Home and away

24 06 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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.





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!





Protection

11 02 2010

As we considered embarking on our great venture of creating the Sunday Sanctuary, there was one concern that was the most persistently expressed: ‘how are we going to be sustained in our faith?’

In response, I had relayed the experience of people who had been part of the Friday Fridge — a mission project I was involved in establishing four years ago. A number of people consistently report that they have grown in their faith through their involvement on Friday nights more than through any other part of their involvement in church. I encouraged people to expect that being part of the Sunday Sanctuary would give them a similar experience. That hasn’t so far been entirely borne out.

What I had perhaps forgotten or maybe even glossed over (as much with myself as anyone else) was that the people involved in the Fridge had not had to give up any other part of their church participation to get involved. They still got their ‘fix’ on a Sunday of those things — whether it was singing, prayer, teaching or whatever — that helped them feel… well whatever it did make them feel… encouraged? refreshed? sustained? renewed?

For my companions in this new enterprise, they have given up Sunday morning as a place to receive; to find an oasis of prayerful calm. Instead Sunday morning has become a time of sacrifice; of giving out for the sake of others.

I think the thing that may be particularly hard is that people are not bearing the weight of this effort equally. There is (inevitably?) a range of levels of commitment. What’s harder, perhaps, is that where people are on the range is not entirely related to capacity or to perceptions of capacity.

In trying to offer spiritual and pastoral care to this group, I am walking a very fine line between trying to give space to those who might well grow into this missionary endeavour while at the same time protecting others from burnout or frustration.

I had hoped that our Tuesday night gatherings would offer enough to sustain us in our communal spiritual life. It’s becoming more apparent that as I am currently structuring them, they are not entirely. The question is: can they ever? Or will Sunday mornings need to offer more to the explicitly Christian community in order to sustain us in our faith and participation in mission?

Which brings me to the group I feel the most protective of: those new people — residents of the tower block in which we are now located — who have been coming week after week to share in the activities we’ve been offering.

I don’t want to rush them into doing stuff they’re not ready for because that stuff is what the ‘core community’ need to be doing. In my thinking the needs of ‘outsiders’ always come first. Because it seems to me that’s who Jesus is interested in. And maybe the Church is meant to be, as I’ve heard Pete Rollins describe it, the community of outsiders.

I’m running the risk here of painting this little Christian community in a light that might make them appear selfish. I think that would be grossly unfair. I am not expected as an individual Christian priest to spend myself utterly for the sake of others. Quite the opposite, I am encouraged, nay required, to have a lively prayer life that encourages, sustains, refreshes and renews me in my ministry. That requires that my first priority is to set time aside essentially for myself and my own spiritual health. I need to have deep wells to draw on. Every individual human being needs the same. But that requirement of a Christian priest is not just for me as an individual but is meant to make present the priestly ministry of the whole people of God. Together we are to be formed, encouraged, sustained, refreshed and renewed in prayer for our common participation in mission.

And if I’m completely honest, I know that I’m also just a little bit driven by a perverse desire to be ‘radical’. I am probably a little too conscious of my own reputation as a pioneer of things funky and unchurchlike. Because maybe our new friends would not find it so odd or difficult if this began to look a bit more like something more easily recognised as ‘church’ through the most superficial of indicators.

I always allow myself a little scoff when I hear the stories of things calling themselves ‘fresh expressions of church’ that still involve singing or preaching or other such churchy bunk. Pah! I say! We’ll none of that. We are mission-shaped not worship-shaped. But maybe people wouldn’t find it so awful to sing the odd song or listen to the odd talky bit. [Shock, horror: we have done this a little already — we’ve even had *gasp* the odd prayer or two.] We probably just need to ask the families who’ve joined us instead of trying to second guess them all the time.

So that’s my dilemma. That’s what’s keeping me from my sleep tonight (this morning now actually). But fortunately I don’t have to resolve it on my own. I have an excellent colleague to share it all with. And then there’s the community itself. It’s our issue together. We will engage in frank conversation about how we are finding it alongside some searching prayer. And try to find a way forward together for Tuesdays and Sundays that will keep ‘us’ alive. That might seem like we are putting the needs of those among whom we are working second — that’s an obvious and inescapable implication of how I am framing this — but it’s equally true that if this community collapses under the strain then we’ll have nothing at all to offer our new friends.

This is all beyond me, of course. But thank God there is prayer. Not that I think it will all be just dandy in a minute if I pray about it. But dandy or otherwise prayer offers the gift of peace — the peace that comes from knowing I don’t have to make it work at all costs. I can fail or I can succeed. And fail or succeed: all shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.





