What’s going on?

It felt a bit like coming home, arriving at Wallis House for another 24 hour conference with CMN. Familiar faces and newcomers assembled in the lounge area, sharing a hot cuppa on a cold day and waiting for the call to lunch and the announcement that bedrooms were finally ready for us. Seventeen denominations and organisations were represented from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, making a total of 24 people – a goodly number to share fellowship, ideas and discussion. And a tasty turkey dinner (with vegetarian option, of course) made a welcome start to proceedings. 

Opening worship was led by Andrea Harrison from the Salvation Army, as we thought about that which draws us together, our common ground. From an assortment of felt patches on the floor, laid out like autumn leaves in browns and oranges and golds and greens, we were encouraged to select a few and to sew them together – an instruction which different groups interpreted in various different ways.  And so, a disparate group in some ways, yet joined in our faith and our calling, we set about the business of the day. 

The afternoon was an opportunity to hear from Sam Richards and Mary Hawes about emerging trends and research about children in our current society and in faith contexts. Some sobering statistics were shared, especially about the long-term impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences affecting a high proportion of our under-fives, and from the Good Childhood Report from the Children’s Society. Mary shared with us about Sticky Faith and the importance of promoting faith at home. The slides from Sam and Mary’s talks have been shared around the group. 

After a break for tea and biscuits, we reassembled for a World Café style discussion on some of the Hot Topics that had been submitted in advance of the conference. In fours and fives we gathered around tables to share our thoughts, feelings and ideas on:  inclusion and accessibility for those with additional needs, developing a more intergenerational culture, approaching social justice with children and young people, how to approach intergenerational and children’s work in a very small congregation setting, and how to equip parents to nurture faith at home. There was a buzz of conversation – sometimes on topic, sometimes drifting a little – and some amazing art work from Mel. 

After a supper of soup or chowder, we gathered once again, this time to consider Estates ministry among children, led by Sara Barron. We were challenged to consider the characteristics associated with children on estates of social housing and the impact that their environment might have on their outlook on life, their view of themselves, their attitudes and engagement. The outcomes were not all negative, by a long way, and we were very aware that these characteristics were huge generalisations which were not true of every estate or every estate dweller. But we also acknowledged the great need to bring the welcome, the support, the love of God into these environments in an appropriate way through the Ls – love, listen, learn, look and another one that I can’t quite remember (sorry Sara).

The evening session of the day took the form of a quiz delivered by Lorraine and Mel. Four teams hotly contested the prize: Popcorn, The Winners (not particularly aptly named), Keen as Mustard, and (be careful how you say it) Brainy Beeches. The Beeches were not as Brainy as they first thought, gaining the dubious honour of coming fourth, while Keen as Mustard definitely cut the mustard and were awarded the trophy (expertly drawn by Mel) as CMN quiz champions of 2019. 

Wednesday morning saw us gathered for devotions, this time led by Rosy who used (unsurprisingly) a resource from ROOTS to guide our thoughts about what it meant to come before God with no agenda, no agenda but God’s agenda – a welcome moment of stilling before the business of the day. 

The CMN business meeting was next, and an opportunity to discuss, amongst other things, our role within CTBI and our constitution, the finances of the group and the results from the working party’s discussions regarding our relationship with the colleges. Penny gave us some insight into progress with the Core Skills resources while Lorraine shared a taste of ECCE with the group in the form of a powerpoint which is going onto the CMN website. A farewell and thanks were expressed to committee member Richard Knott who is leaving his current role to take up the post of Children’s and Youth Work Development Officer of the West Midlands Synod of the United Reformed Church. 

After a break for coffee, Dean arrived to tell us more about visual learning environments and TheologyX, which is the online platform which will be used to developing that aspect of the Core Skills training. I think it is fair to say that everyone was really quite impressed with the capabilities and ease of use of the platform which is a lot more attractive than Moodle (the one most people were familiar with). There was quite a sense of excitement in the room – goodness, 21st century technology being used in the church! The potential is immense. 

There was a further opportunity for us to inspire each other as a group by sharing resources and projects through a time of “show and tell”. There was a range of things shared, from Aled’s Welsh bookmarks (perhaps limited in their appeal) to ROOTS’ sample of their free Christmas Stepping Stones resource, and Gail had an opportunity to plug her new book on family ministry which is being published in the new year and sounds to be a very worthwhile read. We will be looking out for tickets for the book launch in February! 

