Friday, 24 May 2019

Sabbatical hopes


I'm writing this two days before going on sabbatical. Although CofE clergy have (in theory) the opportunity to take a sabbatical every 7 years, this will be my first one in 18 years of ordained ministry. I thought it might be helpful to log, at this point, my own hopes for the next 3 months - for my own sake, as some kind of 'baseline' to look back on; and just in case anyone else is interested in what I'm doing - and not doing - and how it's going once it's begun.

Right now I'm excited, a little nervous, and very tired. The last few months has felt something like living on an ever-accelerating hamster wheel, attempting to finish some things that really needed finishing before now, and making sure everything else is handed over - today's regular day off mopped up the very last of the 'to do' list, and a few things just resolutely failed to get done. And there's also been a strange 'feedback loop' thing going on: as the sabbatical has drawn closer, I've been more and more aware of how much I'm needing it. It's something more than the tiredness of the moment: there's been an increasing awareness of a cumulative build-up over 18 years of ordained ministry, 9 years in the current post in Hodge Hill, around 6 years of writing a PhD - and probably other things too.

So my first hope for my sabbatical is rest. I've only read the first chapter of Nicola Slee's wonderful new book on Sabbath, but I've a good hunch that it will be one of my guide-books for the next few months. Sabbatical. Sabbath. Rest. As a good and wise friend put it last week, sabbath time is for refraining from creating, refraining from destroying - and for embracing opportunities to celebrate. As someone who is hard-wired, I think, to be busy, to be spinning plates and generating 101 ideas before breakfast, sabbatical time will be permission - and challenge - to stop. My body needs it (I'm aware of the inevitable cold/cough/sore throat brewing - one of the little but familiar indicators that I'm stopping). And my soul needs it too. I make no claims for the life of a vicar being any busier than any other job, and I'm acutely aware of the particular gift of grace that sabbaticals offer those of us in stipendiary ministry, a gift that is not available to most of my friends, colleagues and neighbours (including two of those I supervise regularly, and my wife in her own paid work). But there is certainly something about the role - and about the way it has unfolded here in Hodge Hill - that has meant that it has been a constant presence in my mind and heart - the 'what has been' and 'what could be' as well as the 'what is happening right now'. And letting go of all of that, for a little while, feels like a profoundly good thing for me. I am conscious, also, that I'm immensely blessed here with the wonderfully wise, competent, and gracious colleagues around me - both lay and ordained, paid and voluntary - in whose hands I can leave things with utter confidence and trust.

A second hope is to re-connect with God. After half-term holiday week with the family, I'm going on a week's guided retreat up at the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield (near-ish to Leeds, but far enough away to be properly rural, I think). I haven't done a week-long guided retreat since I was 18. I'm looking forward to the space, to the daily companionship of a guide, and to the opportunity it offers to transition into the sabbatical - to consciously and carefully do the 'letting go' of the entanglements and concerns of daily working life, and to consciously and carefully enter into a different rhythm, a rhythm that includes regular prayer. I'm not someone that finds prayer remotely easy. I pray best when I'm with other people - and in the encounters of daily life. That's deeply rooted in my personality, in my particular, God-given way of being in the world. But I'm aware that sometimes that can also be an excuse, a way of hiding from the honest, vulnerable exposure of all of me to the one who is closer than I am to myself - the one who knows me utterly, and yet loves me unconditionally. I hope that some of the rhythms I (re)discover in sabbatical time will extend into the time beyond - the time of returning to daily life and work, but hopefully not exactly to 'business as usual'.

A third hope is to be able to be present to my family - my wife and our two children - in ways that have at times become stretched a bit too thinly. It's usually me who does the 'wake up to school drop off' time in the mornings, but rarely have I been around from the end of school all the way through to bedtime - at least in ways that are free of the distractions of emails and phone calls, and without the need to hurry everything (and everyone) along, to make it out to an evening meeting. And the gift of weekends (Saturday and Sunday!) for us to get away as a family! Not to mention almost all of the six weeks of school summer holidays to play with together. And my intention is that this is not just about expanses of time, but about the quality of attention I can give too. I'm very conscious that my habits of phone use, and engagement with social media being a large part of that, come close to resembling addictive behaviour - or might possibly even have tipped over that line. Another way in which I hope sabbatical time will help re-shape the life that follows on from it.

Fourth, having discovered a love for cycling over the past 2 or 3 years, I'm hoping to get out on my bike a couple of times a week - between beginning and end of school. Maybe with a picnic, maybe finding a nice coffee shop, maybe with a book in my bag - but not much more than that. To inhabit the bodily rhythms of peddling and breathing, to enjoy the liberation of going somewhere but it-matters-not-where, but out in the fresh air and away...

Fifth, there is a book to write. It's a book that's almost written in my head, but it needs to get down on paper and its deadline is fast approaching. This one sits a little uneasily. I want to get it done - I think I will mostly enjoy getting it done (I'm one of those strange people who does actually love writing). But it does feel like a task. 'Refraining from creating' it certainly isn't. I could let it fill the whole time, but am determined not to let it do so. I also know there will be a sense of liberation when it is finished, birthed - when I am delivered of it.