Sursum corda

5 01 2010

With my colleague’s permission, I’ve posted a copy of a brief email exchange we had over the liturgy for Christmas Day. As we had no Christmas Day service in the Sunday Sanctuary, I was presiding at St Peter’s. We were discussing the opening lines to the Eucharistic Prayer, known as the sursum corda. It is optional in Common Worship, the Church of England’s authorised liturgy whether to start with either:

  • ‘The Lord is here’, to which all respond: ‘His Spirit is with us’; or:
  • ‘The Lord be with you’, to which all respond: ‘And also with you’.

Here’s wot I writ:

I’ve generally preferred ‘The Lord is here’ because I’ve wondered whether the repetition of ‘the Lord be with you/and also with you’ through more catholic liturgy that I’ve experienced doesn’t focus attention on the priest and the people responding to her/him rather than on God and her presence with us. Any thoughts?

Alex responded:

With a catholic theology of the sacrament, to say ‘The Lord is here…’ immediately before the prayer of consecration seems a little previous…! That’s why I guess Protestants prefer to score the opposite point by saying that the ‘Lord is [already] here’, because they think that nothing actually happens to the elements in the eucharistic prayer (there is no ‘consecration’). Though of course all agree that the Lord is here always.

I think for me ‘The Lord be with you’, usually used at the start of the mass, before the reading of the Gospel, before the Eucharistic Prayer, and before the blessing, has an almost contractual – or better ‘covenental’ – function in establishing that the Lord is present in the whole community of God’s priestly people gathered for worship, but who collectively acknowledge the particular role of the ordained priest to preside on behalf of all in the Lord’s name. The ordained priest begins, as it were, by saying that the priesthood belongs to everybody, then everyone passes it back, so to speak.

Why should any of you reading this be interested in the finer points of Anglican liturgy. I guess if you are, you are and if not, then this isn’t going to set your heart-a-racing! And why am I posting this on a blog that puports to be about mission at the cutting edge? Well because that mission, as far as I am involved in it, is still Anglican mission. We can’t escape questions of liturgy, even if we’d like to. Personally, I wouldn’t like to (escape questions of liturgy). If anything they’re all the more pronounced when we’re outside the familiar territory. Because as much as I’m not in the business of fostering worship-shaped church, but mission-shaped church, that doesn’t mean there’s no worship!

Anyway, this little exchange helped me to understand the eucharist and priesthood from a more catholic perspective. Something I’ve explored quite a bit in my training but there‘s always more to learn. I’d welcome anybody else’s thoughts on this…





A Wilmcote House Nativity

22 12 2009

On Sunday 20th December, we hosted a ‘Wilmcote House Nativity’. I posted the cards shown above through the door of every flat in Wilmcote House. I also produced posters and put them up on the noticeboards in the entrance hall and on the doors and windows of the community room. Actually it was the posters that I put up first, and it was as I was putting them up that I realised that nowhere on my cards or posters did it say where this event was happening! So I spent an hour handwriting it on 180 cards and the posters. Unlike previous weeks, I didn’t put the publicity up in any of the other tower blocks in the area. It just seemed right on this occasion, given who had been coming and the focus we were giving it to concentrate on Wilmcote House itself.

We thought if anything we were going to do was likely to be a big draw it was this one, so we catered for 50 people (including the members of the mission community formerly known as the congregation of the church of the parish of St Luke – catchy ain’t it?!)

One thing that came out strongly in our discussion at our Tuesday night gathering was how good it had been at our coffee and carols event the week before that there were moments where everyone there was invited to do the same thing together. It someone had suggested that to me at the beginning, I might well have viewed it as a bit of a step backward; a bit of an adulteration of our very clear intention to be a drop-in, not a church service. But inviting people to take a pause from whatever activity they were involved on and sing a couple of carols did seem to bring people together.

This week we again had the mix of individual and communal activities. We had presents to choose and wrap for someone. We had a ‘random act of kindness’ station where guests could fill a gift bag with chocolates and a satsuma. The idea was that you’d then take it away with you and give it to a stranger or a neighbour. That did seem to get a bit blurred with the presents in the end as I was given more than one of those bags by some of the children who had come. We also had a station where people could make a ‘stained glass window’ with black card and tissue paper. We had prepared two designs – a Christmas star and a candle.

We also had a station where people could decorate a gingerbread Christmas tree that one of our number had lovingly baked the night before. This was a very popular activity.

There was another table where people could cut out and decorate a shiny star. AT the same table, people were invited to write a prayer or reflection on a shiny strip of paper and add it to a paper chain of prayers.

But in the midst of all this, we invited everyone to come and join a circle as I told them the Christmas story using a story box with little felt figures. One child had told us the week before that they didn’t know the Christmas story, but I’m guessing they’d been hearing it at school as not only were w they ell engaged with the story but they also seemed to know what was coming next. Indeed it seemed to add greatly to the enjoyment for the children there that they knew the story and were able to interject with what was coming next.

