Explore - spirituality in a pub, Portsmouth - March 2010

Rev Mark Rodel has already moved his church to a tower block – now he’s doing spirituality in a pub. NEIL PUGMIRE reports

As Portsmouth’s city centre pioneer minister, Mark has a brief to help those who don’t “do church” to engage with their spirituality. So he’s created a chance for “spiritual-but-not-religious” people to meet up on Sunday nights in his local Wetherspoon’s.

He gives them a chance to talk about faith, spirituality and life over beer in the Isambard Kingdom Brunel pub from 8pm to 10pm every Sunday. Those who gather there can also take part in a brief spiritual activity, such as enjoying chocolate melt in their mouths or writing down the name of a loved one who has died.

He started the Sunday nights in Wetherspoon’s in 2009. The evenings are called ‘Sanctuary’ and are publicised as “spirited conversation and skinny ritual”.

“This isn’t a church in a pub,” said Mark. “There’s no worship or preaching involved. It’s just a chance for people who would feel uncomfortable in church to talk and think a bit more deeply about what they do believe.

“My aim isn’t to get them into church, but simply to give them space to explore these issues.

“The pub have kindly set aside the table in front of the bookshelf for me, and I’ve chosen some fairly broad discussion topics, like life after death, or what things we might regret.

“The people who have come so far have plunged into those discussions really happily. Some of those who come do go to church, but are on the fringes, while some may never go to church.

“One week, I invited people to write down the name of a person they’d lost on a coloured square card, and then we each placed our cards into a bowl, and thought about that person. That led on to a discussion about life beyond death, and whether that was something that sounded attractive to us.”

Mark is also associate priest at St Luke’s Church in Somers Town. At the end of November last year, he and the St Luke’s congregation started holding their Sunday morning get-togethers in Wilmcote House, a nearby tower block, to encourage more locals to come along. They dubbed the new gatherings “The Sunday Sanctuary”.

Already the size of his congregation has doubled. A total of 24 new people joined the 20-strong congregation in the first four weeks.

“We don’t always judge our success or failure on the basis of numbers, as the quality of relationships is also important,” said Mark. “But I’m very encouraged – we moved locations specifically to encourage local people to join us, and they have.

“Several of them have been more than once. And the people we’re meeting seem to be genuinely open to what it is that we’re doing.

“In fact, we had thought people might pop in and out for just a few minutes of our morning get-togethers. In fact, many of them have stayed for the entire morning.”

Mark also led a prayer vigil in Guildhall Square last December to help churchgoers and non-churchgoers to pray for the UN climate change conference in Copenhagen. He put together three prayer installations around the square, including a map of the world for people to place candles on and the chance to create a windmill as they confessed their own lack of care for God’s world. The 40 or so people who took part were given hot soup.

Mark’s work is just one of hundreds of ‘fresh expressions’ of the Church across the UK. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has encouraged churches to create such innovative fresh expressions alongside mainstream churches as part of a ‘mixed economy’ approach to church life.

Among the Fresh Expressions in Portsmouth’s Anglican diocese are a Café Church in Waterlooville’s Costa Coffee shop; multi-media ‘Blessed’ Eucharists held at St Thomas’s Church, Elson, in Gosport;  ‘Messy Church’ at St Wilfrid’s Church, Cowplain, and meditative alternative worship called ‘Ethos’ at St Nicholas’ Church, North End.

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