Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Out with the Old

So, we're into that strange lull between Christmas and New Year. It seems longer this year, so not only do I have time to make this post, but I spent all day yesterday beginning the mammoth task of clearing out our cellar so Deborah can set up her studio down there. We have a few mementos from Mersey Street stored down there, together with various bits and bobs of Clare and Andy's while their never-ending building work goes on. But by far the majority of the rubbish down there is stuff I have hung on to on the grounds that, "It may come in useful sometime."

You may not know this, but we have pretty much re-built our house over the last 15 years. But we are about to purchase a stair carpet - and that will be the moment we declare it finished! (Of course, it never will be finished, there will always be repairs and improvements... we need a new boiler and the shower room needs re-decorating, but you know what I mean).

So, if the bricks, slates & timber I've been hoarding, not to mention half-full tins of paint have not 'come in handy,' by now, then it is likely they never will.

So, it's out with the old.

Which is a good summary of 2009, really. We finally rid ourselves of Mersey Street, and the last vestiges of traditional church. Now we begin the task of constructing a new model of Christian presence which fits the new Openshaw.

And after a couple of days rest after a good Christmas with family and friends, that feels a pretty exciting prospect. So, a very Happy New Year to you all.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Demolition Keep Out

This afternoon I finally found time to go out with the church camera and take some photographs of the estate. You can view them by clicking the title of this post.

It was a strange and rather melancholic experience. We have been waiting for so long for this process to start, but somehow I can't find much to celebrate.

This advent we have been following the Roots material (well, sort of, anyway) which began by looking at the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah. We spent time looking at walls and barriers which divide the world today and Clare put together a slideshow.

Ironic then, to go out into my own community, where I have lived for 16 years now, to take photographs of the homes of friends and neighbours, to capture images of the church in which I have ministered for 18 years and to be greeted by fences, barriers and signs telling me to KEEP OUT.

I wanted to scream at the yellow jacket hard hats, "But I live here. This is where I belong. You can't keep me out of my own home."

But, of course, they can. In many ways, they should. Health and safety isn't all daft! But it did worry me to walk onto the new build roads for the first time and to discover that they are all full of gates and barriers as well. Gated communities built to protect the inhabitants from the indigenous community. Built to protect them from me.

Why are you all frightened of me?

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

We are not alone

Driving into Laird Street in Birkenhead on Sunday, we felt an all too depressing feeling of familiarity. In many ways, we could have been in Openshaw.

We had written a reflection based upon the demolitions which have now started behind my home - and as we drove round the block to get back to the overshot car park, there we found demolitions which had started behind the church.

We began the service with our prayer "Grumpy Old Church" - a reflection on the fact that we do get cross sometimes - even cross with God when we believe that we have been faithful, but don't seem to receive any reward.

And the good folk of Birkenhead seemed to respond with a very loud "Amen!"

We moved into an all-age activity, based upon the idea that we - and God - have many, sometimes contradictory faces. As we were doing it, one older member of the congregation approached me, "We don't do this sort of thing in church," she said, apparently disapprovingly, before adding with a grin, "You've moved us on twenty years in five minutes!"

We came away with the feeling that the minister had invited us because he is frustrated at how worship does not reflect the reality of the context in which they are worshipping - and that the church welcomed us because they desperately wanted the opportunity to worship in a way which reflects the - very tough - reality of the context in which they are worshipping!

Perhaps there is a god after all?

Monday, 5 October 2009

Dancing Stories

The original idea for Dancing Scarecrow was as a home for our Godly Play resources. Then we realised that what we do isn't strictly speaking "Godly Play" - which has a very strict methodology. Then we got caught up with trying to get all the new prayers up onto the site - which we have still failed to do!

However, as we have started travelling around the country for worship, we do realise that there is a need for imaginative resources for storytelling for all ages.

So we have now got round to photographing - and putting online the first few of our story scripts strongly influenced by, but not limited to the Godly Play methodology! Not surprisingly, we are not calling them that. We've adopted the term "Dancing Stories" instead.


Thursday, 17 September 2009

Still Alive

Finally, after some two months of inactivity (at least blog-wise) I have spent this afternoon adding another twenty or so prayers to www.dancingscarecrow.org.uk

We are now well into our travelling wandering race act, and this Sunday will be taking a godly play to Cragg Hill in Leeds. I really need to get the Godly Play scripts page up and running. Maybe tomorrow?