Maybe there’s something in there about how oral storytelling works – maybe the greater the familiarity the greater the engagement, if the storytelling is handled right. I was just nimble enough to recognise this as I went on and so I created more and more opportunities for the children to feed me the next event in the story as we went on.

We followed this ‘circle time’ with a more familiar nativity presentation in which the children took the roles of the different characters. One of our number – a primary school teacher – had prepared and delivered a nativity for her school. She had written an excellent simple narration script which was conveniently broken down into small chunks, so that I could turn it into cards which we distributed so that lots of people there had a chance to tell a bit of the story. We interspersed the narrative with four carols which we sung along to a backing CD that had very child-friendly versions of the carols we were singing.

So in some ways, it was more like a service of worship than I had envisaged our Sunday mornings would be. But I still don’t think this is worship-shaped church. For one thing, I always made it clear that it was an invitation and that people could carry on with what they were already doing if they preferred. And it wasn’t how the whole of the time was spent. There was a good combination of activities for people to take at their own pace and things that we did all together. There was spiritual ‘content’ in both types of activity but in neither did it make demands on the people who came in terms of belief or commitment.

And the people who came who haven’t been regular members of the congregation when we were meeting in the St Luke’s building seemed to cope with the all-together stuff just fine. That should be no surprise really. In school and nursery settings there’s the same combination of all together and individual/group work and in parent and child groups too the same pattern pertains. This is what people are used to. There’s perhaps even a certain naturalness to it.

Interestingly, I think the one thing that isn’t well developed yet is the thing that I said would be the defining characteristic of this venture: conversation. I’m not worried about that, though it’s worth making and holding that observation. I’m not worried because on the one hand this is a grand experiment. We’ve approached this with ideas of how it might be, but also hopefully with enough flexibility to respond to the real people who really come and what will work best with and for them. And on the other hand, it’s still early days.

We’re still just getting to know people. It isn’t that we aren’t talking to them, it’s just that it can be quite a busy space and we’re grabbing snatches of conversation. There’s plenty of time for that to grow and for us to invest in some new furniture and try some new configurations that enable and facilitate some more adult engagement alongside the fun, learning and reflection that all ages together are enjoying.

So from Wilmcote House and the Sunday Sanctuary, I wish you all a very happy Christmas and a peaceful, joyous and blessed New Year!





Finding sanctuary in a tower block

6 12 2009

Two weeks into our great adventure, it’s time to bring you all out there in blogland up to date.

Maybe you don’t know what I’m talking about. So I’ll tell you.

On Sunday, 22nd November, 2009, the tiny congregation meeting in the parish church building in the Church of England parish of St Luke, Southsea, said goodbye to that building. In a special service, we moved around the building, stopping at various points — the main entrance, the font, etc. At each ‘station’ we marked some feature or character of the church’s life, symbolised by the piece of church furniture at which we were stopping. We committed ourselves to carry that aspect of our common life forward into our new future.

Why did we do that? Because from then on, we would be ceasing to hold our 11 a.m. Sunday service in the church building. Instead, we have since been gathering in the community room attached to one of the nearby tower blocks. But it’s not just a matter of geography. We haven’t moved our Sunday service of Anglican liturgical worship. We’ve ended it.

The time for the intentionally Christian community’s worship is now on a Tuesday evening as part of our home group. Each week we share a meal, a Eucharist and prayer and engagement with the Bible in my home.

On Sundays, now, between 10 a.m. and midday, we open what we’re calling the Sunday Sanctuary.

We provide breakfast and refreshments all morning and some sort of craft-based activity. Alongside that, there’s one or two light, reflective activities on offer. We’ve been describing it as a family drop-in in the publicity material. Is that what it’s been?

In the first week, six people we hadn’t met before came: a brother and sister, a child who came with one of our members who lives in the block, and three young teenage boys. So all of our guests were children, without their parents. This isn’t what we were aiming for but it is, to a degree, what we expected. We have tried to avoid becoming a child-minding service by insisting that children below secondary school age should be accompanied by a parent, another adult or an older sibling.

In the second week, we had nine guests, three of whom we had seen the week before. The brother and sister returned and brought their younger brother with them. One of the teenage boys from last week returned and brought a friend with him. One of our members who lives in the block brought a different child with them this week and in the second half of the morning a mum and her two children joined us. I hope, dear reader, you can understand that when I say that we were encouraged by the presence of this family (at our family drop-in) it doesn’t reflect any sense of disappointment with, or devaluing of, our other guests. We have been encouraged and pleased to meet, serve and share with all those we’ve met. But meeting this family this week has suggested that our ‘model’ might just work; it might be the right one.

