On Christmas Eve a few weeks ago I came home after spending an evening with some of my congregation and turned on the telly for a few minutes. On one channel was midnight mass, coming I think from some Catholic church. A man was preaching as I turned on and although I can't remember what he was saying, and I only watched for about a minute, I remember the tone of his voice very strongly. It was a typical "vicar voice" - terribly posh with its own distinct cadence. If you don't know what kind of voice I'm thinking of then listen to Radio 4 at 8 o'clock on any Sunday morning.
Some days later again I was flicking through my channels and happened to stop at the Evangelical Christian radio station that's on my Freeview. Again I was hearing a sermon. But this time the voice was distinctly different, it was younger, and somehow it felt different. There wasn't a strong regional accent, but there was an informality and energy to the preaching that you rarely hear on services on Radio 4. In fact it was a voice that would have sounded at home on Radio 1. Nevermind what he was saying. What he was saying I completely disagreed with. Yet the way he was saying it I was much warmer to. It's the voice I hear in Evangelical churches, but rarely in mainline ones.
One issue here is the type of people who are being called to ministry, and the type of people who are going to church - is the church in this country fatally middle-class? But let's put that aside for a minute.
Is there something very wrong with the way many people are preaching? I think because preachers are taught to say everything s-l-o-w-l-y and c-l-e-a-r-l-y we tend to lose a lot of the pace and energy that may be the way we speak conversationally. We put on a "preachy voice" that is some combination of our posh-speaking-on-the-phone-to-a-stranger voice and our loud-speaking-clearly-to-a-elderly-relative voice. I think there's something to be said for picking up the pace a bit, afterall, in a play people have to speak so that they are heard, but can still do so with pace and energy.
I'm not saying I'm necessarily good at this, just that it's something we need to think about because we (Unitarians and many mainline white churches) may be going down the wrong path with this.
The nearest cultural phenomenom to preaching is stand up comedy, so I want to compare a few videos, as a way to think about this.
The following videos may contain swearing. If you're easily offended you may not want to watch. Or you may want to work on that, there's more important things to worry about, afterall.
Andy Parsons is actually one of the few stand-ups that speaks at a slower pace similar to preaching:
Lee Evans is about as high-energy as you can get:
Now compare to these sermons, don't worry too much about content just compare cadence and energy:
I couldn't actually find a really-typical-Anglican-vicar-like voice (maybe they've not discovered YouTube). The nearest I have is Rowan Williams, who isn't as bad. I wish I could find a really good example of what I mean:
And because you just have to, here's Eddie Izzard. I'd go to his church:
I haven't (so far) written that much on this blog that relates directly to my ministry in Bolton. But it is worth talking here about our Nite Cafe project, because it is an example of the kind of radical missional ministry inside-out-church thinking that I' trying to promote here.
The following article appears in the most recent edition of The Inquirer.
There are two sides to Bolton town centre. There is the daytime side – when the streets are full of people shopping and when many businesses and shops are in operation. And then there is the night time Bolton. This is a very different beast. Like many other cities and towns all over the UK, Bolton town centre has a thriving night life – what is usually referred to by the town council as the “Night Time Economy.”
At Bank Street Unitarian Chapel we had spent more time thinking about the daytime Bolton than the night time Bolton. We have a café on Thursday mornings that many people drop in to; as a member of Christians Together in Bolton Town Centre we participated in events such as carol singing at Christmas in the town, and, also along with CTBTC, we have supported the Town Centre Chaplaincy. But there was a whole side of Bolton we were ignoring: on Friday and Saturday nights the town centre streets are throbbing with people enjoying Bolton’s nightlife. How were we relating to these people?
This was a question we began to ask ourselves as a group of diverse Christian churches in the town centre of Bolton. We felt that our faith called us to be alongside people, serving them, and we wanted to have a Christian presence in Bolton’s nightlife. But what were the needs we could address as a group of churches?
In fact the needs are great. As in any other town, Bolton’s night time economy has its share of problems. Many people overindulge in drinking, or take drugs, fights break out, people get separated from their friends, have arguments and get upset, and some people have their drinks spiked with drugs. The police do what they can, and the town also employs two “Night-Time Ambassadors” that help to deal with many difficult situations, but there was still a great need for something to be done to help with these problems.
What was needed was a safe space, a place where people could sober up, have a cup of coffee, wait for a friend, or speak to someone who was prepared to listen. What was needed was a “Night Café.” But where could such a café be situated? The answer was obvious. It had to be Bank Street Chapel. Our location is the closest to the main strip of bars through the town centre.
So after a long period of planning the Night Café finally launched for a pilot scheme last July. Based in Bank Street’s hall, the café was staffed with volunteers from Bank Street and other churches and was open from 10pm to 3am every Saturday night.