Monday, 27 July 2009

Things They Don't Teach You at Theology College

Between us, we have worked out, that Clare and I have no fewer than 20 years of university education - the vast majority of it in theology.
And yet, as we sat in the car park at Mersey Street, waiting for the final skip to arrive, we couldn't help but muse upon the fact that nothing in our academic backgrounds had prepared us for the events of closing the church.
On my first Sunday at Mersey Street - when still a student - St Ida, the then church treasurer - accosted me and told me that I was going to break into one of the congregation's house and help to break up her marriage!
There was a back story of violence and abuse, but I prefer to leave the story as it is for dramatic effect.
A couple of weeks later, I was sent up onto the church roof to try and waterproof the neon cross which was showing signs of leaking. Narrowly avoiding electrocution, I mused on the fact that ministry in Openshaw was not something that Northern Baptist College had really prepared me for.
Fifteen years on, I think I was right.
Incidentally, in the photo, Clare is reading the papers for her NHS board meeting this week.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

You Couldn't Make it Up!

According to the Vanderbilt University Lectionary Site, the Old Testament reading for this coming Sunday is 2 Samuel 7:1-14a. For those who don't recall these verses, let me quote:

7:5 Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the LORD: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?

7:6 I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.

Now, how on earth do we make that relevant to our situation?


Tuesday, 14 July 2009

The church is not a building...

...the church is the people!

I doubt many congregations ever get to live out the words of the much loved children's song, "I am the church, you are the church" (with actions) and actually leave their building and worldly possessions behind but that is what we did symbolically and publicly on Sunday afternoon when we had the closing service for our building on Mersey Street. At the end of the month we will have a smaller gathering in the car park in which we will actually hand over the keys to the city council's regeneration team so that they can knock the building down and turn it into housing.

A week earlier we had asked the church including our children what they wanted to do as a closing service - so much for our plans of something a little more formal and dignified for our many guests. What the church wanted was a typical Sunday service complete with a play story, craft activities, pictures and pop music and everyone participating!

So our many guests, many of whom could remember back far further into our congregation's history that we could, were treated to a looking back and looking forward service in which Beth and Imogen (7 and 8 years) enthusiastically walked the congregation along our church's timeline which they had drawn as a long winding road and marked on the significant moments in the story complete with lots of photographs from different eras which they had added to the display. At the end of the road leading into the future, was plenty of space which the congregation were invited to fill with post-it note roadsigns expressing their hopes and dreams for us as a community as we continue our life together and our ministry in this community without a building for the foreseeable future.

Joel (age 10) treated us all to The Beatles, "The Long and Winding Road" complete with a slide show of pictures of the church's life past and present. We reflected on the Biblical story of Ruth's promise to Naomi through a play story using various objects such as shoes and tents to remind us of our promise to journey together. But for me the most moving part was the liturgy "Where you go I will go" which Tim wrote and Andrew (our Baptist Regional Minister) led where each member of the local congregation expressed their fears and doubts about the journey ahead and Andrew responded "Where you go, I will go; where you live, I will live, your people shall be my people and your God, my God." The whole congregation were then invited to join us on our intercessory journey with the people of our community the words "Where you go, I will go..."

So, here we embark on a time of journeying and pilgrimage with no real idea of where we are going but a sense that it will be the journey itself which will be important - a journey deeper into our own community - a journey which God shares with us.

Friday, 26 June 2009

A Series of Emotional Events

So, today we said farewell to the pulpit!
Having been told that our oak pulpit was slotted together, we arranged for Jonathon Hemingray to come and dismantle it. The plan being that he would use the wood to create crosses which we could take with us and/ or sell to raise funds. Sadly, he discovered that the pulpit was actually made of pine and far from being slotted together, it was largely nailed.
Many thanks to Jonathon for persevering - about 4pm, he disappeared into the sunset with a car full of what wood he could salvage, and will contact us again over the summer when he has worked out what he can do with it.

On my way home from church this morning, I noticed a workman in a de-contamination suit outside one row of boarded up houses. Whilst I cannot, in any way, blame him for wearing a de-contamination suit given the state of the houses, I am left rather saddened that the view the outside world has of Openshaw is that you need to wear a de-contamination suit to come here!

It feels all the more important that we continue to proclaim that God loves Openshaw.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Worship Material for Holiday Clubs

You may know that Clare writes for Roots on a pretty regular basis. This year they have produced some material for churches who run holiday clubs. Clare has NOT written any of this material but Roots is usually pretty usable, so if you think you might be interested, click on the title to this post and it will take you to the Roots website where you can download the material.

Theology in Strange Places

Over the next few weeks, we have so much to do! We have to de-register for weddings and get rid of the registers before we can sell the safe. We have to get the water/ electricity/ gas etc cut off. We have to sell all our furniture. Get the pulpit dismantled and turned into art...

We also have to relocate all our projects.

Last week Clare arranged for the coffee morning and credit union collections to move into the local SureStart children's centre. They were fantastically keen - and offered to prepare a flier and poster to send out. Could they please have our logo to put onto it?

Of course, everyone knows us as Mersey Street - which doesn't work as that is the building we're closing! So we need a new name and a new logo.