Sixth, there are a handful of wonderful opportunities for travelling, listening and learning. Two weeks in South Africa, in and around Pretoria and Cape Town, visiting churches, communities and projects, and meeting with neighbours, community workers and theologians - with a focus on people and places that are intentionally bridging race and class divides. My hunch is that what people in South Africa have been wrestling with for decades, we in the UK (we white folk in the UK most particularly) are just beginning to get our heads round. And as well as the other-side-of-the-worldness of South Africa, sabbatical also offers the opportunity to visit and spend time with some communities and practitioners in this country who are wrestling with similar stuff. One of the questions I'm keen to ask in those conversations is: "how do you, in this place, enable people to listen on a deep level to each other, and share their stories with each other?" It feels to me like it's one of the most urgent questions of our time - and I'm keen to glean a bit of practical wisdom from people and communities who've been working at it for a while.

And seventh - seven feels like a lot, but there's something a bit apt about seven for a sabbatical - I'm looking forward to reading, and engaging practically, in an area in which I feel rather late to the party: ecotheology. There are a number of reasons why this has finally caught up with me with some urgency as well as fascination. Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion have been the 'tipping point' for me to finally appreciate the sheer emergency of the human causes of climate change. Hannah Malcolm's winning 'theology slam' entry was a vital spur to engaging theologically with the climate emergency. Our local efforts to connect our community-building with our neighbourhood's green spaces and the work of growing things and tending our environment, have been given a new impetus with the appointment of our 'Green Connector', Cath Fletcher, and the abundant possibilities for linking up growing, cooking, eating and developing community, have begun to blossom and flourish here, on a radically local level. And in our home, we've begun to take seriously the practical challenges of reducing our plastic usage and our carbon footprint - led by Janey and the kids. In so many related areas I feel like I'm playing catch-up. But in my own theological work (through the PhD and beyond), the theology and practice of 'radical receptivity' seems now to point inexorably towards the ways in which we humans can, and must, be radically receptive to the non-human creatures around us and the earth itself. This sabbatical, this sabbath time, seems to be a really obvious time to start trying to join up a lot of these dots in ways that integrate heart, head and hands.

So that's it for the moment. Seven hopes for a sabbatical. I'll try and 'check in' via this blog, at least occasionally between now and September, with a snapshot or two of how it's going.

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Safeguarding and community-building

I want to share (with the participants’ permission!) a recent, brief but insightful, thought-provoking conversation into which I was invited to contribute (in a Facebook group that focuses on community-building from a faith perspective). It feels like a profoundly important and timely exploration, for a couple of reasons: firstly, because of the litany of safeguarding failures within the Church of England that has recently been emerging, and the urgent necessity for a change of institutional mindset and structures (we, collectively, must do much better); and secondly, because our increasingly atomized, divided society urgently needs the patiently-exercised practical wisdom of community-building, done in ways that start with the passions, gifts, skills and stories of neighbours young and old (and especially those who have been rendered invisible, inaudible, marginalized) – what is often called ‘asset-based community development’ (ABCD).

Contributors to the conversation, alongside me, are Cate Williams (who works for Gloucester Diocese of the Church of England) and Kat Gibson (a community-builder with Barnwood Trust, Gloucestershire), Jane Perry from Lewes (who has for some years supported us in Hodge Hill to reflect on and evaluate our community-building work), and Ali Dorey from Sheffield (who among other things, worked until recently with Fresh Expressions UK).

CW:
A couple of things recently have alerted me to a potential (creative) tension between ABCD and safeguarding.  As I see it, in many ways ABCD is re-teaching the skills of neighbourliness that we have lost in contemporary society, so is at the simplest level about people meeting people as neighbours, sharing a community together and seeing where that goes.  But for good reasons, contemporary safeguarding teaches us to be wary of the stranger and to put strategies in place that ensure that encounters are protected in some way.

So, are we ok for example to do community bingo at a community festival and encouraging people to open conversations with strangers?  Can an old folks home invite the toddler group in to join them without additional layers of safeguarding or do the safeguarding policies that both these organisations already have cover what is needed?  How can we encourage ordinary neighbourliness and an attitude of trust when there is potential for that trust to be abused? 

KG:
This dilemma is part of why ‘befrienders’ rarely introduce isolated people to their neighbours - even making the introduction is risky - what if things go wrong? And this is one of the reasons why in my own practice I spend most of my time simply asking questions and encouraging. What do you want to see happen here? What do you want your neighbourhood to be like? What would it take to make those things happen? Who do you know who might like to be involved? What’s the best way to meet other people who share that passion?

To me, the element of power is huge here - we move from “I’m going to put something on because it will help the community” to “I’m going to encourage people to do the things they want to do - in their own way and with their own creative resources” - and I’ve come to think over the last few years that actually the more we encourage and the less we ‘help’, the more ownership people feel of their own projects and ideas - such that we have no control over it. This can be scary (and if we want to be able to take credit for something, that’s not going to happen!), but also hard at times to see people struggle without stepping in to fix it for them - at which point the power shifts again.

