Tag Archives: Open Space

Chapter 29: readmittance of departed brothers


A brother who has left the monastery, either through his faults or by expulsion, and wishes to return must first promise the complete amending of the fault.

Can we welcome back?

I am taking a short break from Riding Lights Summer Theatre School to write this post. Our theme at the summer school this year is ‘Peace: Make It or Break It’ and I want to write a bit more about ‘reconciliation’ in the light of ‘peace’.
In this week’s chapter, St. Benedict challenges us with even more radical hospitality and grace towards those that cause conflict and division. His compassion and grace is matched by a firm resolve to remain committed to those that hurt and upset him and he calls us to do the same. This resolve to welcome back a previously unrepentant monk is granting that brother the chance to experience grace and forgiveness.
I have written, in the past, on the social tool, ‘Open Space Technology’. This means of discussion has several principles to facilitate multiple creative conversations to occur and to be united together by a common goal or desire. There is also one ‘law’: the law of mobility that suggests that if a participant is not learning or contributing in a particular conversation they should leave and move else where,

In this way, all participants are given both the right and the responsibility to maximize their own learning and contribution, which the Law assumes only they, themselves, can ultimately judge and control. When participants lose interest and get bored in a breakout session, or accomplish and share all that they can, the charge is to move on, the “polite” thing to do is going off to do something else.

I had real difficulty with this aspect of Open Space Technology but I have come to realize, through experience, that it is not about self-autonomy but about the necessity for us to step out of the heat of relationship before it breaks irrecoverably, to gather some perspective, to admit weakness both on the part of ourselves and the others involved and to make a decision as to where to go next. We all are autonomous to a greater or lesser degree; God has given us free will to use, to choose what we do and where we go. Some people will abuse that freedom and cause harm to others or demand their choice is held in higher esteem than others but it is in that freedom we are advised to discover the beauty of real relationship; with God and with others.

Phalim McDermott, Artistic Director of Improbable and an Open Space practitioner, once talked with me about this law and said there’s a reason it is sometimes called the law of two feet (even if those feet are only metaphorical). The first foot is used to retreat from a place, to propel you out. The second is the more important foot for it is used to send you to the next place. That place could be back into the group you left, to repent, to turn back or it could be to go somewhere new. I once noted,

What the law of two feet does do is enable the whole to function and feed itself. The parts need to be attuned to where the information may need to be passed to in order to grow and develop and create. When this happens then the second foot is an important engagement of the individual with the whole. It is not clear, however, if this indeed is how it is used.

In order for community to function it requires the parts to freely choose to participate in the whole. This commitment will require a handing over of a certain amount of autonomy for the ‘common good’. It mustn’t, however, lose all traces of freedom of choice as that free element contains the free choice to commit and to love. Communities are healthy when they hold that tension between the individual choice and the relational imperative. St. Benedict has balanced this to give space for people to be removed without a door being locked to them.

The three strikes aspect maintains the need for the community to be protected so one person’s will is not encouraged and fed so they take the power on themselves completely; for relationships that are based around only one person’s desires are abusive and unbalanced. This aspect of St. Benedict’s Rule, I feel, allows the gracious hospitality of reconciliation without compromising the strong encouragement to challenge our selfish tendencies as fallen humanity. It is radical in that it challenges while, at the same time, welcomes.


After a breakdown of relationship how do we give space to the possibility of reconciliation? Do we really hope and pray for such healing to happen? I can talk for ages on my desire to be reconciled to someone who has hurt me but do I actively give space and time for that to happen? It’s far easier to cut the ties with them and move on. To seek healing means to allow mess to exist close by and our lives to be impacted by it. The real path to reconciliation and peace is working hard at entering into painful and difficult spaces to take the battering of relationship breakdown holding onto hope. We, as Christians, enter into conflict with our sights fixed on the end promise that all things will be re-bound together through Christ who is the source of all things and the goal of all things.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him— provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard. (Colossians 1:15-23)

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.(2 Corinthians 5:16-20)

Loving Father, I thank you for your grace that despite my many failings and stepping away from you you always welcome me home. The door is open. You do not force your will on us but call us to accept the task you desire. Transform my heart to be more like yours, flexible and open yet steadfast in love. Teach me to reconcile and to participate in your ministry of bringing all things together for good.

