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  • Gathering

    For the last few weeks I have been at Westminster College participating in the life of this community whilst continuing to read and reflect upon sabbatical. This blog will largely serve as the written report - but in trying to summarise my thoughts I have returned to the poetry that has often been my core way of expressing myself - I find the challenge of writing in a tight tercet's forces me to say only what I want to say - yet the loose metre (governed by the punctuation and line endings) and the internal irregular rhymes give freedom for some creativity.

    This may well be my last comment on this adventure, but if there is enough interest when I return to Rochdale next week I will look to host an evening or Sunday afternoon sharing some of this and opening up the conversation.



    A reflection upon sabbatical



    A gathering of friends, of strangers, performers. Bright coloured bands determine

    access and orders. A village created with traders and stages; in vans under tents,

    much drink and more rainfall; we listen and sing, some clapping, some dance. Celebrating


    music, the beauty of life, melodious text, a life story sung; a bubble paused. Holding

    in tension graceful harmony on tongue. Rare political comment is despair fueled

    apathy; seeking release, from fields we depart, nourished, fulfilled..... We gather


    in schoolroom and chapels, bright cafe’s, old halls. Seeking a glimpse of God’s

    story with other hope-filled fools. In tentative hymns, quiet prayer, gentle homily;

    over coffee and cakes, fresh expression waits faithfully. In paint and clay


    figures and creative conversing. Rumours of warmth, whispers on love, grace-filled

    cascading. The church is alive, if unsure of the future. Vulnerable and verbing, God

    is still calling.................... listen, listen, listen............. A collegiate reforms from near


    and afar. Eager to learn, to teach, and be called. Engaging, conversing; scribbling

    laughing;  dying and living. Yet modeling a ministry that is one frantic work flow.

    Where is the space to be renewed and to grow? Where is the pattern that celebrates


    sabbath? And in the midst dwells a poet, a preacher, researcher with time to enjoy

    this polymath crowd; a moment, a glimpse of God’s spoken endeavour - in essays

    or sermons; lyric with music; deep black sculpture; whisky and beer, quick phrases,


    loved symbols; buildings on rivers; digits and numerals; gravy then custard; hard

    gestures, touched signals; smiles with soft words; in hallelujah - amen. Amen,

    Amen: So be it, my friends, leave the tent fold open; let a new future begin.


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    This sabbatical has had three main sections and these are reflected in the structure of the poem with almost two stanzas reflecting upon each stage.


    I began in tandem with Chris, camping and campervaning at 5 different festivals taking place around southern England during July/August. We regularly attend Greenbelt at the end of August but we have often wanted to attend elsewhere as well, but had been restricted by their weekend timing! At the same time as having fun the sabbatical purpose was to look at the way in which performance space is used and see what lessons can be learnt for worship. In reality, what was more interesting was the way the audience used space, the way each festival is a community in itself and the way in which that sense of community came across as each festival. So the first two stanzas of “Gathering” look to reflect upon the elements that create belonging within such a community - the shared love of music, the commercial aspect and a shared worldview - in this case at all the festivals with the exception of Greenbelt an apathy towards any political consciousness; the few performers that tried anything were met by bored disinterest. Greenbelt was also a different experience from other years as I volunteered and worked as a Venue Manager - something I will look to do again in future years.

    In September, I sent Chris back to work (one of us has to) and used the time to catch up on lots of reading and to visit churches that are using a different pattern for their main Sunday morning service and places where midweek worship is happening. Stanzas three and four reflect upon those experiences. the time was good, I didn’t see anyone attempting anything sparklingly different, but faithful people looking to express themselves and learn about God in their own context. Much that I saw was hopeful - the church plant where most people were younger than me, the new ways of working with young people before or during the main worship time; the midweek times giving space for those free during the day time, tied in with other activities such as coffee mornings. I have sometimes been baffled by my visits to “successful” churches outside our tradition - I don’t really get what they are doing - it seems simplistic and undemanding yet the space is full of young families. I’ve seen enough to see that we need to offer consistent good quality worship, but I’m not sure where to pitch it or how to present it. But I know that God is speaking and we must all listen and act.

    Fresh expressions is the term being used by Anglicans and Methodists to talk about news ways of worshipping - I’ve seen things calling themselves fresh expressions, but I’m not sure that they are.

    Cascades of grace is an idea borrowed from Ann Morisy, Journeying Out,

    Verbing is a term I have used from time to time to express words (conversations) that create action. It is similar to, but different in emphasis from the dictionary definition of turning nouns into verbs.

    Conversation and Engagement have become key words as I have reflected upon worship and community and the way the Church interacts with itself and its neighbours and most of all with God. Hence these words and their synonyms bounce around the poem.