[To clarify, I don’t necessarily mean having lots of individual conversations and then never making contact again - the dance of stepping in and then stepping back to get out of the way doesn’t necessarily mean run away as soon as you’ve had a conversation - but rather having intentional conversations which focus on asking the right questions (and maybe telling stories too!) rather than offering specific answers or helping too much. You could end up meeting with a person or a group regularly for ages to support them to think through a situation or an idea, but those conversations (in my experience) tend to be most sustainably fruitful when we spend the time asking the sorts of questions that encourage them to find their own answers, rather than offering solutions or sorting things out for them.

Having said that, when there’s something you really want to get involved with because of a personal passion/interest, there’s not necessarily any reason to ‘step away’ - we’re all human as well as any organisational hat we may wear! As long as we don’t take over and help create the conditions for people to grow into their own strengths, make their own decisions and express their gifts more fully (and even make their own mistakes at times!) we can be as involved as we’d like to be!]

If you take this principle a step further it even applies to networking. Most community workers face your dilemma in situations such as - “You want to meet new people and you like painting? Great - I’ll introduce you to so-and-so who also likes painting” - but if we want the person to really take ownership and step into their own power, we might not even make the introductions, but rather ask things like “Who do you know who could be involved in that?” Or “What do you think would be the best way of finding other people who like [painting]?” Or even simply “What would it take for your dream to become reality?”. Sometimes we don’t even need to make an offer (eg to introduce someone to someone else) - if they come up with the idea to meet other people, and their own way of doing so that fits their own personality, the safeguarding question is swallowed up by the principle of trust among neighbours and communities, without any external professionals or helpers being involved. The dynamic becomes more about people as humans getting to know one another and less about systems, agendas or projects.

Of course, there is still a risk - whenever people get to know one another there’s a risk of it not going well or even potentially becoming abusive - but without taking that risk it’s hard for people to build any genuine relationships in the community. We can always support people to think through appropriate boundaries, places to meet, etc - especially if we sense there may be a higher-than-usual risk with a particular individual - but as soon as we step in to control that for them (or even tell them where to meet someone!) the power is ours, not theirs.

This might seem extreme (or ‘purist’ ABCD) but in my experience taking that risk, allowing people to weigh it up for themselves and do things in their own way, creates space for more genuine friendships to be built between people without ‘helpers’ like us sorting it out for them or getting in the way! So Yes, encouraging people at an event to talk to others (eg through community bingo) is a risk worth taking!! If you think about it, we have the same dilemma in every Christian event/conference in which people mingle - there could be people showing up who meet others there and end up in difficulty as a result of those new relationships. But that doesn’t mean the organisers and leaders have to try to ‘manage’ all the individual relationships that could be formed, unless some perceived difficulty arises: we simply support one another to create the conditions in which people can build healthy friendships and flourish in them.

AB:
Kathryn, the wisdom you've shared here is priceless. As I read it, I found myself saying Yes, Yes, and Yes again...

Cate, I think approaching it as a 'creative tension' is a very helpful place to start. Both have a 'best instinct' at their heart, and while their practical out-workings might apparently come into conflict, I don't think their 'best instincts' should do of necessity.

I think the conflict is felt at its sharpest in the kinds of imagination each shapes in us. ABCD invites us to imagine our communities as fundamentally places of goodness, abundance and generosity – an approach that some might accuse of being dangerously naïve. Safeguarding, on the other hand, at its most anxious, can train us to imagine our communities as fundamentally places of danger and abuse. Of course, both have more than an element of truth. And both have well-rooted theological foundations (in Christian doctrines of creation and sin).

So one of the questions we've been learning to ask here is "what factors enable a member of this community to be safe and well?". And one of the answers to that question that we're discovering is: "having a multiplicity of overlapping relationships of trust, friendship and care." Multiplicity and overlapping being key. Even if one relationship (or participation in one friendship group, etc) has the potential to be dangerous or abusive, if someone also has other relationships of trust, friendship and care, then the chances are that one of those other people will spot the signs of concern, and act to help that person find safety and support. It's significant, I think, that none of these relationships are necessarily "professional" - in fact, it's probably better if they're not, because on the whole the "professionals" will be unlikely to overlap with the other aspects of the person's life - neighbours are much more likely to do so.

So one of the roles for the community-builder is - especially through the kinds of process that Kathryn describes so well above - to support and encourage people towards those multiple, overlapping relationships, and, more widely, to contribute to nurturing a local culture of trust, friendship and care. We’ve had some external support (from one of our partner organisations, Thrive Together Birmingham) on this bit of our learning journey in Hodge Hill, under the (helpful, I think) label of 'community safeguarding' - by which we mean the whole community taking responsibility for keeping people safe and well. (Which I think is actually the 'best instinct' of safeguarding more widely, especially in church circles, but often degenerates towards a 'professionalizing' of that responsibility.)

The more we formalise the process of 'introducing' neighbours to each other ('befriending schemes', etc), the more they are necessarily governed by safeguarding processes. The key, as Kathryn has emphasised, is how much we can bear to leave the agency in the hands of local people - and the flip-side of that, how much we can bear, as professionals, to step back into the background of the processes of community-building, space-making, friendship-forming, etc.

