Research, honest!

I would love to say that visiting the Church Brew Works here in Pittsburgh was a kind of research but it wouldn’t strictly be true.  Although it has given me a great idea for a fresh expression if there’s ever an opportunity!

While I do find it sad that the 100 year old Catholic church building had to close for worship, in its new incarnation the Church Brew Works was heaving with young people tonight, exactly the demographic that’s missing from many of our churches.

This week has been a conference about creating missional congregations, churches that are prepared to listen to their local community and go to where they are to meet them rather than expecting them to come to us.

It has inspired me and given me lots to think about as I return to the UK and I now know that I want to get involved in further research to help and support the church as we try to assess the impact of the many new initiatives and ideas coming our way.

I still don’t quite know how it will work out.  To be honest I’ve been on a bit of a roller coaster this week.  Much of the time I have felt hopelessly out of my depth and a bit of a waste of space, overlooked and in the way.  But just occasionally I have felt that maybe I do have something to offer, if not now then in the future.

I don’t think I’ll be able to keep up a frequent blog once I get home but I do want to keep writing.  Perhaps this is the new turn that I sensed my path would take up on Hadrian’s Wall, an opportunity to do some innovative congregational research, and if that means having the odd beer in a converted old church, then so be it!

New beginnings

This weekend has been a weekend of new beginnings for the church where I work.  Not only did we have a wonderful baptism on Sunday and celebrate two first birthdays, we also saw our new curate Rob being ordained at the cathedral.  These kinds of new beginnings fill me with hope for the future of the church as we grow in number and vocation.

But it has also occurred to me that new beginnings don’t happen without an ending.  My youngest turns ten next week and I am already grieving for the years that have passed.  I know from experience with my older daughter that the relationship changes.  The love is just as strong but it’s expressed differently and as a very tactile person I miss the hugs even if I’m not strong enough to lug them about, carry them on my shoulders or tip them upside down like I used to!  I know the next stage brings with it a whole load of new joys, but for that to happen, we have to leave behind our old ways of relating to one another.

The same will be true for Rob and the others ordained this weekend as they come to terms with their new ‘collared’ existence.  I remember needing time to grieve for the teaching job I’d left behind, as well as the friends we had to be parted from to begin a new life as a much less rooted ordained minister.  And relationships with family and friends change as they adjust to the changes in your identity.  The exciting new beginning doesn’t come without something also having to end.  Much as we often want to have our cake and eat it, we also have to recognize that if we eat it, there will be no more cake!

Which brings me to the other new beginning for us, as this weekend also marked the start of our Summer Afternoon Teas every Sunday afternoon for the next two months. There will be a lot of cake eaten but also, we hope, a lot of new relationships built and nurtured through the sharing of food and hospitality.

So away with the old, in with the new, and let them eat cake!





Home at last!  It was a very long journey back to Leicester from Pittsburgh that began yesterday with a visit to a huge cathedral-like Presbyterian church.  A few of us staying on after the conference decided to experience an American church.  It was a glorious building, with a very good choir and handbell ringers.  The sermon was an introduction to the process theology of Pierre Teillhard de Chardin – a bit deep for me on a Sunday morning!

I’m not a huge fan of process theology but I am attracted to the idea that the journey matters.  My journey back home after church yesterday has been a long one and has given me some time to process what I have experienced this week and how it might impact on my life and ministry back home.

But processing isn’t always a positive image.  When we arrived at Boston International Airport, it was heaving with people and we had to queue for a long time, weaving up and down those moveable barriers.  Then we had to remove shoes, belts, watches and jewellery so that we could be processed through the security system.  My insulin pump set off the alarms of course!

What I noticed was that processing large numbers of people is a dehumanizing experience.  You are just one of hundreds of passing faces and even if the staff are wonderful compassionate people in normal life, it becomes a challenge for them to treat every one as an individual human being.

The same can be true when it comes to large ethnic groups or nations.  When we see them as a mass, we risk dehumanizing them, speaking of them as if they were one unchangeable entity.  It becomes easy to talk about ‘them’, the ‘other’.

Sign in a Pittsburgh garden

I had some of my prejudices challenged this week by getting to know individual Americans.  And I think that’s why I want to disagree with the African American pastor who said during the conference that multicultural churches never work.  If we barricade ourselves off from our black, white, muslim, Christian, American, Syrian neighbours as people then we will never move beyond the stereotypes and assumptions that we all carry.