And so the conference began to draw to a close and Sam led us in devotions based on the 30th Anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – bringing us full circle to the statistics we had heard on Tuesday morning. We considered just how few of those rights are met within our own country as well as across the world, and brought the needs of all children and young people before God in prayer. A slight change of plan due to Health and Safety/Risk Assessments, etc. had us drawing flames rather than lighting candles, but it did nothing to subtract from the prayerful atmosphere and the challenge to us to go out and make a difference. As prayers signalled the end of the conference, people slowly took their leave – some before lunch and some after (and some even earlier), depending on the demands of their homeward journey and other commitments.

A Gendered Practice

How can CMN conference January 2019 be summed up? 

It was a relatively small number of us that gathered for the 24 hour conference at Selly Oak, coming from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Island and representing a range of churches and other organisations; some new faces, some more familiar and some (like me) in between. The winter’s cold did nothing to reduce the warmth of the fellowship and laughter abounded throughout. 

We began with worship, led by Gail, in which we thought about attention to small detail within the big picture and the description “God made it – God loves it – God preserves it”. Each participant had a piece of a picture which could be combined with two others to make a whole and we were challenged to find the matching pieces and sit together with the other two people to discuss where we see God in the picture. A good opportunity to tune in to the conference as a whole and chat with someone a bit different as well as praying together. 

That was the easy bit. 

Then began our attempt to wrestle with the topic of the conference: Gender Identity. Everyone came with different hopes and expectations as to what we might get out of the sessions which were led by the delightful and irrepressible Natalie Collins, but the two most uniting themes were the need to feel confident pastorally and the appreciation that this conference was going to bring up as many questions and challenges as answers and recommendations, if not more. And these two expectations were well met!

It was a good feeling to tackle such a contentious subject (especially within the Christian context, sadly) in an environment where we were given space to work out our own feelings, to discuss in a safe environment without fear of judgement, and especially to do so through the medium of laughter for much of the time as well as serious discussion. There was no sense of a hidden agenda, just an objective exploration of an issue in which we were encouraged to identify our own subjectivity as well. 

Natalie began by giving an introduction of the context in which we were discussing this – a scary context of increasing emphasis on gender stereotypes and sexualisation/objectification, especially of women but also to a lesser extent of men. The group felt quite shell-shocked by the barrage of images and statistics which emphasised the extent to which this is true. It definitely threw up a sense of swimming against the tide as we began to contemplate what we understood as “typical” of particular genders and where these opinions came from. 

After a very welcome hot lunch of roast turkey dinner (with vegetarian option, of course) and apple pie and crumble, the second session took us a step deeper into considering the compass of ideologies connected with transitioning. We were given a crib sheet of terminology: only nine pages of vocabulary which will undoubtedly be out of date by the time we’ve finished reading it, but useful as a starting point nonetheless. We were introduced to four ideologies: medicalisation, gender critical, biological essentialism and trans ideology and then Natalie took us through how each of these ideologies would interpret certain issues. Some people found their own standpoint changing through this exercise, others found it easier to identify with one of the ideologies and felt validated by this, all found the insight enlightening into the spectrum of opinions and views and began to understand where people were coming from in their reaction to the question of transitioning gender. Most telling was the overriding theme: the need for non-judgemental and sensitive pastoral care for all affected by this issue. 

By this point my head was spinning and I was far from alone in this. So much to think about and process. It was the perfect time for a break for tea and opportunities to socialise and network for the rest of the evening. With a small group we had the luxury of moving into the lounge. An emergency delegation had been sent forth from the conference on the important mission of fetching drinks and nibbles for the evening and our amazement at the speed in which this mission was accomplished was only slightly diminished when we realised that they had brought corked bottles and no corkscrew. By the wonders of technology, google and youtube, and the ingenuity and bravery of Penny Fuller (trust a Methodist to be able to crack open a bottle of wine under difficult circumstances) the problem was overcome and we settled to a hilarious game of Scattergories (we all identified as winners, regardless of our actual score). Story sharing abounded – indeed, I think I shall never forget someone’s tale of showering outdoors up a mountain, modesty protected only by the fog. Some noteable quotes from our discussions and activities that evening:

  • “Do you want to slap it with a shoe?” “No, it’s OK, I have a knife.” 
  • “It’s a sparrow that identifies as a longhorn toucan”
  • “Get your knickers on, there’s a man on a donkey heading this way.” 

