in our faith. Those familiar and comfortable ways of being church I mentioned earlier offered real resources for our individual and communal discipleship (even though they were failing to provide an opportunity to respond to God’s call to join in God’s mission in this locality).

That challenge remains and we continue to reshape what we do in response to our own needs and the needs of those with whom we now find ourselves gathering. Uniting with St Peter’s means that we don’t have to do it all ourselves and within our own capacity. Our particular expression of the Anglican mission in Somerstown needs to be able to become church in its own right, but alongside that we have the opportunity to find spiritual resources as part of a bigger whole. That will not be entirely comfortable as the tradition of our sister parish is not what many of us are used to. But in coming together, we will find, I believe, that we will all grow as disciples of Christ.

The issues we identified last year haven’t been resolved over the last twelve months. If anything, they’ve intensified. We now need to consider together the immediate maintenance and future of two parish church buildings, alongside an intriguing and, for some, unsettling offer from the city council. We were talking about the parishes coming together this time last year. It might seem like there has been little progress. But Alex has been doing significant work in the intervening months preparing the ground for uniting St Peter’s and St Luke’s with a little assistance from the associate priest. And we have taken a significant step in beginning to inhabit our vocation as a ‘fresh expression’ of the Anglican mission in Somerstown.

There are enormous challenges ahead for all of us and in particular the members of the new PCC. But I think we should be encouraged by what we have already achieved together. The future’s bright!





What to do when your ass speaks…

18 03 2010

‘If God can speak through Balaam’s ass, God can speak through anyone.’ It’s an old, bad joke. A joke, sadly, I’ve never quite grown out of.

I suppose some people who’ve found their way to this page after typing in ‘ass’ as a search team are going to be seriously disappointed.

Er… Because there’s not a lot of donkey-related information on this page.

The ass I’m referring to belonged, according to Numbers 22, to a Canaanite prophet called Balaam. The story is from the period when the people of Israel are hanging around in the lands east of the river Jordan, beating up the locals. This is okay, apparently, because God had told them the land was theirs and they should turf out those wicked people who were going around the place wickedly minding their own business and stuff. Shocking. Sounds to me like they deserved everything they got.

So the people dishing out the righteous justice have already seen off the Amorites and ‘Og, king of Bashan’ (what a quality name) and now, understandably, Balak, king of Midian, is getting a bit perturbed. (He and his people have also it seems been minding their own business. The infidels!) So Balak calls on Balaam (local purveyor of sooths what needs saying) to go and put a curse on the Israelites.

As an interesting aside, it seems that Balaam receives his oracles from none other than YHWH – God of the Israelites. I’m not the first person, and certainly not the cleverest, to suggest that the evolution of Hebrew monotheism might not have followed the straightforward path outlined in the Bible. I wonder if there’s a hint here that YHWH might have started out as a Canaanite deity. If so, it seems someone has forgotten to airbrush it out.

Anyway. According the text, it seems that Balaam isn’t a false prophet. Balak’s invitation to dish out a bit of cursing is getting the thumbs down from the big G. Balaam stays at home. What happens next is a bit odd (but not the oddest thing that happens in the story). First off, God tells Balaam that it’s alright for him to go with all the king’s men. Then, it seems, God is cross that Balaam goes with all the king’s men and sends Arnie the Angel to stand in the way (complete with flaming sword). Now call me old fashioned, but if you say it’s alright for someone to do something, it’s a little bit unreasonable to be cross with them when they do it. Actually, I can think of more than one occasion where my wife has done the same… 😉

Anyway poor old Balaam sets off on his poor old longsuffering ass. Apparently donkeys can see things people can’t. So Balaam’s ass sees Arnie the Angel. And being more than a little intimidated by big shiny fellow with flaming sword, tries to turn around. Balaam, being a grumpy old sod, whips his ass. I know. I know. I just can‘t resist…

It’s at this point that the even stranger thing happens: Balaam’s ass speaks. Nothing especially profound. Pretty much just, ‘stop hitting me with a big stick!’ It’s at that point that Arnie the Angel stops being invisible (not really very fair of him/her/it in the first place) and tells Balaam to listen to his ass and turn back.