Our experience over the summer has shown us that this ministry can have a really positive effect on people’s safety and wellbeing. We have had a large variety of people, in a variety of states! There have been people who needed someone to talk to after an argument with a partner; people who needed to sleep it off and sober up for an hour; people who had become separated from their friends and needed help to connect with them, and people who were quite happy to have a coffee and a chat about every thing under the sun, putting the world to rights. We have also handed out over 750 packets of “spikeys” – small plastic inserts for bottles to prevent them being spiked with drugs.
The project has been affected by one incident that happened on only our second week of operation. The pub next door to the chapel was the scene of the fatal stabbing of a man, Paul Gilligan. We were all shocked and saddened by the news of this killing, but we did not know about the incident until the next morning. In the following weeks many volunteers spent time at the front of the chapel, by the pub, where a make-shift shrine grew up to honour the young man who died. Many people needed to talk and the Night Café volunteers offered candles to light and a listening ear.
This incident certainly demonstrated the worst that can happen in bars at night, but it would be wrong to see such a tragic event as typical for the thousands of people out in Bolton at weekends. All human life is here: young and old, coarse swearing and infinitely polite and charming, laughter and tears, arguments and friendship, love and lust and hate. Our job is not to be judgmental, nor to evangelise, our job is simply to be there, offering what support we can. Our volunteers have found this ministry to be challenging, rewarding, sad, fun and fulfilling.
The pilot scheme is now over and we are in a period of reviewing what we can learn from this initial project. I am both proud, and concerned, to say that the majority of volunteers came from Bank Street. We have risen to the challenge of doing something outside our comfort zone and I am deeply honoured to be associated with a congregation that is prepared to do this kind of challenging ministry. At the same time we are a relatively small congregation, and there are not enough of us to support this ministry alone. We need more volunteers from churches or elsewhere who are prepared to join us in this exciting work. We are also in search of more funding to help us train volunteers and provided the basics we need for our work.
The story of the Night Café is an on-going one. We are now reviewing the pilot so we can learn from the project and then re-launch it next year. We would like to see the project expand to include a more pro-active presence on the streets, possibly with “Street Angels” who can chat to people on the streets and let them know that the café is there if they need it. We know that there is a huge need for this ministry and we are committed to its continuation and expansion.
What can other Unitarian communities learn from our experience? First, to do something effectively it’s necessary to work with others. Luckily for us, Bank Street Chapel has always been accepted as a full member of Christians Together in our locality. It is because of such good links between churches and other groups that this kind of ministry can take place. Secondly, social responsibility work has to start at your doorstep. At our doorstep on Bank Street were thousands of people using the bars on Saturday nights, so we have responded to this population. We can’t solve all the world’s problems, but we can respond to what is right in front of us. That’s where we must start.
Minister, Bank Street Unitarian Chapel, Bolton
This article was written with much supporting information provided by Adrienne Tonge, a leading volunteer for the Night Café and member of Bank Street Chapel, and Mike Aspinal, leading volunteer and United Reformed Church ministry student.
Something silly leading to a theological question:
I'm filling out a form on a dating website. And one of the questions aks, "What are you doing with your life?" i.e. what's your job? Nevertheless the way the question is asked suggests an answer with a verb, not a noun. And a lot of people choose to answer this question without talking about their paid employment.
So partly because of the way the question is asked, and partly because I think it will put people off to say I'm a minister, I'm trying to think of another way to answer that question.
So what would you say that being a professional minister is doing? Without using the word "church" or "minister" - what would you say ministry is doing?
Before Christmas the results of the Executive Committee was announced. It's worth noting that these results were posted immediately on the website, which didn't happen three years ago. The website's much better at keeping up-to-date nowadays.
Here's the new folks elected:
Joan Cook Jim Corrigall Elisabeth (Lis) Dyson-Jones Dot Hewerdine Andrew Pakula Ann Peart Peter Soulsby David Usher
All I will say about this group is that there are a lot more people that believe in CHANGE in there. And I think that's a good thing.
But for now I'm much more interested in what the electoral register reveals. The number of people on this register was 3933, which is considerably more than the number in 2006 - which was 2563. Now the number of Unitarians has not increased by that much since 2006, rather the way in which the electoral papers were distributed enabled a greater number of people to be registered. The number of people actually voting though was only slightly higher than three years ago: 1726, compared to 1703 in 2006.
Overall this of course makes the turnout proportion much lower. This does not suprise me. The voting papers were given to congregations and it was up to congregations to distribute the voting papers. In my congregation we gave out the voting papers to people who were there on Sunday mornings, but did not post them out to everyone on our membership list. There are more people on our membership list than we see on Sundays; which brings up issues in itself, but that will be for another time.
So I think we finally have a good estimation of the number of Unitarians in Britain - around 4,000. My question is: why did it take so long to get this number? Why hasn't this number been publicly known before now? If we are trying to grow, shouldn't we know this number, to be able to test objectively whether we are growing?
Reflections on ministering up North, from a bisexual, liberal, evangelical, Anabaptist, Jesus-lovin' Unitarian; searching for transformative new ways of doing church and mission. All opinions are my own, and don't necessarily reflect those of my church or anyone else. And all opinions are, yes, deliberately a bit provocative.