I am writing this post in the happy wake of a few weeks of following the Pilgrim Course in my own parish among no fewer than fifty other pilgrims this time around. As there are other courses around, themselves much vaunted in the press and elsewhere, I thought I would burn a trail of my own and offer a guide to how we did it here in Whitton. I to add, therefore, that I do not set myself up as the expert in any of this, but with 50-odd of us doing it, our experience isn't inconsiderable either.
I am writing about our experience of the Course as we have encountered it, mindful that each parish is different. I am not offering a detailed account of the Course in its content, either. For that, do visit http://www.pilgrimcourse.org/the-course - I heartily recommend it!
1. Why the Pilgrim Course - As a sacramental priest in the catholic Anglican tradition I sought a course for the parish that would speak to my broad congregation. I have charismatics, conservatives and fellow catholics and a course needed to appeal to all. We are also a congregation comprising a broad age-range, so it had to serve the needs of adults of all ages. I am familiar with a number of courses and have sat through a number, but I was instantly drawn both the content and to the quality of the production. The course content features light touches of liturgy, solid Bible-study in the Lectio Divina tradition (with guidance notes for the leader), reflective material that approached the text from a non-expert perspective yet challenges even those who have been Christians for decades and then something to take home and think about.
It is accompanied by high-quality video and audio material that is freely available from the Pilgrim Course website which, if the technology is lacking, is not a painful absence if it cannot be accessed. That said, when it is used, it adds much to the event, simply because it appeals to the visual sense adds other voices into the mix.
2. Approach to the Course - there were questions that needed to be addressed before any further action was taken. Here, we considered whether the course was one that could be offered to a larger group en bloc, or if it would work in smaller groups. We opted for the latter and therefore used the course as a means to initiate home groups in the parish. In line with the guidance offered in the Leaders Pack, this is a course that works more fully if undertaken within the context of hospitality and in the homes of the parishioners.
Here, we took a two-pronged approach to the possible logistics of the course as we were launching into the unknown. First was to contract five potential group leaders, who themselves were happy with the course content and felt that they could work with it. Each person then considered a co-leader and a potential host, thus avoiding the pressures of being both host and leader within the same group.
Secondly we placed a home-made application form into our service book over several weeks asking that they give their details and a sense (as comprehensive as possible) of when they could attend such a group (simply adding tick boxes for each day and morning/afternoon/evening). We left that process to unfold for three or four weeks, and once complete, gathered in the forms. From the forms that we had, it was clear that we could form six home groups at distinct times in the week, leaving two or three individuals for whom no immediate choice of time was clear. We contacted them directly and they made a choice from the six that has been identified. All but one were able to make a choice.
I returned to the five identified group leaders (me, two retired priests, a licensed lay-minster and one other lay person) and they took their pick of groups based on their own availability and had by that time informed me where they could meet. Each group leader contacted their own group members and a start time was agreed. The course booklets (fifty of them this time around) were ordered (and arrived the next day) and distributed to the group leaders.
3. The Course in Action - Our members range from those in their twenties to those in their nineties. Some have been practicing the faith for a year or less, others for much of their ninety-plus years. Some have new-born children and others are long since retired - so it is fair to say that the palette of perspectives was broad.
The structure of the course course components is largely the same: it begins with a gentle liturgy that is simple and responsorial (and reminiscent of Common Worship Morning/Evening Prayer), lasting for less than a minute. This helpfully sets the scene, creates a recognisable point of departure and also grants a helpful and prayerful ambience (and a place where the 'chatter' might end sensitively). Once this act of worship is complete, we watched the film provided by Pilgrim which set the scene for the encounter about to unfold.
The next portion is what it terms 'Conversation' and is a general (yet incisive) question to whet people's appetite and encourage them to open up. The content of the 'Conversation' question is not a theological one or indeed one rooted in faith, but one that might ask, for example, what we are thankful for. They are questions that anyone can answer, whether they be of faith or none and whatever the depth or tenure of that faith. It is, in my opinion, for the group leader to allow all members of the group a chance to answer, or not. (It is worthy of note that each group leader, at the start of the first meeting, covered off housekeeping rules that covered confidentiality, generosity - both in speaking and in listening).