Come, Lord Jesus

Struggling with No-Man’s Land

I have, in the past, been a fan of the part ii’s, the part iii’s, etc. I was going to name this post ‘Fleeing to No-Man’s Land (part ii)’ but I realised that the verb was wrong. I am calling this ‘Struggling with No-Man’s Land’ because that better describes my honest, if not entirely correct, emotion at the moment. This post comes from my continued reflection on the community which I love, Burning Fences.

If you have not read my first reflection, which I remain completely committed to, then please read it here before proceeding…

Nomansland…Ok. Since I wrote that reflection there has been a growing sense of some footing being lost amongst us. We have felt, at different moments, that we have lost our way or the passion has waned. This has been due to various small events in the life of our community which have combined to create not a destruction or a despair but a niggle, a question to arise: what are we doing?

I, in a broken and fumbled way, attempted to voice this concern to my fellow fence burners to see if I was alone; I was not. I tried then to gauge where this ‘dis-satisfaction’ was coming from. It was not clear. We all had different theories and, therefore, different solutions. We gathered together for a weekend away and I ‘hosted’ the space. I didn’t do a perfect job but I tried my best but even at the end of this wonderful time together there was a niggle; quiet but persistent, like a headache which has become habitual, not debilitating but present, sometimes forgettable but, in the still times returns to remind and prompt attention.

After the weekend away I sent out an email to some to see if people thought it might be good to have an open meeting to discuss this ambiguous question of how to acknowledge what Burning Fences is.

This desire to define and name came with a great heaviness for me as I still believe that there is a danger in this course of action. With definition come boundaries to cross, requirements to meet, entitlement to battle with, etc. The temptation to do so is great and most follow it but seem to come unstuck by it. I wonder whether this is our challenge, as a community, to pioneer the narrow path away from it and lead others to a secret place of truly organic and free space. Is such a place possible?

And this is why this post is called ‘Struggling with No-Man’s Land’ because I am deeply torn. The call/demand on my inner being to follow suit and define this community is great. I have justified how we can do it without damaging the freedom we have enjoyed in not defining or acknowledging. Most of these justifications come from a deeply held understanding that with no markers we must be prone to float from one thing to another and there is no defence against any ‘spirit’ or idea which could equally destroy than strengthen, enslave as to liberate. There is, in this non-demarcated space no source of discernment accept our flawed concepts of reality and shifting judgments.

the_clearing_by_crossieA wise brother amongst us wrote a deeply honest and profound response to my call for a discussion. He named the beauty of Burning Fences as ‘a clearing’. He writes,

We run into problems when any one group tries to colonise the clearing.

That sentence struck me as deeply important. How? I’m not sure.

In a discussion about Burning Fences with someone on the periphery looking in we were described, by them, as either,

A secular space in which Christians inhabit and live out their faith.


A space created by Christians and where anyone and everyone is invited to come and inhabit.

Both have strengths and weaknesses. The first image has the strength of describing the Christian as a resident alien, a guest who honours the code of hospitality that guests have. It’s weakness is that it can easily be seen as an invasion or takeover. The second image develops a sense of hospitality. There is a basic assumption in good hospitality that the guest is free to make the space their own and the host serves them and welcomes. The problem comes when the power is mis-read and, no matter how much it is expressed, the space is never owned by the guest.

There are big questions here of our understanding of hospitality and one which we must wrestle with but both these images are not apt descriptions of Burning Fences because the space in both has an ownership by one party. Hospitality requires a power-game between host and guest. My wise friend and fellow fence burner is closer: it is a clearing which is not owned by anyone. It is ‘no-man’s land’.

The beauty of No-Man’s Land is that it is neutral territory where everyone is simultaneously both host and guest. The different parties come together and build together.