Pittsburgh sits at the confluence of three rivers.  The Allegheny and Monongahela flow out of Pittsburgh as the one Ohio River and of course you can no longer trace the water from each of the individual rivers.  It’s all just water.

I would like to think that my presence this week as a church leader on the ground, together with other church leaders from local Pittsburgh neighbourhoods, helped in some small way to ground the theory of the high level academic discussions that were taking place.

One contributor talked about our God being a ‘grounded God’.  As I continue to process and tease out the learning from this week, I hope I can be faithful to our grounded God, keep my feet on the ground as I journey on, making time to notice and appreciate my neighbour in the process.  Once I get over the jetlag at least!

The Lord gave me my face but I can pick my own nose

This is the title of a painting by Andy Warhol, one of the world’s most well known Pittsburghers, born here in 1928, part of a Byzantine Catholic Christian family from what is now Slovakia.

Today we came to the end of our conference and so we had a free afternoon in Downtown Pittsburgh to buy souvenirs, walk along the river, experience the night market, see some of the iconic buildings and have dinner out.  As well as seeing the home of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Pittsburgh Steelers, we also found our way to the Andy Warhol Museum.

A troubled soul in many ways (much like the rest of us!), I found myself fascinated by Warhol’s own fascination with other people.  In his case it tended to be the rich and famous, the glamorous movie stars and beautiful people but when he came to film some of them, all he wanted was for them to talk about normal things and to be themselves, like the famous cans of soup!

This week’s conference about God in the Neighbourhood has included discussions about the importance of creating space in our communities for people to be fully human but that this can only happen when we begin to pay closer attention to what our neighbours are saying about what is important to them in their everyday lives. The different bright colours Warhol uses to highlight his series of soup cans among other things brings the ordinary to life so that we cannot but notice them.

There is so much we continue to miss, even when it’s right in front of us, as obvious as the nose on your face.  Again, I come back to the importance of slowing down.  The best bit of the whole museum for me was the room filled with floating silver pillows!

I stood among the balloons as they slowly wafted around me, sometimes touching, sometimes catching on the ceiling and walls, bumping randomly against one another.  Their movement was mesmerising.  It made me wonder if we could all do with filling our workplaces with giant silver balloons to get us to slow down a bit and notice what is right under our nose.

Called to be a troubadour

Tonight we went for a wonderful meal out on Mount Washington with fantastic views over the city of Pittsburgh.  The restaurant was a superb fish grotto with windows all round so we could enjoy the views while we ate and listened to some great jazz.

Back home the Vicarage walls are currently  resounding to the melody from Abba’s ‘Thank you for the music’ along with Verdi’s ‘Anvil Chorus’.   My youngest daughter Hilary is practising for her Grade 2 Trumpet and in the process giving us all earworms that we can’t escape even in our sleep!

The Anvil Chorus is a great piece of music though (not that Abba isn’t!) and comes from an opera called ‘Il Trovatore’ meaning ‘The Troubadour’.  Troubadours came up in conversation this morning as someone was talking about the work of consultants to churches.

Just as troubadours pick up songs from the places they visit and sing them in new places, so consultants have the task of collecting and sharing stories of what is going on in other places.

Today on the conference we’ve been thinking a lot about racial segregation and I’ve been massively challenged to face up to and address my own bias and assumptions as a middle-class middle-aged white man.  I need to listen more carefully to the troubadours in my community who can sing me the songs of other places and tell the stories of people who are not like me.

Then I need to take more seriously the call to be a troubadour and sing those songs to others so that they too can hear the voices we don’t often hear.  As I am being led to give more thought here to the kind of research I might like to do at some point in the hopefully not too distant future, helping the church to hear the voices of those in the pews and in our communities feels like a good and fruitful thing to try to do.  And in doing so, new ideas might emerge and together maybe we can begin to create some new harmonies from the different melodies.

Now that would be an earworm I wouldn’t complain about!

Pittsburgh at night from the Monterey Bay Restaurant

Mending the Torn Fabric of Creation

I have a hole in my socks but no needle or thread to darn them!

I don’t know if I’ve worn through my socks because I’ve been doing a lot more walking here in Pittsburgh than I expected.  It’s been said many times before by visitors to the United States but everything here just seems so big!  The streets are wider, the houses are bigger and the buildings are taller.  A few blocks seems like miles to walk.