Already, we have experienced a steep learning curve. I anticipate that our Tuesday night gatherings will include some lively conversations from now on. The first surprise was that people are staying all morning. In fact this week, we had a job on our hands dissuading two people from coming in before we opened at 10. That job lasted for nearly 50 minutes. We had been working on the assumption that people might come for 30 or 45 minutes and then go. One or two craft activities can sustain that but not if people are there for 2 hours. So we are rapidly having to think about creating a broader range of things for people to do. This requires more work from us, which presents its own challenge for a community where there is not an evenness of either commitment or capacity.

Some of those we’re engaging with have somewhat chaotic lives. Just being able to provide some decent nutrition and some positive adult contact and attention is more, I suspect than some are regularly getting. That all presents its own challenges, as I’m sure you can imagine.

There are so many sensitivities here that it’s difficult to say too much more. It might sound as if all these reflections are practical, rather than spiritual. But at the forefront of our minds is the need to ensure that all we do is intentionally spiritual. It would be easy in lots of ways to respond to our challenges by resorting to entertainment. Just (as we’re frequently asked) to get the pool table and other games out. But we aren’t a youth club or a kids’ club. We’re a church operating a family drop in. We’re not about forcing anything on anyone. Everything is optional. But everything we offer comes from who we are.

That’s the unique contribution we bring: ourselves and our faith. That’s not an imposition, I believe, it’s a positive gift. It motivates us to love each and every person and to believe in everyone we meet. Other people find different motivations and end up in the same place. But this is our motivation. So faith has a positive contribution to make to the extent that it provokes us as a community to draw alongside people living in this difficult locality.

But I’m also excited about the positive contribution that finding faith can make for each person we meet. Faith brings positive transformation. What I’m trying to say is that if people discover faith for themselves through this, that is an outcome I would celebrate. (I think it’s at least as likely that those of us who consider ourselves to have faith already will rediscover faith.)

The difference between what we’re doing here and a regular church service is that we’re not expecting people to come to us and do what we do without space for question or doubt or just exploration in conversation. The activities we offer share some of the things that we have found meaningful. They invite others to imaginatively enter into that world of meaning — to ‘try it on for size’. But we will always respect people’s freedom and if people find themselves taking a different point of view, it will not affect our welcome of them.





Surprised by joy (and chicken kebabs)

16 07 2009

1066287_barbecueTonight as I was preparing a meal, I experienced a moment of sheer joy and connectedness. What was going on? This was the second time that day I had cooked the same meal. Earlier, my kids, who had been moaning as they saw their herb-covered chicken kebabs going into the oven, actually tucked into what I finally lay before them and then followed it up by eating loads of fruit. I couldn’t quite believe it. My little junk food junkies were eating real food. And loving it. It’s like the usual order of the universe had been inverted for some short period. It was a real Doctor Who moment. (Doctor Who and not Torchwood because if it had been Torchwood they would probably have instantaneously combusted immediately after eating their healthy supper.)

So that was the first thing that contributed. Second, José González’s Heartbeats was playing on the CD player. I challenge anyone to feel bad listening to that track. But this was something more than just feeling good. This was a moment of being overtaken by joy. Not just happiness or contentment. Joy. What’s the difference? It wasn’t just about a happy feeling. It was about feeling that everything is connected and that everything is pure gift.

It hit me when I was chopping tomatoes for the salad that Barbara and I would share with our dinner guest – a colleague from Barbara’s school who is shortly to leave for a new job in Spain. So there was a sense of being able to provide for the people I love – first the kids and then Barbara and to be able to sustain and support her in a relationship that matters to her (and so to me).

And then there was the beautiful redness and fullness of the tomatoes I was chopping. Just the goodness of these gifts in front of me. Chopping them felt like a ritual action (in a good way). It was like an act of worship or thanksgiving to prepare them. It was fulfilling in itself but I was also anticipating that greater fulfilment to come when I would eat these tomatoes and I would experience their taste as well as the resistance of their physical presence against the action of my knife. I’m starting to sound a bit mad now. But this is honestly how I felt. It took me by surprise because I am physically very tired and not quite 100% well I suspect but I was just aware of feeling really great.

And there was also the thought that I was doing something both profoundly and simply creative. I was taking the stuff of the earth and reshaping it in a way such that others could enjoy and experience it. It was a moment of artistic expression. [This must sound so pretentious!]

The sad thing was I thought how rarely such an experience happens in the context of Christian worship. It made me think that Christian worship might offer more of this sort of experience if it gets more basic and grounded in these sorts of real, everyday human experience. It reminded me how preparing and sharing meals has been central to my thinking in the past and on occasion more recently. Before I was ordained, I remember saying to someone once that I wanted to be remembered as the ‘cooking curate’. I have just this week started cooking again after months (years?) of just heating stuff from the supermarket. This whole (quite freaky) experience has reminded me that this might be a real feature of my vocation and what I think human community and the faith community might be all about.