It reminds me of Vincent Donovan’s approach to his mission to the Masai described in ‘Christaianity Rediscovered’. He writes this,

…the unpredictable process of evangelization, [is] a process leading to that new place where none of us has ever been before. When the gospel reaches a people where they are, their response to that gospel is the church in a new place, and the song they will sing is that new, unsung song, that unwritten melody that haunts all of us. What we have to be involved in is not the revival of the church or the reform of the church. It has to be nothing less than what Paul and the Fathers of the Council of Jerusalem were involved in for their time – the refounding of the Catholic church for our age. (Vincent Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered (London: SCM Press, 2009) p.xix)

It was in No-Man’s land that peace came, for the briefest of moments during the Great War. It was in the middle of the deeply dug trenches that people were free to meet and experience peace in a simple game of football; neutral, no power games, shared. This is the beauty of such a clearing.

I begin to realise that my issue at the weekend away was the locus of hospitality was skewed. I, along with a select few others, were ‘hosting’, and others considered themselves ‘guests’. This has a definite dynamic in the relationship and how people respond to the space created. What I wanted was a shared ownership but I attempted to achieve this by ‘hosting’. This is where the invitation to a radically different hospitality comes into its own. One which I consider godly; where the host is the guest, the guest the host and service is from all to all in a beautiful mutually loving community.

But is it sustainable?

In this space, what is the source of discernment? What is the shared authority? What fosters peace and reconciliation? What is it that guards against colonisation? For me, as a Christian, what does it mean to see God’s Kingdom extend and grow in this place where no name can be spoken over it? Where does No-Man’s people move to?

orthodox-priest-in-kiev-jan-22-2014This is our quest: to inhabit, together, No-Man’s Land. To share the space making no claim on it for ourselves or the parties, agendas and personal empires which we are tempted to enforce. We desire, however, to build our home there for to be at peace one must feel a sense of belonging. To what are we committing and how can that be spoken in this between place?

I am convinced this is our challenge and one which, if manifested, will break a temptation that many groups have suffered under. There is a great weight to the task that lies before us and I pray to God for wisdom and boldness to enter in.

Chapter 17: the number of psalms said in the Day Office


If the monastic community is numerous, the Hours shall be sung with antiphons; if small, without.

What is the place of artistic expressions within a community?

I have been on a community weekend away with Burning Fences where I was privileged to be able to organise/lead the input. I was acutely aware that, we, as a community, are experiencing some of the natural friction to life in relationship. There are multiple desires and visions to balance and contend with, there is the encouragement to bring brokenness and struggles into the public sphere in order to be known more deeply. All of this brings a highly volatile space and one that has, simultaneously both great potential for liberation and great risk of suffering and pain. We are not the first nor are we alone to experience some of this; it is the natural risk of relationship which commitment demands you fully enter and grasp.

I introduce this week’s reflection like this merely to highlight how this beloved community, who I consider to be the place from which I speak, the people with whom I speak and the situation to which I speak, is continually leading me into an deeper understanding of what a monastic apostolic community looks like. It also is proving to be the practical out workings of my reflections on the Rule of St. Benedict and I find that both inspiring and encouraging.

The other reason I begin by discussing Burning Fences is because, on the weekend away, we used Open Space Technology to hold conversations about that which is important to us as a collective. One of those discussions was on the place of creativity in community and explored (for the parts I was there for) the specific part of Burning Fences’ life; artistic expression/performance.

All of Burning Fences appreciate art in it’s many forms but not all of those who gather are able to contribute or, feel that they would like to. For some, Burning Fences is a place where they can explore new artistic endeavours, to try out and collaborate, but for others they don’t feel they are ‘creative’ in this way. Although I would not use that word for what they are expressing, choosing rather to use the word ‘artistic’, I do agree that there are some who are more competent and able to perform/present art in our group while others question what they have to offer to feel a part of Burning Fences.

On the Friday evening of our weekend away we held a ‘community circle’. This ‘community circle’ is a combination of haflat samar, story circles (traditionally held in the old celtic church) and Caedmon Evening (currently practiced by the Northumbria Community). The framework of the evening is everyone is invited to bring something to share as an expression of any kind. This contribution can be a simple joke, an epic poem, a song, a quote, anything that they think will inspire or facilitate reflection. I, as host, began by reading a story to frame the evening. I read a rewriting of Bede’s account of Caedmon who, loved listening in on such evenings but never felt able to contribute until, one night, he found himself dreaming about God giving him the gift of song. When he awoke he was able to sing beautifully. After this story, the group then participate in a collective act of art/liturgy. In this context liturgy acts as a binding together and bringing people together and encourages the group to express a shared desire or identity.