Fortunately, our founders had the foresight to give us the Sunday best name of "The United Baptist Tabernacle, Higher Openshaw." We have done a lot of work over the last few years on the concept of a "Tabernacle." I was gently teasing a friend who is a member of another famous 'tabernacle' - their building is so magnificent that it has even become the name of a bus stop!

We, on the other hand, will be homeless for several years to come. So the image of a Tabernacle works. And when we mentioned this to our church secretary, yesterday, he immediately came up with the image of a circus tent!

And my mind went back to the Brian Wren hymn upon which Dancing Scarecrow is based:

Here hangs a man discarded
a scarecrow hoisted high,
a nonsense pointing nowhere
to all who hurry by

Can such a clown of sorrows
still bring a useful word
where faith and love seem phatoms
and every hope absurd?

and David's circus tent seemed strangely appropriate. So I've tried to link it in with our dancing scarecrow. And this is the result:

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Have Congregation; Will Travel

A Word of Explanation

Dancing Scarecrow has rather been put on hold by the fact that Manchester City Council have finally got round Compulsorily Purchasing our church building. I wanted to use the word 'stealing' there, but realise that it would probably be libellous. I'm not sure, though, what you should call a legal process which deprives a church community of its property with only the promise that at some future date they will get round to compensating us.

However, it is clear that the British legal system has little to do with Justice! Manchester City Council now own our building although they are 'graciously' allowing us to continue using it for the next few weeks. We will have to hand over the keys by the end of July at the latest, despite the fact that at the moment we have not even received our surveyors and lawyers fees which they promised to pay up front. Let alone the compensation which they are due to pay us.

If I sound a little tired and jaded this evening, that is because I am feeling tired and jaded, having spent most of my - and Clare's - free time recently putting in place provision for our various projects to be housed elsewhere in the short/medium term.

However, in terms of worship - which after all is what this blog is supposed to be about - I think we have some exciting plans. One week per month, we will worship with the local URC with whom we have been working for over 20 years now. One or two weeks per month we will worship in my front room (as long as it is big enough). And the remaining time, it is a case of "have congregation, will travel."

If you have a small congregation that would like a few more to worship with you one Sunday: send us an invitation.

If you would like Clare and me to lead worship one week: send us an invitation and we'll bring the whole congregation.

If you would like to explore Godly Play - or poetic worship: send us an invitation and we'll bring the congregation.

If you are doing something which you think might interest us: send us an invitation.

Have Congregation; Will Travel

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Bubble Blessings

Last year, we actually forgot to celebrate Pentecost! So much has the wheel turned full circle from the Charismatic revival in Openshaw. This year, we were determined not to let the festival pass by. But it is actually half term and we are both technically 'on holiday.' So no new material, then.
But we focussed upon the Spirit as wind and asked the congregation to 'draw the wind.' This produced the expected variety of images which sparked some interesting discussion.
I insisted on singing the old - and rather naff - On Tiptoe by Maggie Duran and Jodi Page (Fresh Sounds for those too young to have come across it). It contains the wonderful verse:

If life were filled with bubbles,

they’d glisten and they’d burst;

if life were filled with jewels,

they’d line the rich one’s purse;

but life is filled with water

that flows from depths of love,

it flows to fill your weariness

with blessings from above.

So it was that we took our prayers of concern out into the car park and blew them out to be blown by the Spirit of God across the boarded up houses, broken glass and barbed wire of our 'community.' The blessing of God, indeed.
At that moment, of course, members of the Pentecost church, who use our building at lunchtime, arrived to be showered by the Pentecostal bubbles. Somehow, not, I suspect the way they were expecting to celebrate Pentecost!

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Poetry Please

There has been a lot of cafuffal (if that's how you spell it) in the media this weekend about the Oxford chair of poetry. Ruth Padel, the first woman to hold the chair, has been forced to stand down after, apparently, admitting that she 'leaked' details of allegations of sexual harassment against her main rival for the post, Derek Wallcott.

Without wishing to get in to the details of the case, I was interested in the discussion on Today this morning. John Humphries (I think it was he - it was rather early on the day after a bank holiday!) was expressing surprise and shock that poets should be engaged in such 'worldly' practices. Poetry, he asserted, is supposed to lift us to a higher plane.

As one who uses poetry in worship, I found the debate fascinating. I use poetry for a number of reasons.

Certainly, poetry has the possibility of expressing sentiments which cannot be contained with prose. In this sense, it lifts us above the everyday and into the numinous realm of the other.

Certainly, poetry is much more open than prose. Prose seeks to define and label, where poetry floats and suggests. In this way, poetry can be far more radical than can poetry, expressing ideas which many may instinctively 'feel' without ever arousing the ire of the Daily Mail reading forces of reaction - for there is nothing concrete there to which they can take exception.

But does this mean that the poet exists in some 'higher plane,' immune from the realities of the real world?