Just this week we’ve been thinking locally about youth work in particular. And one of our reflections was that it's tempting for youth workers to talk about themselves as 'safe adults', and the spaces they manage as 'safe spaces' for young people. Both of which are hopefully true - but the underside of that language is the implication that other adults, and other spaces, are generally 'unsafe'.

Some of the response to this is being aware of our own addictions to being needed, and to being seen as unusually 'safe' or 'trustworthy' - under the guise of 'professionalism'. As 'professionals' one of the biggest contributions we can make to safeguarding is to restrict our own activity. The more we do that makes - intentionally or unintentionally - our neighbours dependent on us, the professionals, the less safe they are likely to be - because the less they are likely to look towards a rich network of neighbours for their safety and wellbeing...

JP:
I’m also tempted to reflect that my instinctive response is much the same as my approach to research ethics: if you truly value each individual and are working for their wellbeing, then you should be actively reflecting on what the highest standards of ethics/safeguarding mean in your context (and not have a problem with this); unfortunately we (or rather the institutions we work within) have learned the hard way that we can’t assume that everyone will do this, so they put policies/procedures in place to try to formalise the minimising of risk - that is not wrong, but it should always be secondary to, and supportive of, good practice... not the arbitrator/guarantor of it...it follows that where ‘rules’ appear to be genuinely undermining community-building, I’d feel we had a duty to question that...?

AD:
This is really helpful. It’s reminding me about the ‘where trust decreases, legislation increases, and where trust increases, legislation decreases’ thing. Which is a big topic regarding “pioneering” etc. In my experience the structures of the c of e (most churches?) inadvertently discourage the growth of trust between people. It feels to me like the culture of our churches disciples us in not investing time/energy in forming relationships of trust. Which is the opposite of what Jesus did...? Maybe? Then need for more legalistic /paranoid safeguarding grows, ironically making everyone less safe, and less able to engage in healthy trusting ways with each other and with people in our local communities. If we can somehow avoid modelling the worst of this that would be good! If we can get to the point where we actually are appropriately vulnerable with each other and others in our communities that would be awesome. Well it might actually be something like the pearl of great price that everyone longs for...?

CW:
Not just churches, Ali, it is the culture we live in. Though the church has a backstory on getting safeguarding wrong which leaves us particularly prone to anxiety about now getting it right, which can lead us into legalism around this area.

I've been pondering the backstory because actually most of what we got wrong was around how we dealt with something when it came to light. Hiding harm rather than bringing into the open and dealing with it. Which was undoubtedly wrong. Our response has been to put in all kinds of layers of stuff to prevent it happening in the first place, which is a different thing altogether in many ways though all good to prevent harm of course. But I can't help wondering whether we have made it too much about paperwork and not enough about awareness.

I wonder whether something like a safeguarding risk assessment, which isn't actually something I hear talked about, would be more helpful than more layers of policies and procedures as that is about thinking through a situation and awareness. Maybe it is talked about in youth work circles? But of course a risk assessment can become just a paper exercise . . .

AD:
Hmmm yes... I still think Al’s observations above about what makes people feel safe (and actually be safe, I’d say) is being in lots of overlapping relationships of trust are more key than any risk assessments, safeguarding procedures or anything else. I feel we neglect growing trust at our peril. And I think your observation about bringing things into the light ASAP is exactly what enables the growth of trust. Hence all the teachings about what is hidden will be brought to light. If we could confess truth to one another with honesty and humility and keep short accounts with people that would be very transformative. The structures of institutions etc inevitably seem to end up encouraging subterfuge instead of bringing everything into the light. And yes, we’ve got our history to live with. We either perpetuate it or we change from here on in. I wonder why all priests don’t have a spiritual accompanier? If they did, and engaged honestly and openly with them, I suspect the situation might improve a bit at least? And not just priests. I expect a lot of ordinary people who are not church goers might appreciate that sort of accompaniment too.

AB:
This has been a richly insightful conversation – an honest wrestling with vital questions. I want to resist the temptation to end it ‘neatly’ – falsely tying up ‘loose ends’ that in reality remain loose. But I do want to offer one or two last thoughts for the moment, hopefully to provoke further conversation!

Firstly, our conversation has unfolded in parallel with responses to the IICSA investigation into safeguarding failures in the Church of England. This final line of Friday’s Church Times editorial particularly struck me: 'The story will end well only if the culture of deference to the powerful and indifference to the weak is eradicated'.[1] How on earth have we, the church of Jesus of Nazareth, ended up with a ‘culture of deference to the powerful and indifference to the weak’? It’s a tragically rhetorical question, of course. We can trace the sinful history that has got us here. But how do we move on from this desperate place? The art of community-building, I would suggest, is the beginnings of an answer.