After this shared act the space is open for anyone to speak into it. People are encouraged to listen and respond how they feel is appropriate. The order of presentation is completely self-governed and each person places their contribution where they feel it fits best. By the end of the evening everyone had contributed something and it had flowed beautifully. There were some performances which may have been judged ‘better’ than others but in the light of day I could not tell you which was which because in that space of community it was not the objective quality that was important but the way in which we (and our offering) interacted with others. (You can read a poem which I wrote during our ‘community circle’ here.)

So what is the place of artistic expressions within a community?

For many communities the use of music and song is central to their community gatherings. Rituals and liturgical frameworks use music and rhythm. A community at its most basic is a social group whose members share a commonality of some kind. In order to maintain a cohesion to any community there needs to be an expression of that shared commonality, be they beliefs, locality, ideas or any other identifiers. This most profound way of doing this is through the evocative and emotive use of music. Artistic expression, therefore, takes an important part of many communities.


The place of art

What I find interesting about this chapter in the Rule of St. Benedict is the directions for when a community is small.

If the monastic community is numerous, the Hours shall be sung with antiphons; if small, without.

This is music to my ears (excuse the pun). I do not have a strong singing voice and I am very self conscious. I love to listen to singing and particularly choral harmonies but I struggle to participate. I join in singing if there is enough noise to drown me out and I am confident no one can hear my unstable voice. If I am leading a small group and I would love to worship in that context then I must rely on others’ abilities to lead in sung worship or otherwise we don’t get to enjoy that experience. Even when there is someone else leading the singing I struggle to join in and end up mute hoping no one notices that I am singing and feeling concerned that I am distancing myself from the group.

One phrase that stands out from the discussion on the place of creativity in community, particularly a group like Burning Fences, was that,

Artistic expression is affirmed/valued but not enforced.

We, as a community, appreciate artistic expression and will encourage anyone, whatever level of competency they have, to contribute but we do not enforce it as a necessary part of membership. This does mean that the more experienced artists are more prominent when it comes to the times for artistic expression but that does not equate to being more valued within the community. We appreciate that offering because, for some, we cannot make it but we want to enjoy it as a gathering activity but that does not mean that those members who can are in some way more important. If there is no offering in this way then you adapt, for the act must primarily be a communal expression and only then must we consider the practicalities of how we make it happen.

Artistic expression is appreciated but it is not a marker of your place in the community.


Community should be a space where people feel safe and free to let down forced personas and be vulnerable. This makes community a difficult place because there is a high risk of it getting very messy very quickly and this kind of life should not be entered into lightly. It does require a level of commitment from a number of people or it will never achieve the level of trust and intimacy required for this vulnerability to be life-giving. It is only in a safe, trusting, committed community where people are free to explore new expressions of themselves and embrace the risk of failure in working out relationships and connection. This can be done through artistic expressions and, indeed, it is a special kind of expression, but it is not the only way.

We at Burning Fences, appreciate and affirm the musical and poetic expressions of beauty and we enjoy them together, even though not every member can directly contribute. We, the more experienced/confident artists are only able to express our shared commonality by listening and knowing all members. Membership is not measured by the artistic contributions one makes but by the depth of relationships you participate in.

Creative God in Trinity, you make us to know and enjoy beauty with others. We thank you for the ability of some to create beautiful music and song, images and poetry. We thank you for others who create beautiful relationships with equal skill. We thank you for others who support the beauty of life in their skills to construct order and stability in practical ways. We thank you for all of this as expressions of your immeasurable creativity in all things.

Come, Lord Jesus.

Chapter 3: the counsel of the brothers


Whenever an important matter is to be undertaken in the monastery the abbot should call the entire community together…

How do we decide?

Nothing epitomizes parochial ministry like a P.C.C. (Parish Church Council). This infamous meeting is understood to be the centre of bureaucracy, pedantry and all the negative associations with institutionalized dogma which stifles creativity and growth. Although this is a common perception (sometimes through experience) I see great importance about these spaces of discernment and discussion. P.C.C.s, like Synods and other organisational meetings, can be places of collaborative ruling and creative dreaming but it relies on how you operate the vehicle.