One of the formative events in my university days was to attend a poetry reading by the Liverpool Poets, Roger McGough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri. Their words soared, entertained and challenged the audience to a deeper understanding of early Thatcherite Britain. Which did not prevent me from observing that all three of them had consumed more alcohol before the performance than was wise. They continued to sup as they recited and by the end of the evening were in typically rowdy mood - degenerating into what can only be described as a fight!

Linton Kwesi Johnson's Sonny's Lettah from the same sort of era, or anything by John Cooper Clarke also spring to mind as examples of poetry firmly rooted, grounded in the world out of which they grew. More classically, one might point to WB Yeats, or the WWI poets - or even William Blake. All poets whose power comes, not from escaping from the real world, but in engaging with and seeking to transcend the reality of their contemporary situation. I would even suggest that William Wordsworth and the Romantic poets were not so much attempting to escape from contemporary reality as to re-attach an alienated, industrial society to its roots.

Too much modern worship is prosaic. The majority of modern worship songs are as 'dumbed down,' repetetive and unimaginative as a Stock Aitken & Waterman, Hit Factory pop record. Worship, if it is to reflect divinity, must strive for the poetic glories, whether they be Bob Dylan or Beethoven, Duffy or Shakespeare.

Friday, 22 May 2009


Well, I've just spent a very boring afternoon uploading another batch of prayers. We now have over 160 prayers available, sorted according to theme.
We've got a Sunday off for half term this week, so we've had a bit more time to work on the website.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Embracing Eleanor

Well, here goes - my first ever blog post if that's the correct term - isn't life exciting! 

Yesterday we turned Tim's office into an impromptu recording studio with the help of a laptop and the microphone borrowed from the children's Guitar Hero game. At one point Tim even donned large black headphones - so Stuart Maconie watch out! It was rather frustrating as we were very conscious of the traffic thundering up and down the old road,  with the inevitable police sirens, buses stopping and drivers who think they are in the Grand Prix. Tim's phone beeped and we collapsed into a heap of giggles. In the end we decided to leave the noise of the background traffic in, justifying it as part of our context (and we couldn't find a way to erase it).

Oh, yes, what were we doing playing at being DJ's in Tim's office? Tim and I decided to have a go at creating a podcast of a poetic paper we delivered at a Baptists Doing Theology in Context conference last summer, which several people have kindly requested that we make more widely available. The paper is called Embracing Eleanor: A Response the the Baptist Apology for Slavery.  You will though be glad to know that we haven't bothered to read out all the footnotes at the end - for those that are sad enough to be bothered we'll put the paper on the website in written form. 

Monday, 11 May 2009

Mustard Seed

We sometimes don't know whether to laugh or cry! This week, we received yet more legal paperwork from the council which seems to indicate that June 11th will have some kind of significance - they may, or may not, take legal ownership of our building on that date. They won't have agreed a compensation package, of course, and we think that the letter only means that they will have the right to begin the process of forcing us to co-operate. Which we are already doing!

Nevertheless, there was a lot of anger in church on Sunday. We feel like pawns in a great game of chess.

We've been looking at parables recently, so I wrote this eucharist based on the Parable of the Mustard Seed. What Jesus does not say is that the Kingdom of Heaven - or Shalom as we prefer to call it - is like a mustard tree, strong, mighty and fully formed. Rather, Shalom is like the mustard seed, tiny and full of potential.

Click the title to go straight to the prayer - or find it by working through the website

Friday, 8 May 2009

Going Live

Well, we've finally got Dancing Scarecrow up and running. So far there are only a couple of dozen prayers up there, but at least it'll give you a taste of what we're doing. Click the Title of this entry - or type www.dancingscarecrow.org.uk into your browser.

We've got several hundred more, so be sure to check back regularly. And if you like what we do, tell your friends.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Dancing Scarecrow

For those who believe that worship can only grow out of the experience of God at work in the world in which we actually live, it can be difficult to find resources.
Dancing Scarecrow is part of Openshaw Connection, a community networked with the tiny Baptist chapel in Openshaw, Manchester. This is one of the most deprived inner city communities in the UK.
When the worship materials we then used suggested that we take the congregation on a walk through the lych gate to admire the beauty of God's creation, we looked out across our rubbish-strewn carpark at the vandalised empty houses and the broken-bottled debris of another urban Saturday night and decided it was time to start writing our own worship resources.
The firstfruits of this was Crumbs of Hope: Prayers from the City. The book was well received, but the whole process of editing all our prayers and getting them printed and published took up almost two years.
Since Crumbs of Hope was published, we have written over 350 new prayers. Electronic publishing seems to be a faster way of getting our very contextual resources into the public domain. It also means that via this blog and the supporting website others can share their resources with us.
We have discovered that there is a small but growing band of reflective practitioners who, like us, are attempting to connect their worship with the Real Lives of their community.