Did you have church in your childhood at all?
I had the version that Richard Dawkins critiques. Strict Catholic man in a white robe up in a pulpit. I went to a Catholic school. And we had prayer in the morning. And there was mass. But it was never enjoyable or rich, you know. There was no humility or intellectual questioning with it. No real heart.
So then when did this idea that you could create something like The Weekly Service arrive?
That experience at North Fitzroy was a big inspiration. That was the seed really. I realised that unless you have a particular faith you align to, there are very few spaces in our modern world that can nourish us like that. So I began to wonder what a secular church could be. And then I met Cam, the other co-founder of The Weekly Service. Harriet was on the Centre for Sustainable Leadership course and met Cam. She heard Cam also talking about church in a secular society. And she said, “You need to meet Henry. He’s also been talking about this.” And then we met at a barbecue. And got excited. And we just kept on meeting.
There’s something really interesting in the fact that you guys came to meet each other, in terms of having someone to manifest your ideas. Like having the same person that shares your idea and desire to act on it is really powerful.
We had a similar vision. And every time we’d meet it would be very exciting. There are all kinds of doubts, you know, voices in your head that say, “Don’t do this.” But having someone else to bounce doubts and inspirations around helps a lot. So we decided to put a date in on the 12th of September 2015 and said, “Let’s just do this.” We made a commitment that we would be there every week. Like even if no one shows up. That was our commitment. We’re just going to be there. Quite often people wouldn’t show up! But then over time people started to connect with what it was we were doing. We developed more of a vernacular, more of an understanding of the work, and it evolved, always coming from that place of yearning. And then Kirsty who’s also now on the team, she saw this scrappy piece of paper in a Northcote café that me and Cam had designed saying, “Look up, slow down, come along to a Weekly Service.” And it had this rubbish logo and she was like, “Oh that’s interesting!” And she came along. In those days it was a bit more amateur and smaller and rough and ready. And Kirsty saw that there was this energy with the right intent and coming from the right place. And she transformed her whole PhD into The Weekly Service.
So while the idea has stayed the same, things have evolved since then. We’ve mapped out the elements of a service, through an energy arc, and we’ve spent a lot of time understanding what happens in the space. And importantly these services are centred around a storyteller, just a human telling their story. The brief is simply “an idea with heart.” And an idea with heart is about showing our whole selves. It’s not the kind of performance with Powerpoint, but something that’s very real and human. It could be ugly and dark and sad and tragic, or it can be happy, beautiful or all of the above. Like, just the whole human story. And the idea behind that is that when you hear that story, when you see somebody doing that, I think you said earlier it’s like a universal thing we tap into it. We relate to that story. It makes us reflect on our own. And that idea was there from day one. We just kind of refined the guidelines and are being clear on what that is. And then we create a space in the service to think about story, to absorb that. So we have silence to meditate or reflect. We have a dialogue to have more voices in the room. We discuss the context of our times. All of these elements help to build this nourishing experience. And we have music—that’s really important. We have a good old-fashioned singsong at the end.
Yeah! My favourite part of it.
Yeah same. But you know, I’m an awkward English man, my dad’s a Northern English guy and we don’t do emotional, we certainly don’t do sing-songs like this. I can find it intensely awkward. But once I get over my own rubbish, wow I love singing with others.
So you’re out of that phase where you’re working by instinct, you’re starting to create a narrative, you’re creating an identity for The Weekly Service. Which place do you prefer? Deep in that early stage? And do you still have a vision for the Service? ‘Cause it’s become very community led.
It’s a tension yes. Its beauty certainly in the beginning was in the small and intimate. Then it got bigger. How do we maintain that intimacy? There’s also a whole grey area around leadership and community we’re figuring out. Like what is our role as leaders? How do we maintain the principles and vision? And one of the key things we’ve worked on is to make the thing sustainable. Making sure that there are resources available so you can keep on going and that people don’t burn out. I see so many projects that don’t pay attention to this. At the beginning the energy of volunteers keeps them going, which is fantastic. But after a couple of years people have babies or get jobs, and of course the thing simply can’t continue. So money’s been a thing that we’ve been trying to really figure out. We’re getting there, and we have a membership program which enables a few people to be paid, which is absolutely wonderful. But of course they’re not paid enough and whether we like it or not, we still live in a material world and need to exist within it. I see The Weekly Service as in a mature part of Phase One. What is Phase Two? To be decided, but I would love for there to be more spaces like this in the world, and I think that is a real possibility. But you know, as the co-founder I am also really aware of my ego in the vision. A part of me wants to own the thing, become famous, have my mother boast about me at dinner parties. Save the world. But there is a beauty in letting go, and empowering others.