I write this reflection after our first P.C.C. meeting of 2014. The meeting was good and productive thanks, in large part to how we have begun to shift the priorities and the character of the P.C.C. as a governing body for the congregation. Generally P.C.C.s settle into a natural place of being the red tape, officiators of all actions; if anything wants to be done, the P.C.C. need to know about it, do the risk assessments and fund it. The ideas, in this understanding, come from outside and those inside have the power to clear them or destroy them! We have begun to encourage times of creative thinking of ideas making. We now begin meetings with active engagement with Scripture through lectio divina which warms up the responsive and listening part of our brains, then there is a stimulus/problem presented and some ideas shared. After this is usually a time of sharing, challenging and reshaping. The character of this early discussion is open and fluid. It is deliberately not done behind tables with papers and pens but a conversational, non-committal approach which encourages free thinking and playful ideas.

If you re-imagine what a P.C.C. is for then it’s possible for the meetings to become a place of creative idea-making and the ‘business’/organisational activities can be done in the same way. It’s all about raising the expectations and awareness of what creativity is.

The times when these types of meetings become frustrating and tedious are when people see themselves and the P.C.C. as a ‘governing body’ as the safety net. There are people who stick so much to the letter of the law that they fail to appreciate the character of the law. This has been happening throughout history. If you see the law as restrictive then you become restrictive. If you see the law as constructive you become constructive. It is easy to fall into being ‘efficient’ and spending the time in recording and assessment rather than overseeing experiments and being creatively involved in protecting fledging projects and ideas. Why was that law written? What is the ultimate priority of this organisation? How can this law encourage that priority?

The role of overseer can often be caricatured as the ‘sensible’ one and hindering new initiatives,

Someone needs to be sensible. It’s a nice idea but you don’t appreciate how much work that will take.

This view that some people are the ‘ideas people’ and others are ‘the practical ones’ is divisive in communal discernment and creativity. It is true that we can naturally favour one role than the other but the really creative people I know have spent the time to learn the practical implications of their ideas. Equally, some of the most practical people I know birth great ideas from necessity and pragmatism. P.C.C.s can often name themselves as ‘pragmatic’ when they are the places where ideas should be shared and fostered; weaving the creativity in with the ‘rules’ is the best way.

When I was directing theatre it was a basic premise that artists need a framework within which to play. The canvas or page needs an edge and a performance piece needs a start and direction. The early part of rehearsals was about discovering the edges of this particular piece; what resources do we have? What are we bringing at this time? What do we not want to explore? Once you’ve played with the boundaries and established some framework you are free to be creative. That framework may change as necessity dictates but it needs to be established in order to know. I saw my role, as the director, as being the story keeper, the person who held and reminded the rest of the framework; not to be restrictive and dictatorial but to challenge and push the creativity. It’s too easy just to say an idea in a vacuum what makes it transformative is it impacting reality.

St. Benedict continues to portray the abbot, for me, as this story keeper.

The abbot himself must do everything according to the Rule and fearing God…

He doesn’t just demand the abbot to stick to the rules but invites creative discernment by bringing all the voices, ‘creative’ (if we can genuinely say that some are not creative) and the practical. Meetings are places where problems are solved in community. Wisdom finds flesh and reveals itself in reality.

The one major issues with P.C.C.s and Synods are the kind of people they attract in the current climate are people who, generally like to enforce the law. There’s something about the way in which they are presented and worked out that brings the Pharisee out in all of us. The rules/law is static, written on stone tablets and has supremacy over everything rather than a life-giving framework that encourages creativity and freedom.

Consider the vote for the outworking of women bishops legislation in 2012. It came down to the people in the room with their experience and desires. Outside of that room there were people who had an opinion and who cared about the judgement but the balance of power was all off.

St. Benedict is clear: gather everyone’s view, given and received in humility gained by the starting, collective principle that we are all under obedience. The abbot then decides, again with ‘consideration and justice’.

How can we protect ourselves from a dictator abbot?

You can’t. That’s why the selection of the abbot and his character is so important. That’s why he too must be under obedience to God and to be under the Rule. That’s why the monks must pray for him and he must remember that his primary calling is to present the monks under his charge as blameless before God.

