A True Nativity

13 12 2011

This is another guest post of a great nativity scene outside St John’s Church, Whitley Bay. If you’re up that way do pop by and see it. Thanks to Val for writing it. Revd. Carla Hall is the minister up in those northern climes and doing a brilliant job. Have a look.


During Advent the churches in the North Shields and Whitley Bay Circuit are working with the theme of Christmas Present – with how the Christmas story can speak to today’s world. As part of that reflection, we have created a nativity outside St John’s Methodist Church in Whitley Bay.

We looked at contemporary situations where a child is born into poverty, need and homelessness. Photographs and stories of refugee camps across the globe helped us to focus on the wider world, not just our own communities. Many babies make their entrance into such an uncertain and hungry world. Then we came across a photo of a family who hadn’t even reached a camp; their make-shift tent had been pitched just outside, on the fringes of the camp. Therefore they had no access to safe shelter. Another picture showed a very young child carrying water in an old plastic container.


Those people have been brought into the nativity. We made a tent out of tarpaulin to house the family. The baby lies in a plastic box on a wooden crate. Mary and Joseph wear clothes of that culture. We have left the features of the figures as plain wood so that people can imagine a place and context. The young child hovers at the edge of the scene, bringing a precious gift of water – an angel perhaps or a wise person. They all have the minimum of help, shelter and support. Yet the promise of new birth exists and we hope it will speak to our local community of hope and of light in our darkness.



Magpie Mission

10 12 2011

I’ve asked Rachel Parkinson, Superintendent Minister of the Leicester North Circuit (with pastoral charge of (amongst others) of Birstall Methodist Church, three miles north of Leicester City Centre) to write this next blog post. Another variation on the 3D Christmas idea which is really imaginative and innovative. Have a look here. The graphic designer was Jules Richards.


Magpie ministries …

Magpies are well known for stealing glittery bits and bobs.  The internet means that you don’t have to be an amazingly original thinker in order to initiate innovative mission projects.  What you do need is a magpie’s eye for other people’s treasures and the adaptability to know where you can fit them into your own nest.

A gem that caught my eye last year was the “Get in the Picture” scheme which has been developed by the Baptist Union Mission Department.  You can read about it here www.getinthepicture.org.uk but, put simply, churches provide the wherewithal for adults and children to dress up and pose for a nativity picture.  Photos are uploaded onto a main website which contains a variety of materials relating to the Christmas story as well as space for each church to advertise other events.  I’d originally “stolen” this idea from a colleague working with Peterborough Churches Together who had set this up in an empty high street shop.  Back in Birstall, in a church which has a footfall of several hundreds of people through the door every week for community activities, it worked well within our own building.  Being, surely, the only minister with a Men’s Pantomime group in her church led to some wonderful Magi’s costumes being available which really encouraged men to take part.  Over eight sessions we had 135 people participate – over 100 of whom were not “Sunday Church” people.  On each occasion the room was filled with laughter.  One harassed Mum said that, after a stressful week, it was the best thing she could have done to unwind.  Knowing several local families through Messy Church, I saw lots of our photos appear on their Facebook pages.  One of our “Wise Men” has been coming to church regularly since!  Yet still, the idea of getting onto our main shopping street appealed….

 Pictures with depth ….

One year later and our High Street – like so many others – has a few empty shops.  And so began the unexpectedly difficult task of tracking down landlords for permission to display a crop of this year’s photos in one of the windows.  But how to save the exercise from becoming a little twee?  How to add some theological depth?  Then my magpie’s eye spotted Rob Wylie’s Christmas Present idea (see previous post).  Of course, Rob himself is a jewel thief having picked this up originally from vfxhanley.  The Christmas Present project in the North East was long prayed over and prepared for.  However I think that one of the skills for contemporary Christian communities is to be able to work at many varying speeds.  The landlord gave us permission last Tuesday; I cycled round the village last Friday, inviting the pub landlord, a council working crew, a lollipop lady and the staff of our local Tandoori restaurant to take part; a friendly and generous graphic designer got to work over the weekend and the A3 posters are ready to be picked up just one week from getting off the starting blocks.   You can see them here.  They will be on display in the centre of Birstall together with nativity photos featuring 130 residents and the Churches Advertising Network Poster which this year fits brilliantly with the theme http://churchads.net   Having produced the material so quickly, I hope that the mulling, pondering, wondering and discerning will come in the weeks ahead.

Meanwhile I have my eye out for the next mission treasure…..