Which brings me to a second observation, and a second coincidence: we’re having this conversation in the days after the death of theologian of community par excellence, L’Arche’s Jean Vanier. One of Vanier’s recurring themes is an insistence that those normally considered ‘strong’ need – and are not just needed by – those normally considered ‘weak’. It was the theme of an incredible lecture he delivered at the House of Lords in 2015[2] – and it’s a watchword of our community-building work in Hodge Hill: “everybody’s welcome here – we can’t do without you,” we often say. I wonder how our safeguarding practice would change if ‘we’, ‘the strong’, were concerned not just to ‘safeguard the vulnerable’, but to be ever attentive and alive to the gifts ‘the vulnerable’ bring to the whole body – including us ourselves.

Simon Duffy’s recent reflections on Vanier’s House of Lord’s lecture are illuminating here:[3]

“In the process of fixing others we lose sight of our very humanity – our essential fragility, our need for love, for belonging and contribution. Humanism becomes inhuman. … [M]odern politics [and not just politics!] demands that the powerful are constantly mindful of their appearance in the media and they must, at all times, maintain the illusion that they are competent to solve any problem. They are caught in an impossible trap – for they must present themselves as the answer to any question we might ask. They are the folk who must stand atop the crazy pinnacle of the world that Vanier wants us to reject: a world where we can only advance by standing on the backs of the other people.

It is important to note that Vanier is not attacking government, the powerful, professional experts or policy-makers. He is not saying they are wrong, stupid or evil. Instead he is acting out the very issue he wants people to understand: we must meet each other; we do not need to use each other. The world is not a puzzle to be solved. We must live and act with integrity and love. We cannot hope to be the answer to every question. We must be true to our own gifts and find the role that is right for us.

If I had one frustration in all of this it was simply that it was so hard to challenge the rather strange assumption in the home of the powerful that it was them – the powerful – who could be trusted to act in the best interests of the weak. Does it make sense to assume the abuser will reform himself [sic]?”

Simon Duffy’s Vanier-inspired reflections apply not just to politics and politicians, of course, but to the Church and its leaders, and to wider community-building efforts and those of us who are community-building practitioners and ‘professionals’. Which sparks a third thought for me. One of the guiding principles for our ABCD work is to ask four questions in the right order (thanks to Kat for reminding me of the crucial fourth!):
1.       What can we do here, in this neighbourhood, with the power of neighbourly relationships?
2.       What can we do here, with a bit of external support from ‘professionals’?
3.       What do we need external ‘professionals’ to do for us?
4.       What do we need ‘professionals’ and organisations to stop doing?

It strikes me that these three questions might necessarily be applied to ‘community safeguarding’:
1.       what can we do here, in this neighbourhood, to ensure our neighbours are safe, well and flourishing, with the power of neighbourly relationships?
2.       what can we do here, in this neighbourhood, to ensure our neighbours are safe, well and flourishing, with a bit of external support from ‘professionals’?
3.       what do we need external ‘professionals’ to do, to ensure our neighbours here are safe, well and flourishing?
4.       what do we need ‘professionals’ to stop doing, to enable our neighbours to be safe, well and flourishing?

The critical point, of course, is asking them in the right order. And when we, ourselves, are the ‘professionals’ – whether ‘external’ or ‘internal’ to the neighbourhoods and communities we’re thinking about – we need to be constantly alert to the need, and the possibilities, for us to step back into the background, to stop doing things, to resist our own addictions to ‘providing safety’ and ‘care’, to enable the power of neighbourly relationships to multiply, deepen and flourish.

One fourth and final point, a 'last word' (for now!) fed into the conversation by our friend and travelling-companion Cormac Russell, who has seen and encouraged ABCD in action in more communities around the world than anyone else I'm aware of. And that is that even our language of children, young people and adults being 'vulnerable' or 'at risk' functions to eclipse the ways in which they are, in fact, brimming with promise and abundant gifts. To shift "from nice words to restorative practices that heal the wounds between young and old", he argues, we need to start with three fundamental assumptions:
  1. There is space and hospitality within every community for the gifts of all young people,  regardless of their history or reputation, if we intentionally invite them in and make the connections. These spaces will not be found unless we actively seek them out and animate them.
  2. Communities cannot reach their full potential until the gifts of their young citizens are discovered and received.
  3. We do not have a “youth problem,” we have a “village problem.” Every young person, regardless of past transgressions, has strengths that are needed to tackle this village problem and, by so doing, to build inclusive sustainable communities.
“It takes a village to raise a child” may have been the way of the past, but in the future––if we can learn to embrace the giftedness of our young people––it may be truer to say it takes a child to raise a village. [4]




[1] Church Times editorial, 17th May 2019, ‘Power of abuse’ (https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2019/17-may/comment/leader-comment/power-of-abuse)
[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0NOX_UPSyJw
[3] https://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/library/by-date/in-memory-of-jean-vanier.html
[4] quoted by permission from Cormac's forthcoming book

Monday, 6 May 2019

Guest blog: Encountering Christ in Hodge Hill

This guest blog is written by Jack Belloli (@giacbelloli), who has been sharing life with us in Hodge Hill as part of our Common Ground Community since September 2018.

If what Jack writes here inspires you to want to explore coming to join our Common Ground Community - for a year like Jack, or for longer - we'd love to hear from you. If you're interested in coming as a resident member in one of our Community Houses, for a September 2019 start, we'd be really keen to hear from you by the end of May. For more details click here.