Talking donkeys. Invisible angels with fiery swords. It all sounds more than a little far fetched, doesn’t it! It all sounds like a bit of a bad trip. So why on earth would I make it the text for the Saturday morning session of our recent weekend away?

Well because I wanted to suggest to people that guidance can come to us from the most unexpected of sources. We shouldn’t expect that God will communicate only to and through the people who call themselves God’s people. Guidance may not even come through people at all. Now I don’t mean we should be listening more carefully to what our animals are saying. If someone came to me and told what it was God had told them through the voice of their hamster, I would back away slowly and then, when I was at a safe distance either a) run away or b) get them sectioned. In fact I’d probably react in the same way to anyone who told me they’d heard the audible voice of God in any way. What I mean is that interpreting the story, once again, metaphorically, we should expect to hear from God in circumstances, maybe particularly those that have something of the uncanny about them. (More of this when I post about St Peter’s vision in Acts 10.)

What’s interesting on this occasion is that the guidance is about not going in a particular direction. About some sort of imperceptible obstacle to taking a particular way forward. I often hear people talking about guidance in terms of the opening and closing of particular doors. You have to be careful about this because tit could end up sounding like you should only ever take the easy option. I don’t think it’s that. Actually, Balaam in this story is trying to take the easy option – doing what the king asks instead of standing firm on what he is fairly confident is right.

This reminds me of the occasion from Acts 16 when St Paul and his companions are prevented from going into Turkey by the ‘Spirit of Jesus’. I was reminded of this story by my dissertation supervisor when we were discussing the relationship between discernment and spiritual formation. So, to develop the point I was making in my last post, if the key is spiritual formation, then maybe discernment becomes about being steered away from unhelpful options rather than being shown the one and only way forward from a set of options.

For the parish congregations that my colleague and I are working with, the voice from ‘outside’ the community is not closing a door but potentially opening one. The civic authority has made an invitation that looks like an amazing opportunity to set the Anglican mission in Somerstown on a very sure footing for a very long time to come. We are seriously exploring it.

The other aspect of this story that I wanted to explore is the notion of prophecy itself. In the popular imagination, prophecy is about foretelling – the supernatural ability to predict the future. But, as many commentators have pointed out before, in the Bible, prophecy is very much more concerned with forthtelling. It’s about the people being called to account for themselves and their faithfulness to their values and tradition. Prophets often speak in the midst of a crisis – identifying current troubles as a judgement on a failure to be faithful.

There’s a notion too though, within the pentecostal and charismatic traditions that prophecy is a ‘charism’ – a special ability to speak on behalf of God to the Christian community. This might be a momentary gift or a more longstanding gift; such that the New Testament identifies prophet as a distinct ministry in the life of the Church. My own experience within these traditions and my growth away from them inclines me to be skeptical. But I have been challenged by thinking about this whole notion of discernment to consider again whether (again in the words of my dissertation supervisor) these experiences and gifts might be in my future as well as my past.

So with all that in mind, I invited the people at that Saturday morning session to invite God to speak through them prophetically in response to the invitation we had heard from outside the community.

In a discussion, it’s perfectly normal to expect people to influence one another and for the conversation to develop a dynamic of its own. But if we were to hear in a way that went beyond our collective voice, I thought we needed to approach this question differently.

So I invited people to go and find a space on their own; to spend 10 minutes in quiet, asking God to speak through them; and then to write down what they thought they’d heard. I then asked people to put their piece of paper into a bowl. In then invited everyone to take a piece of paper and read what was written on it. It wouldn’t be fair to share the individual contributions. But there was a sense I think in which there was both an encouragement and a challenge. There was an encouragement to engage in the process we were being invited into without knowing what the outcome would be as well as a challenge to remain true to our emerging core values. I think the sum of those contributions was bigger than its parts and there was a sense that this process moved us on. The door remained open. The way was not barred by any angels with flaming swords that we could detect. But then of course, I could be speaking out of my ass…





Take a chance on me…

13 03 2010

Any priest who encouraged their congregation to take a punt on the ponies would probably not be surprised to be summoned to see their bishop. Gambling has probably rightly been seen as difficult to reconcile with Christian discipleship. It’s forever associated in the Christian imagination with the game of dice that determined which of the soldiers that had brutally executed Jesus would get to keep the shirt off his back. Gambling is associated too with the frivolous waste of resources – the opposite of good stewardship – and with greed and vice. Games of chance seem at odds with a somewhat more deterministic Christian worldview. Letting things turn on the roll of a dice appears the inverse of seeking to learn the will of God.