Thursday morning was the final session of training and discussion on gender identity, first thinking about theology and then moving on to consider several different case studies, all of them proving just how challenging and complex an issue this can be. A frequent consideration was that of safeguarding and we all became aware of how vitally important a strategy/policy document is for our organisations to ensure that decisions are made on the basis of policy rather than personal reaction. NO right answers, just good practice and sensitivity to the needs of all parties. But I think I can say that everyone felt far better informed and given the basics to feel more confident in the situations that may arise in the future. 

Sadly many of the group had to leave fairly early so it was a small select group that gathered for the business session at the end of the conference and still fewer who were able to stay for the final lunch. 

It was good to gather with friends and new friends from different denominations and share together our joys and our challenges, to pray for each other as we move forward together and individually, and to identify our common ground far more than our differences. I left inspired, and with a smile as I remembered many of the comments and conversations I had shared. My first act on returning to the office was to raise awareness of the need to include trans* issues as an agenda item at our upcoming committee meeting and request that a standard policy be written together with a request to our safeguarding department for inclusion of gender identity as part of our good practice guidelines which are currently being revised. 

It’s Out There… What’s new and happening in Scotland?

Day 1

Glorious spring sunshine welcomed us as we arrived at St Mary’s Monastery and Retreat Centre on Kinnoull Hill on the outskirts of Perth for our 48 hour conference. We began with a two-course lunch and received a warm welcome from the Redemptorists Community who live and worship on the site. To find out more visit http://www.kinnoullmonastery.co.uk/about-the-redemptorists.php

The opening session featured the work of Steve Aisthrorpe who is the Mission Development Worker in the North of Scotland for the Church of Scotland. Steve summarised for us the research as found in his book ‘The Invisible Church’ in the first session highlighting the research methodology and interesting findings as to those who are described as ‘churchless Christians’, ie those who live out a living faith in Christ as described in attributes identified by the ‘Hoge religiosity scale’. In closing, Steve remarked, “As a result of this research, there are some things we know, somethings we are fairly certain about and some things we can speculate about. I speculate this will be looked back on primarily not as a time of decline but a period of transition. Every few hundred years there is huge shift in society and this may be true of church too.” This is with reference to the work of Phyllis Tickle who indicated that ‘a church rummage sale takes place every 500 years’.

During the second session, Steve facilitated a discussion on what if anything this piece of work has to say to those of us involved in mission and ministry with children and families. Steve identified that his research indicated that children are often key in the decisions of adults to stay, leave or switch church. It is important to recognise that for many people Sunday is a day when one parent has opportunity to see the kids and that it might be difficult therefore to build in time to attend a church service as part of this pattern.

The following up of those families who leave might be key as research in England showed that 92% had never been asked why? The idea of creating ‘Authentic Spaces’ where ‘I can be real and be myself’ is seen as particularly important to young people. One challenge identified is that this view may be from a consumer perspective rather than from an investor and community approach. To what degree can CMN (cbti) be a resource to families seeking to share and nurture faith but who are not connected to a church?

After supper, we were joined by author and Methodist Superintendent Rev Dr John McNeill. John took time to share some reflections with us on his vast research into the work of both John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards and their view of ‘Children before God’. It was a stimulating discussion and some of the group found it difficult to comprehend how such established theological figures could hold such harsh views of children.

On Tuesday evening, Rev Grant Barclay led us in devotions by offering us, on the evening of World Poetry Day (as it turned out) a selection of poems by Mark Jarman. Having spent some time in Scotland during his childhood as the son of a pastor, Jarman fell away from regular church involvement until the baptism of his first child which, apparently, he regarded as a significant faith decision for him. So our devotions caught something of the use of imagination and the ‘invisible church’ which we had been considering during the day.

Following devotions, we shared a time of informal fellowship with a distinctly Scottish flavour.

Day 2

The next morning Lorraine Darlow lead us in a short time of devotions before inviting us to share in a more in-depth way with one other person as we seek to get to know one another particularly with the addition of some new members to the group at this conference for the first time.