***


As I write this, Easter Week has just finished – and the story from the week’s lectionary readings to which I’ve found myself returning, as I look back on seven months so far in Hodge Hill, is the risen Christ’s appearance to the disciples at Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35).

This story’s always meant a lot to me, but particularly since 2016, when I was pointed towards Henri Nouwen’s book With Burning Hearts, while I was beginning to reflect more deeply on God’s call for my life. Nouwen reads the encounter as Christ’s way of confirming a pattern for sustaining the ‘Eucharistic life’, which He announced at the Last Supper and fulfilled in His Resurrection. He comes to us, as He does to the disciples in their despondency, and reveals Himself first in the Scriptures and then, more completely, in His breaking of bread.

This year, however, I’ve found myself paying more attention than I had previously to the ways in which the turns or hinges of this pattern are made possible by the disciples. Jesus can explain the Scriptures to them because they are already thinking about Him, about what He had done ‘before God and all the people’; He is revealed at the table because they choose to invite Him in.

These details confirm a way of understanding just what kind of thing “the life of Christ” is. It’s one that runs through Luke’s Gospel in particular – right from an opening in Mary consents to bear and raise God’s Son – but which I’ve also seen particularly clearly during my time living here: that Christ goes where love already is, to dwell with and enhance it. If this is the case, being Christ-like might not be a matter of establishing new patterns of living as much as of being open to the patterns that are already out there, containing the seeds of their own transformation.


One of the sites I’ve found myself going to this year has been The Hub, a shopfront on the Firs and Bromford Estate which provides a base for two grassroots charities that Hodge Hill Church supports. Here, a group of us commit to sharing time with whichever neighbours cross our threshold, and sharing in whatever aspects of their lives they choose to bring with them. Our aim is not to treat these encounters as opportunities to solve problems, but (where necessary) to remove obstacles to our neighbours’ flourishing and (more importantly) to build connections among them, finding other people who share their passions or can celebrate their gifts. It’s a matter of focusing not on somebody’s struggle to use a new iPhone, but the love and support for family on the other side of the world that inspires them to keep trying; not on the ways that someone’s disability requires asking for special provisions, but brings with it gifts for openness and empathy that enable those around them.

This principle of cherishing what is already there is also expressed every Thursday, when a team of us prepare and share a pay-what-you-can community lunch and boutique, using “real junk food” donated from supermarkets. In a world in which the only response to financial and environmental crisis seems to be one of imposed scarcity and sacrifice, we insist that God has always provided enough for His creation and that is already being made new through redistribution.         


The other place where Christ is already at work is The Old Rectory, the house that survives from the Anglican church property that previously stood on Hodge Hill Common. Here, we’re in an ongoing process of working out what a ‘homely expression’ of church might look like, and what particular benefits it can bring. The room in which some of us gather twice a week to share the Eucharist is the same as the one in which other meals are shared, craft is collaborated on, space for conversation can be held, and quiet days can be hosted: where the boundary between what is sacrament and what sacramental is particularly thin, and where individuals can find themselves guided from one to the other as they need.

It’s here, too, that the Common Ground community meets once a month for one of its regular times of fellowship (the other is a monthly Bible study hosted by different community members around the estate). Rather than following a set rule of life, we support each other in discerning a sustainable rule that emerges from our own developing sense of where our passions and gifts lie, and how they might be oriented towards God. I’ve been struck by how people’s descriptions of their apparently “secular” habits and pastimes – their exercise, or pets, or holidays – bear witness to a confidence that God is part of these too. And by how Common Ground can provide a space for the particular ways in which we live our lives individually to be “held up”, and begin to be shared. In a culture where quality “family time”, for example, can feel unachievable, putting children at the heart of our time together doesn’t simply compensate for or replace that time, but might expand our sense of what family values might be, of how and by whom they are expressed.


Before I arrived in Hodge Hill, part of me was expecting to encounter Christ in quite a radical way while I was here, as startlingly or disruptively as he appears on the road to Emmaus: perhaps in the witness of someone remarkably “unlike me” in age or ability or social background. Another, slightly more concealed and embarrassed part probably hoped that I was bringing some kind of previously unavailable gift with me: that I was capable of doing something, however small, to shape or transform this place.

Both of those expectations have been met, in a way, but neither particularly dramatically, and neither to the point that it overwhelms the other. Both processes together have been part of an ongoing rhythm of life here, and it’s this quiet ongoingness that’s worth celebrating. In doing so, we’re continuing to participate in the task that God the Father trusted His Son with, when He gave the world to Him: the task not primarily of changing it, but of allowing ourselves to be given over to the world, so that the world may become more fully itself.  

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Towards a missiology of edges

Questions of territory are everywhere. Not just at national and international levels (Brexit, anyone?!), but also at a much smaller, much more local scale. From the little tetchinesses of different groups sharing a kitchen (who used what pan from which cupboard?!), to fractious conversations about who's allowed keys to which rooms (or access to the heating controls) in the church, questions of territory bubble up repeatedly.


