Today, being a free Sunday, I was able to go along to a fairly new gathering that takes place in a former church, now a theatre, bar and bistro, on alternate Sunday mornings. Imagined as a form of outreach, a kind of church for those who don't do church, or for those who are particularly interested in the more liminal space of life-and-faith, it seems, thus far, to attract predominantly church folk who are attracted by the imaginative approach and engaging speakers... it certainly scratches where some folk are itching, and that has to be a good thing. This morning's experience was truly excellent and I'm very glad I went along.
The speaker, Prof Alison Phipps from Glasgow University, led a very interactive morning looking at story telling, as in how the stories we tell about ourselves and about each other have power to shape our lives for good or ill... that the gift of story also carries a huge responsibility, that to poison the story is to poison a people, culture or nation.
She introduced us to a Maori concept of Mihi, and invited us in small groups to share our favourite mountain, our closest river, and the way we had travelled to the gathering this morning. It was interesting to hear which mountains people chose and why (even if I did feel slightly guilty choosing Snowdon when everyone else in my group chose Ben Something-or-Other!), and this, more than the rivers or modes of transport blossomed into stories, including, unexpectedly the making of connections that arose from my mention of Snowdon... so maybe I should learn to be less reticent about my thoughts.
The mihi would begin like this, and go on to share the names and occupations of parents and grandparents, locating the individual clearly within places and stories... very interesting stuff.
As I walked home, I found three very different gatherings coming to mind.
First was "Thing in a Pub" which we ran in Dibley for a couple of years, with aims (and actuality) very similar to the event I was at this morning. We invited some excellent speakers including our MP (a C of E church warden) and Chief Constable (a lay preacher) and enjoyed some excellent conversations whilst munching sandwiches and drinking whatever we fancied. Now and then someone would come and join us, but it was mostly church folk. However, we built a good rapport with the landlady, and when her father died suddenly, I was asked to conduct the funeral as I was the only 'vicar' she knew.
Next is the friendship group who meet on Friday afternoons. In the last couple of years this long established and cherished meeting has evolved from something quite formal into a relaxed gathering, in which stories are shared over tea and cake/biscuits around a single, long table. Laughter rings loud, hymns are sung and the Bible explored.
Third is the group that meets in a pub every Wednesday morning to drink coffee/tea, chat, share news and generally put the world to rights. Topics range widely and include politics, religion, health and wellbeing, family news and, especially, lots of deep and mutual care. Must weeks a few folk who live alone will stay on for lunch together, enjoying each other's company and the treat of not needing to cook or wash up!
All in all, then a good morning that made me think and encouraged me that so much of what I've been a part of in recent years has been exactly the kind of thing that can be fostered by 'mihi' and by sharing stories.