And yet at the very beginning of the Church’s life we see a pretty major decision being made on the basis of a game of chance. Choosing the successor of Judas was settled by the casting of lots (aka cleromancy [sorry I love jargon]) according to the book of Acts.

It’s not the only time it features in the Bible when people are trying to hear from God or in the next case, the gods. In the story of Jonah, the stormblown sailors work out who the ‘Jonah’ is by casting lots. According to some writers on t’internet there are 70 references to ‘lots’ in the Hebrew Scriptures and a handful in the New Testament. That may be right or it might not. To be honest I can’t be bothered to trawl through and check it out. Maybe I should cast my urim and thummim to find out…

Thinking about the choosing of Matthias over Justus led me to wonder about the role of chance in the process of discernment.

If you’re a reasonably regular reader of this blog then you’ll probably have been wondering if there was ever going to be anything new on here anytime soon. But leaving that aside you probably also know that I’m in the process of writing my MA disssertation at present. It’s on the subject of discernment in pioneer ministry. This is no pure ‘academic’ exercise for me. There are some really puzzling questions facing my colleague and I and the churches and communities we serve. Finding out what shape is taken here by the ‘thy will’ that we want to ‘be done’ in Somerstown as in heaven is very much on our agenda. I’ll say more in coming posts about what we might mean by God’s will and how we engage with it. For now let it suffice to say that I don’t think it’s as simple as working out what God wants and then just getting on with it.

Thinking about casting lots came about as I puzzled over how to help my little mission community – the congregation formerly known as St Luke’s – into taking part in and responsibility for discerning a way foward for our ‘Sunday Sanctuary’ endeavour as we went away together for the first weekend in March. I was taking a trawl through the book of Acts looking at occasions when the Church in mission engaged in a process of discernment as its members wrestled with questions of direction. And this choice – who should replace Judas as one of ‘the Twelve’ – was the first that we looked at. At our weekend away, I suggested four features of that process that might help us in facing the questions that lay before us. I’ve since thought of a fifth. So starting with that new thought, here are five features of the discernment process that I discern in Acts 1.12-26.