Following the 'Conversation' is a piece of scripture that has been specially chosen to illuminate the given topic. As I have already said, the course booklets walks the members through the Lectio Divina approach that encourages a spiritual reading of the text, rather than an exegetical one. It places a clear emphasis upon the members' experience of the text, not their biblical knowledge. In my experience to date, if allowed, this part of the course component can itself fill an hour as people are given permission, often for the first time in their lives, to experience the scriptures in a new and entirely personal way. I even found that they held back to begin with, waiting for actual permission to question the words that jumped to their attention as intended. Having sat in three of the six home-group, this part of the course component came as something of an epiphany moment for many.
After this time of scriptural encounter, those of us who were able, offered the first audio reflection which comprised a moderate level of background to the text, though more often than not, echoed much of what had already arisen in the Lectio Divina just prior (which to begin with, was a welcome yet unexpected surprise for many). The audio reflection gave way to a number of more in-depth questions that found their fix in the text just read, yet seeking an experiential response, for example: 'what is it that attracts you about Jesus and the Christian faith?'. The asked people to speak of their feelings and not their specific theological knowledge which, I think, was a very successful way-in for many of those taking part. All have feelings, though not all would claim a theological knowledge!
The second audio reflection follows (which, if the technology is lacking, can be read out by someone just as effectively) which was, in my opinion, more exegetical and to a deeper level than the first reflection. If the first reflection discussed Christian experience, the second might look at terminology, history, specific context - tailored to guide us through the text with an appropriate level of teaching so that this wasn't simply a free-for-all in scripture! This reflection, as with the first, gives way to a few more questions that demand a greater level of self-reflection this time. If the first questions are of the order: 'how does make you feel?', then the second wave are of the order: 'in light of this account and the truths contained within it, what fresh questions or challenges are raised in your mind?'.
After about ninety minutes (in our experience), the discussions are brought to a gentle conclusion and resolved with a concluding prayer which is also provided.
What has been a great blessing with the Pilgrim Course so far has been what it terms 'Sending Out', or homework as we have referred to it. It comprises a selection of short passages from the saints and mystics that are catalysts for reflection at home in light of the discussions already had on the subject concerned.
4. Reflections - those who have journeyed with me this time round (fifty souls) have been impressed by the fact that they have been taken back to the 'beginning' of their faith in that the first stages of the Pilgrim Course follow the catechumenate. Others have found this experience one of permission-giving to test aspects of their faith that have hitherto been untested or unquestioned, finding that they emerge from each session with their heads buzzing with a myriad other questions and feeling more secure in their beliefs. The duration of ninety minutes per session seems to be about right, too, when you add the time for informality and hospitality to the start of it. Each member has valued having a booklet to take home and a piece of work to complete alone. I had tested this with my own group and was assured that they had pursued the 'Sending Out' themselves rather than shelve the booklet until the next session. I have also found that each group was very mixed by virtue of the approach that I took to forming them. They weren't necessarily a group of friends or relative neighbours, but those who, in parish life, had never really encountered one another's faith journey. This alone was a blessing to the groups. Each group took on their own subtle characteristics based upon the nature of the leader or the context, and this blend has also been an interesting talking point between members of different groups.
5. The Future - when we embarked upon this venture, we had no home groups and the parish hadn't undertaken a nurture course in many years. We formed six groups (which was perhaps too few given the numbers) and as I write four of those groups have agreed to continue to meet as home groups after the first stage of the course is complete in a week or so. Each group has found its own balance in terms of frequency, timing and location and will, with proper guidance and prayer, become self-supporting. The clergy have been working on who might lead the groups so that we might be freed up to lead new ones in the future, and that too has been successful. It is my intention, as the Vicar, to work my way around each group and break bread with them in their context, and in the meantime, to encourage them to continue in the way of Lectio Divina until we embark upon the second course focussing on the Lord's Prayer. Two groups have chosen to continue straight into that, another to have month or two before doing so. It is my plan to run another recruitment drive in September and set some more groups on their way, and to use this course as the means by which I will prepare confirmation candidates.
After that ... only the Lord knows!