But it’s not all bad.  Flying into Pittsburgh I was struck by the huge number of trees I could see across the city.  They were everywhere between the houses and other buildings making it a much greener place than I would have expected of an industrial city.  At times it looked like the trees were fighting with the houses for space and more often than not the natural world was winning.

After a full day of presentations and discussions it was good to head downtown this evening to find food and fresh air.  A walk along the river revealed more trees along the riverbank even right in the centre of the city, contrasting with the great steel bridges, one of which proudly sported an award for ‘Most Beautiful Bridge 1928’!

I am still processing all the things I am learning and discovering as I listen to the experiences of church leaders encouraging fresh pioneering models of church in Pittsburgh and other parts of America, as well as in South Africa and Europe.  One of the most interesting definitions for mission that I have heard was quoted in a presentation this morning.  It comes from Craig Nessan who writes that God’s mission through Christ and the Church is to ‘mend the torn fabric of creation.’

It’s a wonderful image to play with, an image of healing and reconciliation.  The Church is called to engage with what God is doing in the world, to see where the fabric of creation is torn and to do what we can to mend it, to work in partnership with the ‘other’ whether that be the created world or other human beings from a different faith or background.  I have also been struck today by painful stories of racial division and prejudice which continue to blight so many communities.

Trees hiding the Heinz factory

Sometimes taking on this mission might mean repairing breaches within the local congregation or community, sometimes it might mean being prepared to work with those who are different from us in creating something new that will allow us all to flourish.


In this disposable age, I suspect I will just throw my socks away and buy new ones but that’s not an option when it comes to creation.  The tears in the fabric of our world need repairing and that requires both needle and thread, not to mention a whole lot of skill and patience.


This song by MercyMe was the one I chose for us to come in to at Andy’s funeral.  It’s a song I came across at a funeral I did some years back for a wonderful and dearly loved man at the church where I was a curate.  Here are some of the lyrics.  Hopefully you can see why I chose it  …

You’re in a better place, I’ve heard a thousand times
And at least a thousand times I’ve rejoiced for you
But the reason why I’m broken, the reason why I cry
Is how long must I wait to be with you

I close my eyes and I see your face
If home’s where my heart is then I’m out of place
Lord, won’t you give me strength to make it through somehow
I’ve never been more homesick than now

Help me Lord cause I don’t understand your ways
The reason why I wonder if I’ll ever know
But, even if you showed me, the hurt would be the same
Cause I’m still here so far away from home

I close my eyes and I see your face
If home’s where my heart is then I’m out of place
Lord, won’t you give me strength to make it through somehow
I’ve never been more homesick than now

My home for the week

I’m not feeling especially homesick here in Pittsburgh as I’ve been very busy, although speaking to the family on FaceTime earlier this afternoon did leave me feeling a little sad.  But I have been thinking about home because the theme of the conference is ‘God in the Neighbourhood’.  We were asked to think about where our home is.


For the first 11 years of my life, I lived in at least seven different places in the UK.  I’ve always found it hard to say where I come from.  I spent the longest time in Leicestershire, that’s what I usually end up saying.  But increasingly I have found myself happy to answer that I come from Leicester.  That is my home at the moment (leaving aside discussion of my heavenly home for now!).  And I do feel a long way from it here in the USA.  However, it has been fascinating to discover so much that is common in the experiences of colleagues here from Denmark, Norway, South Africa and of course America itself.  Many of our churches are experiencing the same trends and so sharing our responses to the changes we are seeing in the world is exciting and stimulating a lot of thinking for me.

One of the many huge Presbyterian churches here

The idea of ‘home’ is really important to us as human beings, and if we are feeling homesick, I believe it’s true if a little simplistic that ‘our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’ as St Augustine said.  It can be hard as itinerant clergy to minister to a congregation who have never lived anywhere else.  Their sense of rootedness and place is stronger than we will ever know.  And yet, as the world becomes an ever smaller place, that also means perhaps that we should be able to feel at home wherever we are in it.


In one of today’s presentations I learnt of the sociologist Hartmut Rosa who writes about our need for ‘resonance in a world of acceleration’.  Where in our neighbourhoods can we help people to find resonance that might offer a cure for that feeling of loss and unease we sometimes call homesickness?