#iqtank Christmas Present Ordinary People – Ordinary Places – Extraordinary Story

21 11 2011

I’ve asked Rob Wylie to write a guest post this week for #iqtank and as a reminder to what vfxhanley did last year. Rob is a pioneer in the North East and an all round good bloke! Enjoy!!!


Last year I heard VFXhanley talk about a Christmas photo project that he put together. You can read about it here. This got me and a local Methodist minister thinking about whether we could do something similar here in the North East. They did it slightly different to us in that their images were in 3D and they had them up in one place, but other than that it’s basically the same idea.

We have taken a series of photos of local people, in local settings from the North East, who take on the persona of some of the key characters in the traditional nativity story. Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, the Magi, angels, shepherds etc. We will be placing these pictures in public spaces for people to view, and we have agreed to have some put up in our local Costa Coffee in Whitley Bay and other local cafes/bars. Then, in the final week before Christmas, we are putting all the photos together in one place for people to view. The pictures will be on display from the first week in December in various places and they will also be able to be seen in the weeks to come on my blog

Alongside this, we got together with a few creative folk to put some worship material together that will be used around a different image on each Sunday through Advent. Also over the four weeks in advent I will be posting something each week which relates to one of the pictures we have taken.

The idea behind this is about engaging our local community with the traditional Christmas story, it’s also about putting the nativity story in a modern context and I suppose asks a challenging question about what do we do with the traditional story that God came to earth as a small vulnerable baby. Why not, as you view the pictures, ask these questions

Is Christmas present for you?

What is Christmas wrapped up in for you?

QR Stations

13 10 2011

I thought I’d share a project I’m working on! (and explain why you can’t access certain parts of my blog)

What Is…?

Have you ever heard of stations of the cross – if not then have a look at Wiki here.

Have you ever heard of Geocaching – if not see here.

Have you ever heard of QR Codes – if not take a glance here.

So, I got to thinking, what would happen if you combined all three?

The (Digital) Stations of the Cross

The result is a Stations of The Cross, hidden in a city centre (Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent to be precise) that can only be accessed digitally.

This is how it works:

  • around the city centre there are 14 QR Codes hidden.
  • each QR Code leads to a password protected post on this blog. The password can be found with each QR code.
  • each post has a picture (station of the cross), a short meditation and the co-ordinates of the next QR Code.
  • The first blog page that introduces the idea will not be password protected but will have a QR code that will be made into postcards (left in shops with all the nightclub fliers etc.), put on church notices in the city and, hopefully, the local newspaper.
  • the first blog post will be the beginning of the journey.
  • people will be invited to journey through a physical/digital pilgrimage centred around the stations of the cross.
  • Once you have found one, reflected on the station, you use the co-ordinates to find the next.
  • you can do it in a day or a take a few months
  • you can either use a smart phone or a good old fashioned map and compass!
  • when you’ve found one you can leave a comment on the relevant station blog post!
The idea is that other artists will want to contribute to the art that is on each page (please get in touch if you would – I’ve already had a couple of interested folk) and that people can either use their smart phones or take pictures and use a QR Code Reader when they get home (and then go off to find another on another day).

Show me…

Here is one to get you started (don’t go looking for the next Station – it won’t be there till Friday!!) the password is #digidisciple
If you haven’t got a QR Reader you can search for one on the apps of your smart phone or download a desktop reader here

The co-ordinates of the next one are only as a guide at the moment. hopefully this will be set up very soon. So if you come across a blog post of mine that is password protected  – that is why! (no need for digiparanoia!!)


A few more steps

13 10 2011

Firstly, for those who have been trying to read my last blog post and couldn’t because you needed a password – don’t worry! I’m not barring you from the blog. I’m experimenting for a project I’m involved with and will post about it soon.

Now down to business.

As many of you know, I am now only part time with Venture FX (vfxhanley) and spend ½ my week in Birmingham teaching at Queen’s. By going part time I have been able to free up some financial resources which will help to develop the project further.

Which means (drum role) I am very excited to announce that I have a partner, a companion on The Way, who is employed to do one day a week with VFXhanley. His name is Ron Willoughby (@hoosier1964 if you follow him on twitter). I’ll leave Ron to introduce himself to you at a later date.