  1. BEING GROWN UP
    This is pretty much the first decision that the band of Jesus’ disciples had to make following the ascension of Jesus. Here for the first time they’re on their own. They’re not simply following where they’re led anymore. The responsibility lies with them. I think that’s significant. It’s not simply a matter of seeing where Jesus is off to next and tagging along. It calls for a degree of maturity, independence even. I don’t mean that they are no longer dependent on Christ. But their relationship has changed. He is simply not physically there any more. The disciples have to come to terms hwith his abscence. His promised presence comes to them through the gift of the Holy Spirit. In terms of the Acts account, the fullness of the Spirit is yet to come at this point. They’re not quite on their own. But they’re not just followers any more either. It’s down to them. They have to grow up.
  2. GROUNDED IN PRAYER
    But as much as they have to grow up from their dependence on Jesus’ constant physical presence and direction, they are absolutely grounded in prayer. They don’t approach this question cold, their response comes out of their prayer. According to the writer of Acts they are ‘constantly devoting themselves to prayer’. I think this isn’t so much about just becoming empty vessels through which the Holy Spirit can speak. Prayer is the means by which they continue to be formed as disciples; to become themselves; to grow up into the people God is calling them to be.
  3. ROOTED IN THE TRADITION
    Judas was a pretty bad egg. At least that’s what the writer of this text wants us to think. None of this hanging himself after being overcome with remorse as in Matthew. (Take note anyone who wants to deny that the Bible has errors or contradictions.) In contrast to Matthew’s account, the Acts writer depicts a smug Judas getting his come-uppance. God gets ‘medieval on his ass’. Anyway none of that is really the point! The point is that despite having had a really bad experience with one of the Twelve (whom incidentally, Jesus chose), they don’t think: ‘well, eleven apostles is enough’. It doesn’t even occur to them that there should be fewer than twelve. The deep sacramental significance of the number is not a matter of small importance for them. It was what they had received from their Lord and it echoed the symbolic division of tribes in their own sacred history. There was no question for them but that their should be a twelfth apostle.
  4. TAKING RESPONSIBILITY
    I suppose this is very much linked to the first point, so maybe that wasn’t such a new point after all. But it comes from a different part of this story of discernment. There are about 120 people together at the point of making this choice. Some of these will have joined the growing (and, on occasion, shrinking) band of disciples at different points in Jesus’ ministry. But the original Twelve were chosen from a bigger band of followers who had been there from the start: Jesus’ baptism. So I think it’s unlikely that the two names were the only two possible names that could have been put forward at this point. This group have taken responsibility and narrowed down the options. From a larger field of candidates they have got it down to two between whom they cannot choose. They’ve got two good options. If there was only one obvious choice, they wouldn’t have needed the next step. It would have been settled by default. But the writer wants us to see that the unsuccesful candidate was a jolly good egg. Joseph Barsabbas (son of Sabbas) has the latin nickname ‘Justus’ – meaning fair-minded.
  5. LEAVING IT TO CHANCE
    This is the bit that is the most difficult for the modern mind to cope with. But when it came down to it, they left it to chance. They drew straws or threw dice or coloured stones. We don’t know exactly how they ‘cast lots’ and it’s a good thing that we don’t. Otherwise we might have ritualised that particular action instead of being able to see the metaphorical possibilities. There is a place for chance, or happenstance if you prefer, in finding a way forward.

At the beginning of our weekend away we drew straws to see who would end up reading which Bible passage of the half a dozen or so we would be hearing over the course of the weekend. I suggested to people that if they got one of the Bible readings they might look for what God wanted to say to them through this particular reading. And to those who didn’t get a reading, I made the invitation that they look for what God was wanting to say to them through not having a specific passage to look at.

Does that mean that I think God chose this particular reading (or lack of a reading) for them? I honestly don’t know.

I suspect not.

I think it’s more about the openness to hear from God that’s important. I believe that God, by God’s Spirit is gently calling, speaking, leading us all the time. That openness, if people achieved it, will have created the space for them to connect with the still small voice and so grow into what God has for them. Do you understand what I mean?

I guess I’d say the same about that group of disciples. Was Matthias the only right choice? Was there some flaw in Justus’ character that meant he would have been a disaster? He surely couldn’t have been worse than Jesus’ personal choice: Judas. So maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe both men would have been an equally good choice but in the end there could be only one. So let chance happen and see what emerges.

But what both men had, I think, is character. They were formed through their experience of Jesus and their deep and constant engagement with God in prayer. In the end it was about the whole community being shaped by Christ together and then seeing what happened. As I’ve said before I think this is a more authentic way of reading the stories of Jesus himself. I don’t think his ministry is about him following a minutely laid out plan. So that at every point he is hearing form his Father what to do next – turn left up ahead you’ll meet a blind man, heal him; breathe in, Son, now breathe out – no I really think Jesus just wanders about and stuff happens because of who he is. Wherever he goes, there’ll be a blind man or a troubled woman or a demoniac or a dead child. So maybe for us too, discernment is more about the formation of a Christlike character in us as individuals and communities. Making some choices ourselves using the brains what God has given us, then, taking a chance, letting stuff happen.





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.





Nowhere to run to?

15 07 2009

418898_hiding_-_2Is there any place that’s just for ‘us’? That’s the issue I’m grappling with just now.

I’ve been asking the little congregation I’m with to effectively give up our Sunday gathering. Not to stop coming. I’m asking if we can do something else with the time together. I’m asking them to give it over to mission. Some are really up for it. Others are struggling to let go of something that has sustained them spiritually and that they have worked hard to sustain through some difficult times. I understand that.