    October was spent at Westminster College, Cambridge - with three purposes in mind, reflect and write up the previous two months; get along to some lectures around the Federation; and as a Governor of the College get to know the staff and students a bit better than has been possible so far. I have managed all three and it has been a good time. But most of all I’ve been struck by the workload of staff and students - with everything crammed into 8 week terms - academic, ministerial formation and social, the pace is frightening and I have expressed some of my concerns in the poem and in some conversations. I have dwelt in the midst of all this and greatly value the opportunities it has given me - which the final stanza seeks to portray.

    Finally, during this time I have been seeking God’s call on the next stage of ministry and have been called to be Minister to a pastorate in Coventry for whom the future is vulnerable and uncertain. Hence, “let a new future begin.”

  • Belonging

    One of the themes that has been ever present as I've moved from festivals, to worship places, to Westminster College has been the sense of being part of a community. Each festival had its own ethos and its own rules (written and unwritten), each of the established festivals had people for whom this was their place/home/identity - artists who belonged, a sense of involvement in their place and time. In each place it was a coming together of people to create a temporary community in that location - yet each has a sense of permanence which has grown through their long term engagement with that place, and with the music and with the each other. In much the same way each church engages with its own community - attenders, fringe and to some extent or another those in whose midst they are set and each has at the same time been open to an occasional stranger.

    At the moment a new community is coming together at Westminster College, it has elements of the community that was here 3 months ago - place, people, traditions - but they are now engaging with new people, new experiences, a slightly changed building, new conversations and this old institution is being reformed. 

    One of the best bits of our Vision4Life conversations at both Hallfold and St. Andrew's was to hear people tell their faith journey's - we heard some wonderful stories there was much to draw from them, but one of the themes that came over time and time again was the importance of belonging to a community - and it was when we found ourselves in a community to which we belonged that our sense of God's presence with us grew and developed. My earliest memories were at St. Mark's, Wythenshawe - as a child I was encouraged to join in - stacking chairs, reading the bible, sorting jumble, following the band, calling a Minister and so much more that is lost in the mist of time. We moved on when I was 10, to a church at which I was always an outsider and it was only when we moved  to Bolton when I was 15 that I again became part of a church community to which I will always belong - I found people who encouraged me, people in conversation with one another and with God and with the place in which we gathered and who brought me into the conversation. It was these formative communities that have allowed me to grow and become part of other specific communities and part of the wider communion of those who stride, tiptoe, race, stagger, leap, limp, crawl, carry, ride along the way of Jesus.

    And as I ponder the nature of community and worship and mission I'm finding two words follow me - Engagement and Conversation - and I have a scribble page with comments and arrows that are saying something like this:-

    Worship = engagement with God

    Worship = engagement with God + context + praxis.

    Mission = conversation involving God's story

    Community and Worship and Mission engage with one another where we are in conversation with God, Scripture, context, community, 

    Engagement involves doing

    Conversation is with and about God

    Mission = conversation

    and I thought it all might sit neatly in a venn diagram or something - but it doesn't!

    as ever - I'm thinking out loud, so if anyone wants to engage in the conversation, please do.

  • Looking at Worship (3) - Sunday

    September's Sunday worship experiences began in August with Back to School Sunday at Trinity Church, Cottam. It was lovely to be in a church where I am older than most people there! This is a church plant onto a new housing estate and has developed amongst the young families that have moved into the area - they actually want some older people to provide experienced Christian witness and to be more available than many of the current members! This was a pleasant act of worship - preparing, dedicating acknowledging people as they began, returned, changed school. It was very child friendly and involved many of the young people who were there. It perhaps lacked depth and I would hope that is to be found over time. However, it also lacked any sense of corporate worship - largely because people either didn't know, or more likely just didn't feel comfortable singing, so they mumbled along and for me, that misses the point of corporate singing. I was surprised that there was nothing creative about the use of space and the approach to worship, which was essentially our standard hymn sandwich made accessible to children set out in straight lines facing the screen. Interestingly, this was there first service back in the school hall after using the Manse for August - I wonder what parts of the intimacy and informality they enjoyed squeezing into the Manse could be transferred to the school hall. This is a church doing some wonderful work, starting from scratch they have come a long way in a short time, I look forward to hearing where the adventure takes them in future whilst hoping for an up to date website!

