Sunday Sanctuary


Mark RodelMark Rodel is City Centre Pioneer Minister for the Diocese of Portsmouth and Associate Priest in the parish of St Luke, Southsea. He looks at what has been happening at Sunday Sanctuary.

Looking at the terms with which we started out, Sunday Sanctuary has failed. Those terms were that if we created something on a Sunday morning within the particular setting of a tower block, people would come to it. We thought it would be sort of like turning up in their front rooms. It wasn’t.

Some have come but there hasn’t been a breakthrough. I think we had an idea that more people would be attracted than has been the case. We have interacted with a large number of people over the two years we have been operating and a few people have been on more than one occasion but, when it comes down to it, we have good strong relationships with a total of just three families.

On the positive side, one of those is a family of eight and just a few weeks ago we baptised five members of our community. Of those (four children and one adult), only one came from a family that I think would have explicitly defined themselves as Christians a couple of years ago. Six more members of our community were also confirmed at Portsmouth Cathedral on 27 November. People whose connection to Christian faith has been very basic and tenuous have discovered a lively faith for themselves.

I would describe Sunday Sanctuary as a beautiful failure. We have come to realise, not that it was a bad idea – and we are not to stop doing it – but what we have discovered is that in a sense we were still operating a ‘come to us’ model even if it was ‘come to us in a different place’ and in a way that felt very much less imposing than a Parish Eucharist. And so we gathered, did quite a lot of work in local schools to let people know what we were doing, sent out invitations and waited for people to come to us.

The baptisms in the tower block and confirmations in the cathedral are interesting because we are always conscious that we are part of the wider family of the Christian Church so I suppose I use the language of ‘failure’ provocatively. In terms of ‘traditional’ success criteria and measured outcomes we have put them aside at Sunday Sanctuary but our growth in depth of relationships has been marked. Those longstanding Christians who have been able to stick with it have grown in faith as they’ve engaged with new people in an unfamiliar setting. Newer members who had only the most nominal faith have reached a point where they are making a public commitment to live as a Christian. We’ve all grown in the breadth of our spiritual experience as we’ve moved closer to becoming united with our sister parish of St Peter’s.

We have shared our lives with the newer members, they are not people who have been added to the community (as in ‘them’ and ‘us’); they are us. What we have discovered in the way it has actually turned out is that if we are going to really make a difference in Somerstown, it’s probably going to be one family at a time; building relationships and investing in them from personal resources, energy and enthusiasm.

We are a tiny community and what we have discovered is that we work in a relational way. We now know that it’s not a case of ‘if we tweak this event, the people will come’. We now know that people won’t come.

In terms of specific needs of our community, text-based materials are not useful at all and we are thinking much more about what we do with our bodies and say with our mouths. There is only just over 20 of us gathering together and our youngest members don’t read (yet).They make up a significant minority of our small community so we take their needs seriously and you can’t put words in front of them. If they’re disengaged, you know straight away because we’re all together!

Three years in and I feel like we are just beginning. There are enormous joys but there is also a very real temptation to ‘spin’ things positively. However, the fact is that a lot of what we traditionally take for granted simply doesn’t work – it’s really tough and it calls for radical discipleship.

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