Ultimately what I hear being proposed here in this chapter of the Rule is a conversation where each member is other-focused.

Individual desires have no place in the monastery.

Decisions are made in an open, non-threatening environment where all feel free to offer and add to the collective discernment. From experience it is in the space where decisions have already been made and there’s no real conversation to be had that people close down and act violently, passively or actively. In any governing body all attempts should made to communicate that there is real space to contribute and impact ones environment and reality. Those in privilege positions of power must be freed from the lie of oppression and become transparent to their intentions and desires. In this forum people are free to dream and hear the truth of God and His vision of the world He has created.


I wonder what a P.C.C. would be like if it was run under the principles of Open Space Technology (or something similar). What difference would it make to present principles rather than ‘laws’? If those principles were agreed upon by all members and that the role of the chair of the P.C.C. was to seek creative, collective solutions to questions that were discovered within the narrative of those principles?

Almighty God, creator and judge of all that is true, guide all those in authority and positions of decision making. Bless and protect all who work towards justice and peace in places of debate and public governance. May the character of Your Son, Jesus Christ, be their model and guide as they seek to be transformed into His likeness.

Come, Lord Jesus.

I’m Calling a Session! (part ii)

I think we have some tools to come to some preliminary suggestions as to whether Devoted and Disgruntled is primarily a conference or a community. My conclusion, however, is based on one last observation and realization that I came to whilst at DandD and that is the overwhelming articulation of loneliness and lack of organic relationships with each other as artists.

I have experienced the freelance lifestyle and my personal impression was that it was a lonely existence interspersed with intense intimacy for short periods of time that, over time and repeated frequently, left me alone and scared of intimacy and commitment. I wanted others to know me deeply and to be vulnerable in my work but my experience told me that my interactions with others fed me for a time but everyone, in the end was using me, just as I was using them for personal fulfillment.

This is a process called individualization and it’s been noted frequently by sociologists and cultural commentators as the major destructive force within a consumerist, capitalist society. Add to this society a vocation that requires collaboration on deep ‘spiritual’/‘emotional’/‘human’ expression which itself requires a large amount of vulnerability on the part of the person and the group, it is no wonder that the theatre, as a collective of artists, is full of people damaged, lonely and deeply confused as to what it means to be a person.

I bring up this individualization because of this connection it has to our attainment of personhood. Here ‘personhood’ is distinguished from human being. John Zizioulas, an Orthodox theologian, conceives of the human being, purely as the biological entity of skin and bones, etc. To gain personhood one must develop, or allow to emerge, a deeper ontology. This, he proposes, is in our connection to others and to God. Let us make a massive side step for the moment on the subject of God but look at the ‘person’ stemming from our essential sociality. I have written a lot recently (Big Bible blog) on our identities being inexplicably linked to our sociality and I use those arguments here as a basis of my point. From my experience as a freelancer the more isolated and emotionally distant I became from people the more lonely and desperate I became. My inner parts cried out for intimacy but society was shaped that I would be individual and so I sought intimacy in the temporary and associative relationships with others without knowing I needed an organic relationship.

When I got married I publicly and contractually denied my individuality by agreeing to remain in communion with my wife; we became ‘one’. This meant that I could not have emotional barriers between us, vulnerability was a deliberate act every day. If I couldn’t be vulnerable on every level of my life then I was individualizing again. This may come across as aggressively extreme but I think its important to speak in these terms to depict the problem we find ourselves in as a society.

For DandD to be a community there needs to be a vulnerable connection between the parts. Each ‘individual’ needs to take the risk and participate in an intimate exchange of selves, willing to be shaped and impacted by the other. With the numbers present at DandD7, this would be impossible to achieve, hence why I want to know if it was ‘primarily’ a community. Was it my experience that, at DandD7, people were showing signs of being determined by others or by the ethos of the whole? I cannot say for I was not at each connection or able to be intimately engaged with every part all of the time. Is it possible, in the context, to experience that intimacy, etc.? I would say only if it is assumed that it is a possibility.

The principles that Open Space use, however, may help us to discern whether the intention is to establish a community or if they only will achieve, at best, a committed group of conference goers.

