VISUAL ETHNOGRAPHY LEARNING SYNTHESIS
London Bridge is Not Falling Down!
Waiting to board my British Airways flight to London I realized how very different this international trip felt compared to my first international trip exactly two years prior. On that September evening I was waiting to fly across North American skies and the Atlantic; in 2011, I was aboard a Qantas flight for almost fifteen hours crossing the Pacific. I remember feeling anxious, nervous and quite uncertain about what to do once my husband and I arrived. Everything on that trip was new to me right down to the arrival forms.
Even though I was flying alone and had never been to London, the anxiousness I felt two years ago had been supplanted with anticipation and calm that I would find my way. I had directions to the hotel from the train station, I had my ticket for the Heathrow Express, I had experienced International customs so I knew what to expect, and I knew how to handle a long flight. I noticed the difference experience brought.
Two years before, my husband Steve and I lived in Melbourne, Australia for seven months, the result of a short-term work assignment for the Boeing Company. We lived, worked and worshiped in Melbourne. My Australian experience with its British heritage shined through when I arrived in London. I felt like I had come home. Of course there were differences – black cabbies instead of yellow with black checkerboard, pounds instead of dollars. I was in London, but I instantly fell into familiar routines before crossing the street, looking right, then left, then right again. The building architecture and many of the mannerisms were familiar. The climate and weather reminded me of the Pacific Northwest.
Our London Advance had the flair of an adventure, not an exotic, far out of place adventure that billboard posters or television commercials tout, but the kind of adventure in which you know you will learn something new and expand your perspective. The kind of adventure that happens not because of what you do but because of the people you are with. Highlights of the London Advance included our visit to Lloyds of London, our Evensong Service and brief tour of St. Paul’s, our walk about on Friday and again on Sunday, early morning Communion Service at Westminster Abbey, a visit to the British Museum and National Gallery, our visit to Oasis in Waterloo, and personal walks in Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. These are highlights of places, tangible reminders of places I went; paths I walked.
My prior experience in cohort based online learning taught me that rich community can develop among those with whom you study. I found this to be true once again. Before the Advance I read my colleagues blog posts and interacted, but I did not know them, nor did they know me. The weeks leading up to the Advance provided the crucial introduction; because of the Advance I became committed. There was not a formal covenant among the sixteen of us, yet I came away vested to this process of doctoral studies. Despite my personal doubts about why or even if I should continue, I knew that walking with my colleagues was going to be as much a part of my Doctor of Ministry (DMin) learning as any assignment or dissertation. Spending ten days together I was fascinated with my colleagues in my cohort (LGP4) who they are, the work they do, the varied places they come from and grateful that we were together. Through the course of the Advance my appreciation extended as well to the LGP3 cohort.
During the Advance I paid attention to things that sparked my interest and drew my attention. I am fascinated with the existence of old and new in London. On any given city block (or laneway) there would likely be both old and new buildings together. Tube stations that have been upgraded (or in process), utilizing efficient ticketing systems, run through tunnels several hundred years old may be located across from pubs that are several hundred years old. Modern architecture amid buildings that are centuries old, London holds England’s history. At least that is how it appeared to this American. I’ve had conversations with people that have little use for history, they press toward something new. You cannot escape the past in London. It is everywhere.
Old and new is not just reflected in the architecture. It is often what the architecture represents. London holds the memory, influence, reflection and tension of the British Empire. Who England was once is evident amid the grandeur of the Parliament buildings, its gardens and palaces, and in “the” place, Buckingham Palace. Yet these are not just a reminder, these are places of activity and governing, they reminded me that we could hold onto vestiges of the past, while transforming for function and purpose in the present.
I was also struck by relationship between countries, England and the United States. On our brief tour of St. Paul’s I felt a bit of awe learning some of the cathedral’s history, the back portion of the cathedral’s demise from a bomb in WWII, the resolve to save the cathedral at all costs, the rebuilding of the destroyed portion and it’s dedication to the servicemen of the United States who died to protect the English people. Seeing the dedication written on the floor gave me pause. As did our trip several days later to Waterloo to visit Oasis Church, this church is steeped in history and significance. The location of the church had its beginning as Surrey Chapel in 1783. From this one place Christ’s mission has had far reaching influence. Since coming home I have pondered over what we learned about its history, what took place and what continues to take place. I am not certain if “humbling” is the right word, but that best describes how I felt when Jason shared with us the history of the Stars and Stripes spire built with funds donated by the family and friends of Abraham Lincoln dedicated in his memory. All because of the inspiration and support Lincoln received from the work of William Wilberforce. The place used for his central London base for his meetings would have a new spire some one hundred years later.
Oasis Church in Waterloo is also a place committed to building community and bringing hope. During our visit on Monday morning we had an opportunity to gather in their worship space amid tables and chairs enjoy a coffee and see how this place is part of the community. Mums with young children in strollers out for a walk popped into the warm space. The lunch preparations underway in the kitchen caught my eye because this is an area I am part of in my home church in Tacoma, Washington. This church is part of the community, a space and a place for those in the neighborhood to “be” during the weekday apart from Sunday worship. So simple and so easy to miss, unless I see the contrast between a typical church ministry with program designed for others with this church with open doors fully part of the community, just as the a trip to the grocers. There was something else I noticed in this visit, probably because we face something similar in my own church; the building has physical needs. There were places needing slight repair, a pillar in need of plaster touch up, paint needed here and there, a wire alongside a wall that went nowhere, and a small kitchen area. Yet despite these things community ministry is clearly invested.