But I think this is a push worth making for the sake of mission.

But maybe it was a step too far to ask those who were there at our Tuesday night gathering if they would be willing to give up those Tuesdays as we do them now in order to be part of something new in the week too. I had thought they’d be up for it. They really weren’t. And actually, though I was a little taken aback and disappointed then, I can empathise. Because this isn’t about hanging on to a worship style that suits. It’s been about building relationships and conversation that can really be safe space.

A number of us are, in one way or another, refugees from more conservative churches. A common thread that emerges in conversation is how often people didn’t feel able to be truly themselves. We have felt under pressure to say or do the expected thing. Where we have said what we really think, we have been made to feel, by well-meaning people, that it is not acceptable to either hold or express a particular viewpoint. We have managed to create in our Tuesday night gathering a place where people can be themselves; where they can be real and genuine without being slapped down with a quote from the Bible. That’s not to say there’s no Bible in our gathering. There is. It’s a partner in our dialogue. We find it embraces, encourages, challenges and frustrates us in equal measure. We don’t spend our time necessarily looking at a particular text, asking setup questions and then finding the answer where we’ve been told to look. Instead, we can draw on those parts of the Bible that have seeped deep into our souls and shaped us, as well as confronting and grappling with those parts that we find it harder to reconcile with our experience of life or our knowledge of the world. Our conversation is honest, compassionate and enlightening. We all grow and are fed through it. We’ve got something precious — space to be ourselves and to grow in faith and discipleship in a grown up and honest way.

The issue with conservatism is not conservative theology per se, but how some of us have experienced it. There would be plenty of space for a conservative viewpoint in our conversation as long as that viewpoint was expressed in a compassionate way that valued the relationships in the group above the ‘right’ view prevailing.

There’s not really a fear of engaging with people who wouldn’t consider themselves to be ‘christian’. In the experience of most of the members of the group, conversations about faith are often more real in this setting than in the churches we’ve known. The fear that was expressed was because my invitation was to be part of something else with some other christians we don’t yet know so well. People understandably were reluctant to risk a return to unreality or disapproval. And, given the relaxed, conversational feel of our gathering, they were reluctant to have to do something that felt very much more structured or formal or to have to do heavy Bible study as they’d experienced it in the past. There is also a feeling that if the intimacy of our small group is lost, we would find it hard to have the same quality or depth of conversation as we currently enjoy.

So I think all that is good. It’s encouraging to me that people value so much where we’ve got to as a group. What I find harder to reconcile is the potential exclusivity that might foster. We invite new people on our terms.

But actually is that so bad?
What are our terms?

  • Be real.
  • Don’t judge others.
  • Be compassionate in conversation.

These are not things, having achieved them to quite a degree, that we should recklessly give up. At the moment, this is a gathering that includes some people who don’t call themselves ‘christian’ or who are less certain about what that might mean for them. This offers a safe place for them to explore without any pressure. There is a growing sense of commitment, one to another. The challenge is how we can continue to reach out and be inclusive, perhaps to some who would find the views expressed at times difficult.

It has been helpful to me to consider the gospel for this coming Sunday as I’ve prepared to share my reflections on it on Sunday morning. In that episode, the apostles Jesus has sent out on mission come back excited but tired and hungry. Jesus invites them to come away with him – to find some space just to be with him. It doesn’t quite go to plan: they don’t even find the space to satisfy their hunger. But these twelve hungry men are the ones who serve bread and fish to the enormous crowd that gathers. And at the end, there are twelve baskets full of scraps left over. This suggests three things to me.

  1. Jesus does invite those who have responded most fully to his call to spend time alone with him. But…
  2. That time is snatched along the way – they get a bit of time in the boat with him before they’re right back in it. And…
  3. Their needs are met when they are stuck into mission; when they’re feeding the crowd, they get fed.

What does all that mean for us – this little group of pilgrims on the way? It suggests to me that I’m right to ask this bunch to give up Sunday for the sake of mission. And it suggests that they were right to refuse to give up Tuesday so that they preserve their special, intimate time away from the crowd: a place to share our stories and be with the one who calls and sends us.