The Principles are

  1. Whoever comes are the right people …reminds participants that they don’t need the CEO and 100 people to get something done, you need people who care. And, absent the direction or control exerted in a traditional meeting, that’s who shows up in the various breakout sessions of an Open Space meeting.
  2. Whenever it starts is the right time …reminds participants that “spirit and creativity do not run on the clock.”
  3. Wherever it happens is the right place. …reminds participants that space is opening everywhere all the time. Please be concious and aware. – Tahrir Square is one famous example. (Wherever is the new one, just added)
  4. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have …reminds participants that once something has happened, it’s done—and no amount of fretting, complaining or otherwise rehashing can change that. Move on.
  5. When it’s over, it’s over …reminds participants that we never know how long it will take to resolve an issue, once raised, but that whenever the issue or work or conversation is finished, move on to the next thing. Don’t keep rehashing just because there’s 30 minutes left in the session. Do the work, not the time.

There is also one law: ‘The law of two feet’ or ‘The law of mobility’,

If at any time you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing: Give greetings, use your two feet, and go do something useful. Responsibility resides with you.

This law creates a vibrant environment of exchange in ideas and ‘bumble-bee’ cross pollinations. My own critique would be that this law has an inherent individualization underlying it.

“I am in control of my own experience”

Phalim McDermott, Artistic Director of Improbable and chief convener of DandD, believers that the law of two feet is not just about leaving,

Sometimes people concentrate on “The law of two feet.” as being about leaving somewhere: it might be a session, a person who is dominating a conversation, a topic that goes off somewhere you are no longer interested in, all these are things one might want to move away from. However it’s good to remember it’s a law of TWO feet….Maybe if you focus on where you are going to or where your presence has gone.. Then you could realise it might be rude to have already left a less than present self amongst the group. Or perhaps it’s even arrogant to assume people will even notice that you left.

What the law of two feet does do is enable the whole to function and feed itself. The parts need to be attuned to where the information may need to be passed to in order to grow and develop and create. When this happens then the second foot is an important engagement of the individual with the whole. It is not clear, however, if this indeed is how it is used.

In conclusion, I want to say that DandD has the exciting potential to be a community; an enduring organic whole which determines individuals and creates persons who can dare to be vulnerable and dependable with each other. At present, however, due to its size and it essential nature as a task orientated event it remains, for me, primarily a conference. This is not to deny its community aspect of intimacy but those relationships are fostered and grown elsewhere. This is a positive thing and I am so glad that communities are forming around these principles and the ethos of openness outside of DandD but it, on its own is not primarily a community.

I am willing, even hoping, to be corrected. This conference was such a blessing to me and to the people involved and has the potential to do so much more constructive and life-affirming work for the participants. There’s only simple stps that need to be made if DandD wants to pursue the primacy of organic rather than associative but most participants seem to engage on the associative aspects due to their continual fear and acceptance of our individualized society .

Can church ever use Open Space Technology? You’ll have to read my dissertation. What can be said at this time is that Church is also both organic and associative but, like DandD it is, sadly, primarily an associative social structure and not a space for intimate connections and freedom to vulnerable explore what it means to be connected as a person.

I’m Calling a Session! (part i)

It was on my way down to a conference called Devoted and Disgruntled 7 that I read,

one can distinguish between ideal types of organic and associative social structures. A person is born into an organic social structure, or grows into it; by contrast, a person freely joins an associative social structure. The former is a ‘living organism’ whose parts depend on the whole organism and are determined by it; the latter is ‘a mechanical aggregate and artifact’ composed of individual parts. The former is thus enduring, the latter transient. In short, organic social structures are communities of being, while associative social structures are alliances for a specific purpose.

I was heading down to DandD7 at the invitation of my sister who has been participating in it for several years. DandD aims to be a gathering place for theatre makers and performing artists to discuss and explore major issues surrounding the arts industry. The reason I was traveling the 271 miles from Durham was to experience a organizational framework used at DandD called Open Space Technology.

Open Space Technology was discovered by an American called Harrison Owen. The story goes that he had set up a conference to explore issues stemming from his paper about “organizational transformation” and ran two successful events. On the approach to the third conference he found he was not relishing the idea of all the work necessary to put on such a large scale event; agendas, speakers, etc. It was then that he realized; most participants of the previous years’ conferences said the best part of those events were the coffee breaks, which Owen had not organized. Owen then sent out a one paragraph invitation to anyone to come and discuss ‘organizational transformation’ and 100 people turned up.