In our wider community-building work locally, we've begun talking about a 'neighbourhood ecology' or 'ecosystem' - with different people and groups, spaces and buildings, growing and flourishing not as separate entities, but as interconnected, interdependent organisms within the ecology. But even within this picture, some people and groups have more enthusiasm than others for being part of an 'ecosystem' than others. Some would much rather stick to tending their own, carefully demarcated 'allotment'. And are those of us (the 'we', above) who are advocating the 'ecosystem' narrative in some sense attempting to 'out-narrate' other ways of describing (and sometimes, attempting to 'manage') our area - in our own way seeking a bit of (discursive) territorial control?

In the wider church, territorial ambition may not be explicitly acknowledged in 'church growth' strategies, and neither may anxieties about 'shrinking'. But it's hard to listen to much that is spoken about evangelism and 'impact' - Liverpool diocese's strapline, 'bigger church, bigger difference', for example - without hearing at least echoes of a territorial imagination at work.

And yet...

I have been living and wrestling, for some years now, with a phrase of Rowan Williams' (picked up by political theorist Romand Coles): that Jesus did not come to be "a competitor for space in this world". The kingdom of God that we so often talk about, wait and watch and pray for, seek to get involved in 'building' or 'growing' - this kingdom is not one that can be mapped onto any idea of 'territory'. And so, by extension, the church of Jesus, if it is to be faithful to him and faithful in seeking God's kingdom, should also be resistant to territorial language, and a territorial imagination.

So when thinking about church, and neighbourhood, and God, and politics (and a whole host of other things that are so often caught up in territoriality), I've found it increasingly helpful to think not about territory, but about edges.

One kind of 'edge' is the experience of marginalisation. We're pushed to the edges of the group, the community, the society, because of who we are - or rather, because of how others see us, talk about us, label us, treat us. We're rendered invisible, inaudible. We're overlooked, patronised, stigmatised, devalued, demonised. Our contribution is treated as worthless - we're seen as lacking, a 'problem' to be fixed, 'waste' to be thrown away.


And the dynamics of marginalisation can sometimes push us to a different (but related) kind of edge: 'cliff-edges' where, with one more little push, or a stumble, or a gust of wind, we're falling over the edge. The cliff-edges are very real, and they destroy lives. The unpaid bill that leads to eviction and homelessness. The letter in the post that is the last straw for someone's already-brittle mental health. The final argument before the family splits in two. The accident that means you can't do your desperately-needed job any more...


A third kind of 'edge' can be just as destructive: the border fence that says 'keep out', defended with barbed wire and guards with guns, or polite but firmly unwelcoming immigration officials (backed up by guards with guns), or a 'hostile environment' on the 'inside' of the border fence, sustained by hostile policies, hostile political rhetoric, hostile media messages, hostile attitudes, hostile gestures, hostile stares...


There is a fourth, more positive kind of 'edge', however. It's related to the 'ecosystem' metaphor I mentioned earlier, that some of us have found us using to describe our neighbourhood. But where the 'ecosystem' suggests a bounded space, a territory with edges, the 'ecotone' (from oikos + tonos = habitation + tension) is precisely about the edges themselves. It's the environmental 'contact zone' between two different kinds of habitat, where intermingling and interaction happen - and which is almost always remarkably fertile, generative of diversity and even new species of life.


I want to suggest it as a potentially fertile metaphor for our society, and our neighbourhoods. Especially (but certainly not only) our urban neighbourhoods: where the 'contact zones' between people - people of different ethnic and class backgrounds, people with wildly different life journeys and politics, people of different faiths and cultures and passions and habits - are everywhere.

My teacher here is again the political theorist Rom Coles, himself quoting cultural theorist Mikhail Bakhtin:

"One must not … imagine the realm of culture as some sort of spatial whole, having boundaries but also having internal territory. The realm of culture has no internal territory; it is entirely distributed along the boundaries, boundaries pass everywhere, through its every aspect... Every cultural act lives essentially on the boundaries..."

The edges, the ecotones, the fertile contact zones are everywhere: cutting through our neighbourhoods in every direction, running through our lives and our relationships, our daily movements and interactions. They are not 'territory' in their own right - they are, by definition, not spaces that can expand (make an edge 'thicker' and very soon it is no longer an edge), or compete for space, or be fenced off (if there is no longer intermingling, then it's not a 'contact zone').

What you can do to an ecotone is tend it. This can only ever be quite a humble task, because the real action is in the interactions and intermingling that go on between those who co-habit in this borderland, who bump into each other in this contact zone. Such interactions can't be forced, or engineered. But they can be enabled and encouraged by those who gently tend to such edge-places, who hold them open and refuse the encroachment of the fences and the exploitations of the territorial.


And although they can't be 'expanded' ('thickened', 'enlarged' so that they fill more of the space than before) they can be extended, lengthened, into areas where they have not yet run through. Welcoming new forms of diversity into a space, new contact zones can 'pop up', new interactions and interminglings can be nurtured into life. This is the work, in our neighbourhood, that we call 'street connecting', and which my friend, neighbour and colleague Paul Wright has described so vividly and reflectively in his recent blog post.