Ron has always been on the edges of this project and you will not believe how excited I am that he is now right at the heart of it. Ron has arrived just at the right time. Amongst other things we are developing a small community, a group of people who for one reason or another either don’t attend church, can’t attend a church or don’t want to attend a (particular) church! BUT … they are curious and sometimes compelled by this enigmatic 1st century Jew known as Jesus of Nazareth. So we are going to get together and see what happens.

Exciting times!

This means that there are going to be a few changes – for a start this blog is going to be co-written. Ron will add his stuff and me mine. That means that, unlike the previous year, there will be less on my theological meanderings (I’ll set up another blog for that) and this will become, what in fairness, I originally intended it to be, a documenting of the vfxhanley story. It also means that the @vfxhanley twitter account will eventually become less of my personal stuff and more of a way of people connecting with the project. If it all gets a bit confusing I’m sorry!! It’s part of the growing pains of what is a growing and developing piece of work.

One final thing – there will be another 13 posts that will be password protected over the next month – don’t take it personally!!

#breakout notes from Jonny Baker

23 09 2011

For those who want to follow up more of Jonny Baker’s stuff from Breakout go here

#breakout – Day 2: what I didn’t want to hear!

22 09 2011

Day 2 of Breakout has been good but I’m beginning to feel a little conference fatigue! If you want a fuller set of notes about what Johnny Baker has been saying then visit Andrew Dunlop’s blog here. I haven’t taken any notes (because I don’t do that kind of thing) and unfortunately, my mind has been taken up with an awkward undercurrent of thought:

You know when you think you’re on a trajectory and you feel comfortable and at peace with the direction and speed of that journey?

Then you hear something that sits uncomfortably with that trajectory?

And then you hear someone else say it (and there is no way that they could have conspired)?

And then another?

And you start to wonder is this some cosmic mind? Or just the trending conversation?

And then you think ‘well even if it’s the trending conversation’ and nothing to do with a greater force – surely I need to take it seriously’.

Well that’s kind of happened to me!

As regular readers know, I have struggled with the idea that the inherited church (which for me is The Methodist Church of Great Britain) has released a few pet pioneers into the world and told them to be brave risk takers only then to tell them that if, in the end, it doesn’t look and smell like a Methodist Church it ain’t a church! or at best if it doesn’t look and smell like what they say a church should look and smell like – then it isn’t a church!’

And I’ve struggled with the inequity of theological discourse where inherited models of church have chosen both the model and the place of theology (which, as a colleague pointed out to me, is how you win battles!) and so, I felt that what pioneer ministry must do, and what would be the end result of this process was the birthing of something new, something that would not be Methodist.

But! Throughout the Breakout Gathering I have been hearing a new song, at first I thought it was the Anglican’s who just weren’t radical enough (which might well be true), but then I started to hear it in other places too, and it started to resonate with my growing understanding of who I am and what I am called to do. And then Jonny Baker went and said it from the platform! Cheers Jonny!!! I’m paraphrasing but he specifically mentioned Venture FX and said something like: ‘I’m impressed with the Venture FX stuff in the Methodist Church, but you pioneer’s are only loosely attached to the church and if you want to make a real difference you have to refound the church from the heart!’ he was speaking in the context of dissenters (read Andrew Dunlop’s blog post).

That’s not what I wanted to hear! I wanted the project to becoming self sustaining as soon as possible and then, if necessary we could grow independently of The Methodist Church. Don’t get me wrong here – this isn’t empire building! My hope was, and still is, for a small missional community that does not necessarily grow in size but has a massive transformational impact in local communities and on people’s lives.

So now, it looks like our little missional community in Stoke is taking off (more on that soon) and I am a member of Methodist Council and other connexional committees/groups and I’ve been elected to conference 2012 and I have been appointed a tutor with a specialism in mission, evangelism, church and culture.

And it got me thinking …

Maybe this missional community doesn’t just jettison itself off in a different direction? Maybe it becomes the place that supports me and funds my imagination as I, alongside others at the heart of Methodism, seek to reclaim and refashion the narrative that is Methodism?

If that’s true then this is going to be messy – because it isn’t simply about rolling over and adopting the status quo, it’s about becoming dissenters at the heart of the community. It means me, along with other pioneers and dissenters will pick the place and mode of theology. Our practice will credit our theology bank and our vindication won’t be because the permission givers have said Yes! But rather in the very act of our performative truth claims (in other words – what we do will tell people who we are – not a carefully crafted Church Document that everyone can sign up to).

Is this the divine trajectory for pioneer ministers? Venture FX? me?

I’m hoping not …

But I can’t stop hearing it …

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