The seats for delegates were set out in a circle and the time was booked. Apart from this nothing had been set in place; it was open. The basic premise is it’s a meeting based on the dynamics of a coffee break.

Open Space, therefore, is distinctive in its lack of an agenda past the initial problem which needs to be discussed; in DandD’s case ‘What are we going to do about theatre and the performing arts?

Before getting to DandD7 I asked my sister why she had invited me? She said she thought that Open Space Technology may well help me in my research to formulate some ecclesiology (lit. words about church) which denied the use the rigid hierarchy which, in my opinion, stifles creativity of a group and denies full participation of every member in a community. What was interesting in her description of Open Space was the deliberate use of the words ‘her church’ and ‘her community’.

When it came to Saturday morning my over arching question was: To what extent could DandD be described as my sister’s church?

I need to briefly explain my use of the word ‘church’ in this context. Church is both a building and a gathering of people, usually made up of Christians. The word comes from the Greek ecclesia, which means ‘gathering’ (or to be specific ek – out and kaleo – to call). The Christian associations were a later addition to the concept and in that respect I will play down this element for now. I do want, however, to hold onto the connection this term has with ‘community’ because it was this idea that encouraged my sister to use the specific word ‘church’.

In order to answer my question I wanted to discover whether DandD is primarily seen as a conference or a community. I use the term ‘primarily’ deliberately as it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that it was always going to be both. Indeed, most gatherings are a mixture of these two ideas. What I am keen to do here, however, is to discern whether it is possible to use Open Space purely as a community framework without the conference element and thus be able to agree with my sister that this is primarily a community she is a part of not just a conference she goes to religiously.

If we take these terms in the general sense they overlap in a number of ways. In the specific, however, I would be keen to posit unique attributes to each in order to communicate something important for my sister and many others whom I met at DandD7.

A conference, in this instance, encapsulates a business, mechanical artifact used to interact with others akin to the associative social structure we read about early. A community, on the other hand, is a gathering of people who participate in a level of intimacy brought on by experiencing liminality as a group. Community therefore, in this argument takes on the typology of the organic social structure.

For my sister she used words that would attribute themselves easily into the community/organic social structure model. Was this an adequate description of what happened? I was intrigued because Open Space Technology has its genesis in the conference world, where the task, it seems, is a primary focus with relationship as a happy by-product. Owen has, however, used it in community groups and in peace negotiations where, one could argue, relationships come first with the specific task as a necessary structure which is held to lightly.

Turning again to the quote I read before there are some clear qualities that separate organic social structures from associative. In the former the ‘parts’ depended on the whole organism and are determined by it, i.e. the whole adds or requires the part to have certain characteristics by its relationship to it; its focus is on being. The latter has no call for the individual part to depend or be determined by the whole; the individual can remain separate and singular. The associative social structure’s focus is on fulfilling a task without requiring an ontological connection.

At this point I would like to say that I am fully aware that I am attributing concepts and labels to things which may not, necessarily be the case. My observations are based, purely, on two days and an introductory investigation into the purpose and priorities of both Open Space and DandD. I would like the reader to be acutely aware that I am processing this and opening up a ‘session’ online. Please do correct where I have been unfair, ignorant or arrogant.

Just Shut Up and Do It!: a manifesto

At an Open Space Conference/Community called Devoted and Disgruntled for theatre and performing arts practitioners, I called a session with the above title. The group came up with the following statements of intent…

The right people would like to articulate:

We believe that theatre is a living, organic force that we participate in a physical and effective communion with.

We are both united and multiple in a creative mystery.

We don’t want to be lonely anymore! We will seek pleasure in relationships with others. We want to be able to be vulnerable and playful with ourselves and with others, physically, emotionally, intellectually and financially.

We don’t need money to make theatre (but it helps!)

We need money to publicise theatre (but not always!)

We will continue to faithfully wrestle with each other and the deepest, unspeakable desires, frivolity and pains of life in a potent dance.

Now is the time we say “it’s over” and at the same time “it has just begun!”

Viva la revolution! (for now)