And here's an interesting suggestion for Christian missiologists (and others with a similar concern for the 'mission' of their organisation): rather than thinking about 'growth' as 'expanding (our) territory', what if we were to shift our focus to 'extending the edges'? Rather than concentrating on trying to 'get more people in', what if we were to invest our energy (and other resources too, perhaps) in 'getting more people encountering each other', across our many differences? (There is more to be said theologically, from this suggestion, about the difference that might be made by thinking less about the 'internal volume' of 'the body of Christ' and more about the tending and extending of its 'edges' - what we might call 'the flesh of Jesus' - but that's for another time.)

Beyond tending and extending there is then the vital work of attending. Attending to one another, in our encounters in these ecotones / contact zones. Attending to the encounters happening there. Attending to the new life that is springing up in those places and through those encounters. Attending deeply, in a way that looks and listens expectantly for something more than what is obvious or readily accessible. Attending with the kind of quality that Otto Scharmer describes of deep, "generative listening" - offering a space within which something new, something as yet unsaid or unseen or un-done or unacknowledged can begin to emerge. "Hearing to speech", as feminist theologian Nelle Morton famously put it.


This attending is what we mean, locally, when we talk about trying to help people discover their passions and gifts, knowledge and skills. But it is embodied most vividly in 'wow moments' like our first community talent show, 'Firs & Bromford's Got Talent', that happened earlier this year (that I've written about previously in this blog):

...the
talent and creativity (children and adults alike) on show was impressive by any standards. What left me an emotional wreck by the end of the night, though, was much more than the stunning talent. Knowing
even a little of the journeys and battles that many of the contestants (both adults and children) had been on to get onto that stage on that Friday night, I was in awe and wonder at their courage and determination, their raw vulnerability and yet the sheer dignity and pride of standing up there, showing us something of their spirit, their soul, their God-given essence. Some of those who got up and performed had fought more than just nerves to do what they did. And in the end, the 'competition' wasn't really a competition at all: each and every one of them was cheered on - willed on, hoped and prayed on - by each and every one of us in the audience, and we were heart-burstingly proud of all of them - we'd have made them all joint winners if we could have done. Our role, collectively, was encourager, cheerleader, celebrant of the wonderful gifts of our neighbours - the wonderful gifts that are our neighbours.


And this is where I get properly theological. Because there is something about this practice of attending, this quality of attention, that becomes, I want to suggest, inescapably theological. No one I have read has expressed this better than the theologian of St Francis and St Clare, Gillian Ahlgren, in her radiant book The Tenderness of God.

Some would call this process “incarnation” – a way of life constantly sensitized to the presence of God within the human community, a recognition and affirmation of the presence of God in our midst that helps us deliberately orient ourselves to becoming the kind of human community that God wants.”
In conversation with Francis and Clare, Ahlgren develops a theology of encounter that begins with simple human interaction but, with tenderness and patient attention, plumbs its divine depths:

“For Francis and Clare, encounter became an arresting way of life, open to all. In their experience, there was no one whose life would not be deeply enriched by deeper dedication to the way of encounter. Engaging the other with the intention to listen, to learn, and to connect is a mutually transformative practice that slowly changes everything. Encounter teaches us to honour the fragility and sacredness of our own humanity, especially as we come to know our common humanity together. When done in the conscious presence of the love of God, encounter creates sacred space in the human community. Encounter moves us from observers of life to collaborators, with God, in the building up of the human community, the creation of a common home.”

There is, of course, a more uncomfortable side of interaction and encounter in the 'contact zones' - especially when those interactions and encounters are extended and deepened over time. We fall out with each other, we let each other down, we mess up, we hurt each other, we slip back into territorial thinking and battle with each other over control, we retreat back into our well-defended comfort zones.

So alongside tending, extending and attending I have to add the hard labour of mending. The work of forgiveness and penitence, mediation and reconciliation - and the equally hard work of patiently living with the unresolved and the unhealed - this too is an ongoing task in the ecotones of community.


There is one more 'activity' in the ecotone to mention. It offends my desire for neatness by refusing to rhyme with the others. But that is perhaps appropriate, because unlike the others it is not in any sense 'work' or 'labour'. It came to the foreground for me thanks to the invitation (which Paul describes in the blog that I've referenced already) for three of us from Firs & Bromford to go and share our stories with the Church of Scotland 'Priority Areas' gathering just outside Glasgow last month. One of the two Scriptural texts the organisers had chosen for the gathering was a section of Isaiah chapter 65 (quoted above). The passage does some vital that I'm not sure had ever completely sunk in for me before: it ties labour and enjoyment together. And this, perhaps never entirely explicitly, has been one of the intentions of our community-building work in the Firs & Bromford: rather than looking to external 'service providers' to build community for us to then enjoy, we realised as neighbours that we had the power to build community for ourselves, together; but equally, rather than spending all our time in the labour of the building of community, Isaiah's prophecy invites us to also enjoy the fruits of our labours. Planting and eating are two things that we're managing, more and more, to tie together here. Who knows whether we'll be able to build our own houses here in years to come - I truly hope so - but it's a profound reminder, especially to some of us with activist tendencies, that we're called not just to the work of 'building a common home' - but to enjoy living in it together, too.