The next day we heard from our cohort sisters and brothers in LGP3 as they shared their dissertation focuses. My strongest memory of this day is held in the word, grace. I saw grace extended to one another. When you have a group of Christians coming together for study there is certain to be a variety of experiences and theological perspectives. It is true of LGP3 and LGP4. Time and again I noticed during our breaks one coming to sit alongside another. People I know have different perspectives came and sat down alongside one another. I did not hear the words that were spoken, but I saw grace given and received side by side. If we can listen to one another there is hope.
New Knowledge and Synthesis
The knowledge edge for me came in how we learned. We heard from men and women experienced in their field of study or profession, from those deeply vested in ministry in England and internationally. This was important. Context was a crucial aspect of our learning exposure. As we heard from and visited with church and ministry leaders we had an opportunity to hear what they had to say from the important vantage point of context. We heard from advisers bringing their context, culture and experience, demonstrating their own growing edges and bridge building.
We visited with the Reverend Jeremy Crossley, the Rector of St. Margaret Lothbury located in the heart of London’s in the financial district. He described his role and function, the pressing needs of those that work in the financial district and how he adapted the parish ministry recognizing needed accommodation while responding to the uncertainty facilitated by change with the “idea of Christian hope, that God has the last word.” He explained his mission to provide services for people that work in the city, seeing himself as a vicar to a parish, not a chaplain to a congregation, available to anyone, being present, being trusted. Surely this is what is meant by constructing a contextual theology, “bringing our understanding of Scripture, our cognizance of our heritage and our reading of our cultural context into a creative trialogue.” Amid relics, some of which were several hundred years older than my country, there was ministry was a creative edge. A reminder that when our focus is on those we serve our praxis will be informed and transformed. “Our understanding of Scripture and reading of culture are interrelated, and both are affected by our place in the ongoing movement of God’s people in the world.” Surely old and new, established and adaptive must coexist together.
The creative edge was also demonstrated as we learned about the beginnings and history of Lloyd’s of London. From its beginnings in a coffee shop in 1688 where sailors and merchants gathered to exchange information leading to the creation of insurance to the society it is today, “a modern market, insuring against specialist risk and helping people to do new and astonishing things.”
Practice and Application
The conference on Saturday, which was open to ministry leaders and not just for DMin students, provided vital interaction and engagement with local church leaders and retired ministers. We engaged in learning that embraced the methodology of ethnography “as an approach to experiencing, interpreting and representing culture and society that informs and is informed by sets of different disciplinary agendas and theoretical principles.”
Martyn Pearcy had three questions for us that morning. First, from Matthew 16, who do you say that Christ is and what are you going to do about it? Secondly, what is the Church and what are you going to do about it? Finally, what is a minister and a leader? Why bother and what are you going to do about it? Honestly I had not considered these questions on any consistent basis since our return from London. However in writing this paper I realize these questions are at the heart of our doctoral studies. He focused us on our task as a minister and leader in the Church to be occupied with God and to be occupied with God’s agenda. This lies at the heart of reflexivity. For social theorist, Anthony Giddens reflexivity “means a world of self-monitoring – of our own lives, the lives of others (both proximate and distant), and wider social happenings.” Although we often distinguish between individual and institutional reflexivity, there is a sense in which our answers to Pearcy’s questions integrate personal and church, the individual and the institution. His reminder, to me in particular, is that the call of leadership is a call to wisdom.
Synthesis and Methodogy
Throughout the semester we were challenged to think critically. I affirm that critical thinking is among our essential practices in Christian discipleship. We have the opportunity to engage thoughtfully with vital questions, to gather and assess relevant ideas, to form well-reasoned conclusions, to think open-mindedly and to communicate effectively. David Ford demonstrated the art of inquiry and theology through asking questions and addressing fundamental issues. “The more one explores both Christian theology and the critiques of it by atheists and others the clearer it is that what is fundamentally at issue, simultaneously, the nature of God and human nature.” This was evident throughout the semester, magnified by our experience in London. We learned from women and men who have sought God, trusted God, taken risks, experienced success and failure. We have been encouraged us to seek God realizing that there is the possibility “that questioning, seeking meaning, and exploring intellectually might be an occasion for awakening trust and challenging to a decision.”
My visual representation comprises a brief selection of photos taken during our London Advance reflecting images, architecture, scenes, history, and people. The web address (url) is listed at the end of this paper. Old and new, remembrance, adaptability, influence, sacred space and developing friendship were things I sought to capture. Giddens expressed, “How people think about, monitor and reflect on what they do, is crucial to how society constitutes itself.” Coming home I have sought to be more present, to be attentive, open to the challenge of embracing old and new, looking for ways to adapt and create fresh experiences and to understand why I do what I do in such a way that my footprint will be filled with grace and always learning.
Flicker ID: clmgfes. Setting: Public. Photo set: Visual Ethnography Observing & Learning.
 Oasis Church Waterloo Information flyer.
 Quotation from personal notes taken during our visit at St. Margaret’s Lothbury with Rev. Jeremy Crossley on Fri., September 27, 2013.
 Ibid., 113.
 Anthony Elliott, Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction (New York, NY: Routledge, 2009), 133.
 Linda Elder and Richard Paul, Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools (Dillon Beach, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking, 2009), 37-45, Kindle.
 Ibid., 43.