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!

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?

Anxious Times

A sunny morning at Heathrow
A very wet afternoon at Philadelphia

It’s been a long day.  I’ve already been up for nearly 24 hours, having left home in a taxi at 3am!  From there to the bus station to the airport and across the Atlantic to Philadelphia where thunderstorms have delayed all onward flights.  So an anxious time of waiting once again …


But my anxiety is as nothing compared to that felt within the community at Finsbury Park and in muslim communities all over the country after last night’s terrible attack.  My heart goes out to my own community in Evington and the many families I know through the local school who will be feeling increasingly threatened and unsettled by these events.  We live in anxious times.

I haven’t been to the United States since I was 17 and haven’t flown much at all in the intervening years, certainly not long haul.  So I admit today has been a nerve-racking experience.  I wasn’t really expecting to have to strip off jacket, shoes, belt and empty pockets, to be swabbed because of my insulin pump and to be questioned a number of times about the purpose of my visit.  I have felt under close scrutiny and that feeling has been added to by the numerous signs encouraging people to report suspicious behaviour, not unlike some of the wartime posters that led to increased suspicion between neighbours and a generally mistrusting atmosphere.

Airport rocking chairs to help you relax!


All of this makes for an interesting background to the conference I have come to take part in, looking at how the  church can engage better with the local neighbourhood, seeking transformation and the common good.  I felt prompted by some of the comments I have read from muslim friends to write to the trustees of my local mosque back home and offer them some reassurance of our continuing desire as Christians to work together for the wellbeing of all.


These may be anxious times, but time and again the Bible tells us not to be afraid.  The way to dissipate the anxiety is not by giving way to fear and withdrawing more into our homogenous communities.  Instead we need to be drawn by hope and love, to be reaching out in friendship to our neighbours to offer one another reassurance that we have more in common than what divides us.  I love this CBBC video.


Children are wonderfully blind to the barriers we put up as adults, and it echoes one of my favourite quotes from Nadia Bolz-Weber: ‘every time we draw a line between us and others, Jesus is always on the other side.’


Father’s Day has been a bit weird since Dad died.  I walk past the displays of Father’s Day merchandise each year and think I have no one to buy it for.  I’m spoilt of course by my lovely daughters and for that I’m eternally grateful but it’s odd not to be giving as well as receiving.

This Father’s Day has been different as I was privileged to preach in my Dad’s church in Wisbech.  It was a very moving experience and many people in that congregation too who knew my dad have given generously to VHL and followed my walk4andy.

St Peter’s Church, Wisbech

After lunch with my stepmother and my dad’s brother and his wife we went to visit my dad’s grave in Newton where my dad’s dad is also buried as well as my dad’s dad’s dad and I think my dad’s dad’s dad’s dad! 

It was boiling hot and so finding some shade was the number one priority but I was struck gazing at the gravestones by the passing of time and the knowledge that I am just one more dad in that whole sequence, a product of many fathers with all sorts of different approaches to fatherhood.

St James’ Church, Newton

Largely because of the VHL, my dad wasn’t in a position to father me like I have my girls.  Certainly after his first major op, he couldn’t take us out on trips or just muck about in the garden.  I don’t blame him for that of course.  He was still an inspiration in so many other ways and I knew he loved me. That, for me, is the most important gift a father can give – the knowledge that you are loved unconditionally…

I know he would have been very proud of me today standing in the pulpit at his own church, and I can even be pretty sure (since I’m told by my children I’ve inherited his terrible sense of humour!) that he at least would have chuckled at my joke about Jesus’ bowels being moved!!