    The following week I joined Alkrington & Providence for their new experiment. A 9.45am service aimed at children and their parents which then moved into the main church at 10.30am, making space for those at the early service to leave at 10.45. We started with a song, the beginning of the Abram story, some interactive input about journeys and still had time for some creative tables and a discussion group, before another song and 10 minutes break so that  Janet could move the projector into church and get herself into "ordinary church" mode. The main service began with hymn, prayer and introduced the whole congregation to the story of Abram before repeating one of the songs some had sung earlier and blessing those who were now leaving. The worship continued with a standard hymn, sermon, prayer format. It is an interesting experiment and I thought it worked well, the children and adults were well engaged and there was some good input and somehow time for the beginnings of a meaningful adult discussion. The church also seem to be aware of some of the down sides - there is a need for shared responsibility in the leading of worship (there was an assumption that this would be in the early service leaving Janet free to concentrate on the main service - I don't see why that always has to be the way, but perhaps a different person and a second projector is needed to begin the main service giving the main leader of worship space to prepare herself and be released from the technical concerns of setting up a projector as most of the congregation arrive.) The other difficulty is where the parents will get their input from if they leave with their children, what children are to do if a parent does want to stay for the sermon et.al. and what connection there is between those who just come for the early church and the bulk of the congregation. As I say, much of this was within the thoughts of those who have instigated this way of working and with God's blessing they will resolve these issues. 

    The next week took me to Edgeley Road, Stockport. (No Website) The URC have recently moved in with the Methodists and developed their Big Church Little Church idea into InaSpace. I was told it began at 10am with breakfast and a read of the papers - sounded like a good idea to me, unfortunatley the Guard Steward didn't agree and I was told in no uncertain terms that "we start at 10.45" and left standing like a lemon as she realised that someone very important had just arrived (I presume that mornings preacher) and turned to give a lovely warm welcome - perhaps there was something on my shoe :-( Anyway after a pleasant walk around the park - shared by Dad's with push chairs, I tried again and found the InaSpace people  far more welcoming and encouraging. they do start with a brew and some toast, but not as early as I was told and not really with the papers. As Conventional church begins in I presume a conventional sort of way a group of adults and children settle down to share what has been happening with them over the summer, greet their visitors (there were three of us) and think about the way the fruits of the spirit impact on their lives. We then split up for various options - a creative space, a discussion space, a quiet space, or join conventional space, coming back together again to see and hear from one another before we were joined by folk coming through for coffee. This is another creative way of working, as a one off visitor I missed any bible input, or any corporate worship (there was a brief thought and prayer in the opening session) but the regulars feel that they get that within the regular pattern and will join conventional church on a regular basis (they were working towards harvest and the creative space was beginning to produce some banners that would be used then). As the Guard Steward so pointedly emphasised their are issues between the main congregation who just don't get it and those who want to work in a different way. I also wondered to what extent the Minister can be involved - at the moment this is a two Minister congregation whilst the two churches are brought together, so there may be flexibility - but it won't always be and it would not be the case for most of us exploring this model - where so much emphasis is put on being the leader of worship for the majority - perhaps that is part of what needs to be changed. I think InaSpace is good way to work - again I hope to hear the way in which it develops in the years ahead (and the promised website would be a good way of advertising to your local community and keeping further away friends informed).

    The following week was dump daughter at University day - free at last, singing free at last!

    Last Sunday I decided to go and visit my local church - Hebron Pentecostal Church. Hebron has been transformed over the last 5 years, and the Pastor David keeps telling me he doesn't know what he is doing different know to 10 years ago when it seemed such a struggle. I believe that part of what has happened is that David and his leadership team have been persistent and faithful and truly open to the Spirit and to the possibilities that the Spirit brings - including working closely with the likes of me. So I thought it was time to see what they get up to on a Sunday morning - even though David says the music is too loud and he would rather sing some of the old songs! So along I went - and they were closed! Worshipping with Champness Hall from August to October the notice said. So I headed for Champness Hall - but that voice in the back of my head said "Go to West Street" - so in the end it was West Street Baptist Church. I arrived half an hour or so late - as they were drawing to the end of their worship time. It's a style of worship that I can engage with in small doses, so perhaps it was right for me to just be part of the last ten minutes and to sit at the back allowing it to soak over me - and I wasn't alone, most people were sitting, very few were singing - that is left to the band and people are moving and chatting and caring for children and being part of worship without any outward active involvement. On first reflection it wouldn't do in any of my settings - but on further reflection is it any different to the Organ voluntary? They then moved into a Dedication of a baby - in a warm informal manner, good to be part of. The sermon was a straight forward evangelistic message -  a bit simplistic in parts, especially in his two line disregard for the whole of science and medicine (quackery) - don't worry about any of that just come to Jesus and all your troubles will go away... - somehow we need to be able to evangelise and honour the God-given knowledge that scientists and medics (western and traditional offer) us. We closed with the altar call, a reminder that the offering had been forgotten and a prayer whilst the basket was passed around - but nothing to send the congregation out to do God's work  - just that's it, we've finished, have a coffee!

    My thanks to everyone who has welcomed me and invited me and fielded questions - I hope you find these comments encouraging, because I have been encouraged in different ways at each place in which I have worshipped. Every community is seeking their authentic way of worshipping God and doing so in styles that suit their context and people, I've been blessed - I hope God has been as well!


    And please pass comment on my comments - we need to learn from one another