Our third session was led by Mr Andy Bathgate, Chief Executive Officer of Scripture Union Scotland. Andy shared that the term ‘parachurch’ is one he dislikes as he feels this sounds too detached from the work of the church and he would prefer to consider the work of SU Scotland as being in partnership with churches in Scotland. Andy shared that SUS had played a part in celebrating the 150th anniversary of Scripture Union and how Scotland had played a part in the early days of the movement, including a prayer meeting in Musselburgh Congregational Church just outside Edinburgh that was so full of children the adults could not get in! Andy explained the different ways that SUS is involved in the lives of children through regular work in schools and through its holiday activity centres. Visit https://www.suscotland.org.uk/ to find out more. SUS has 3,000 children a year participating in school residential events at their 3 activity centres. They seek to fulfil the vision of the organisation as these events are run with a Christian ethos, and they aim live out the gospel in serving and hospitality.

Andy is also involved in the work of Christian Values in Education Scotland a relatively new charity seeking to give confidence to Christians in the life of schools in Scotland and to offer practical advice and support in line the Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland. Go to http://www.cve-scotland.org.uk/ for more on this. Andy shared

After a refreshment break we moved to the small chapel for session 4 and welcomed Claire Benton-Evans, Youth and Children’s Officer for the Scottish Episcopal Church Diocese of Edinburgh. Claire told us the story of the planning, building, blessing and use of Play Church. This was a fascinating and complex account of researching possibilities from Scandinavia and Edinburgh, combined with deep thinking in a small planning team to determine the most suitable resource for use across the congregations in the diocese. Claire described a detailed process of consultation and conversation which allayed fears, clarified thinking and engaged many people in providing (often by creating) the superbly high-quality items used in Play Church, including an altar, dossle (fabric hanging behind the altar), wonderful robes, all manner of items to celebrate the sacraments and a beautiful carved cross. Claire explained, too, arranging for the formal blessing of Play Church by the Bishop of Edinburgh and her experiences of taking Play Church around congregations in the diocese. The creative use of the altar, especially in significant seasons such as Advent and Lent and its decoration during Holy Week and Easter were all shown in pictures as Claire told us of the deep engagement particularly younger children had with Play Church.

Most important were these experiences, which enabled children to explore through free play, to worship using items suitable to their size and to do so in their own church’s sacred space; and she explained the effect on adult worshippers of seeing children not simply play but re-enact in considerable detail and with accuracy the celebration of the sacraments, and the deep reflection this encouraged. She mentioned that one little girl, arriving in church the Sunday after Play Church had travelled on to its next location, complained, ‘But they’ve taken my church away!’ Claire not only told us about Play Church and showed us the masterfully-carved woodwork along with the embroidered falls, robes and other artefacts; she also allowed us to play with Play Church!

More information on Play Church is available online at https://edinburgh.anglican.org/2016/11/church-its- childs-play/

This was followed by lunch and then the group enjoyed some free time, with a group visiting the ‘RSS Discovery’ in Dundee while others visited the city of Perth or took a stroll up Kinnoull hill.

We gathered again for session 5 and were joined by Sandra Blair of Youth for Christ in Scotland who introduced the group to the Scottish Government initiative “Year of Young People” 2018. This is the first of its kind in the world ever! It includes young people aged 8 – 26 years of age and its aim and objectives are clear ‘to inspire Scotland through its young people celebrating their achievements, valuing contributions to communities and creating new opportunities for them to shine’

Themes focus on the following aspects Culture, Education, Enterprise and Regeneration, Participation, Equality and Discrimination, Health and Well-being.

Sandra noted that Scotland’s children’s commissioner was inviting children to change Government, and wondered if they change the church too!

After a short break we gathered in the lounge where Richard Knott shared with the group the Godly Play story of Saint Kentigern, also known as St Mungo the patron saint of Glasgow. This story was developed in Scotland and reminded us of the city of Glasgow’s moto, which is ‘Lord let Glasgow flourish through the preaching of thy word and praising of thy name.”

Following supper delegates were invited to a social evening with entertainment and dancing with live music provided by Garbh Uisge (https://www.facebook.com/garbhuisge/)

Day 3

Our final morning began with a reading of the Parable of the Good Samaritan and a short reflection in preparation for our final session. Penny then led us in the business meeting, please see separate minutes.

Our final session was led by Jamie Lithgow. Jamie is the Education Officer with Nil by Mouth a charity which seeks to challenge sectarianism in Scotland. There were audible gasps in the room as Jamie shared how the charity was inspired by the death of a young football fan who was murdered because of the football team he supported aged just 16 years of age in 1995. Sectarianism is often referred to as ‘Scotland’s Secret shame’ and Jamie works in schools and with youth groups across Scotland to try to break down the perceptions that can lead to discrimination on the basis of sectarian attitudes. To find out more http://nilbymouth.org/