I'm reading
Henry Churchill Reconnects Community
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Henry Churchill Reconnects Community
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
Henry Churchill Reconnects Community
Pass it on
Pass it on
Conversations
8 June 2018

Henry Churchill Reconnects Community

Interview by Nathan Scolaro

Nathan Scolaro on meeting Henry Churchill...

I can’t remember how I learned about The Weekly Service, or what led me to attend the small secular gathering at Nest Co-working Space in Thornbury. But I do remember walking out thinking, I just found the thing I didn’t even know I was looking for. Over time I came to understand that this “thing” was a space where I could be among people who were asking similar questions to me—questions about why we live the way we do, where we’ve come from and who we want to be. I immediately liked the feeling in the room; thoughtful, easy and open, and everyone seemed so willing to connect with one another. No weird, stumbling, should-I-talk-to-this-person-or-not vibes. This space was exactly what it should be: spacious.

It was no surprise to learn that the people behind the project are legends too, and are thinking really deeply and carefully about the community they’re co-creating. One of them is Henry Churchill, a 30-something expat from London who was working in corporates and NGOs for 10 years before deciding to shift gear and focus on turning his idea for a secular ceremony into reality. Now, almost three years on, The Weekly Service is a mainstay for many inquiring Melbournians, a Saturday morning ritual that encompasses storytelling, conversation, meditation and singing, all based around different topic each week—from burnout and resilience to absurdity and love.

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

NATHAN SCOLARO: I thought I’d start by asking you about one of your strongest memories from the Weekly Service.

HENRY CHURCHILL: It would be around being up front, going in as a curator or storyteller and feeling that level of performance anxiety. You know, you’re going to stand before a bunch of people and share your vulnerability.

So it doesn’t come naturally to you?

No, I get anxious in front of people. Definitely. And I’ve had to do quite a lot of work to manage that. I think the way I relate to it now, if I’m feeling anxious, is to say, “Well this isn’t about me. This is about service. And how can I be of service in this role?” And it’s a really nice way of re-framing it. Another one of my strongest memories at The Weekly Service was Caro’s story on resilience. Her story was about her mum being an alcoholic and her relationship as a child to her mother and her father. Then also at a later date being in a car crash. And at the heart of the story was her journey of resilience. She was up there bearing her heart, very, very vulnerable. So you go from this headspace on the outset into a much more embodied visceral place where you just relate to stories like that.

It’s like when someone is so specific about the details of their experience that they resonate on this universal level. They’re the powerful moments for me as well.

You can feel it. But the design of the service is set up to help people drop into that space, to be able to share their vulnerable self. When you’re up there, it’s a bit like giving a best man speech in front of a family that laughs at your terrible jokes, wills you on to succeed and absolutely loves you.

Right! [Laughs]. And so where did the idea for The Weekly Service come from?

The inspiration for it originally came from a yearning for belonging. In a previous life I found that belonging through London dance clubs, alcohol and drugs.

Me and my close friends would spend the weekend dancing our souls to music we all adored, completely connected to each other. I felt incredible purpose and belonging during those moments when hugging those friends surrounded by a sweaty mass of like-hearted people. Nothing else mattered then. It felt like questions were answered. And it worked in many ways: it was a rich, connected time in my life, and I still have deep friendships with those people. But because it’s hedonistic, it led to anxiety. Insomnia. Drugs and alcohol. And that on a sustained basis goes the other way and I had to stop. And then there’s a big hole after that experience. I felt lost and alone. And I think I searched for belonging, without realising it, in a number of ways since those days. Not least through the companies I worked for. That’s the modern day community, where we so often try to find our sense of belonging. But it would never meet that need. All the politics and power, the fact you’re completely expendable. So it’s probably the last three or four years of being involved with The Weekly Service that I’ve started to understand what’s been missing in my life. The need to belong and ritually slow down and remember we’re alive on Earth, together.

And so the idea emerged for me when my wife Harriet reintroduced me to the concept of Church, something I hadn’t thought about since school days. I met Harriet in Bangladesh. A very amazing, beautiful person. And within our first few dates Harriet said, “Just one thing you should know is I have faith.” At the time I was reading Richard Dawkins. I was an arrogant atheist. Anti-theist I should say. You know, I read one book and was sneering upon faith and religion. And then along comes Harriet who’s bright and deep thinking, and who has faith. She believes in a Christian God. At first I felt so lucky Harriet was into me that I simply buried the comment. It was a niggle at the back of my mind, but it wasn’t enough to worry me. But as the relationship progressed, we both saw that our philosophical viewpoints would clash. I think I thought at that point: I’ll persuade her with logic and reason, and she’ll see how stupid she is to believe in a Christian God. [Laughs]. Talk about othering! Then Harriet invited me to North Fitzroy Community Church, a progressive church that aligned to her version of Christianity. And I went, skeptically at first, but then quite willingly. It’s not a conversion story. I still don’t align to a particular faith. But I now appreciate the intellectual theology and deep philosophical thinking that a church like this explores. I started to love the space it created to ritually reflect and slow down. It was a time in my week to come together with other people to think about the deeper questions in life. The pastors had this deep philosophical intellect, interpreting scripture in ways that engage with modern living. I’d spend a couple of hours thinking about what it means to be human—social justice, gratitude, love and other things that get buried in our modern, hectic lives. And drink tea and meet lovely people. It was a really nourishing time.

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.

Wow.

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.

There’s a realisation for me that I have to be ready to let go of a lot of things. That it’s no longer this thing that I created.

I wonder how your idea of success has changed, how you would articulate what you think of success now?

Yeah that’s been a long journey actually. And it’s still there. The niggling bit of societal expectations is still there.

Well that’s good to hear because I think a lot of people would try to pretend that it’s not.

I think that’s one of the changes, is in hearing it. Acknowledging it. And observing it. And not beating myself up if I get lost in that. Because sometimes I will and sometimes I won’t, you know. I’m really interested in a question at the moment of how can I use my privilege in a way that’s life-giving? Or energy-giving? And trying to frame decisions at the moment around that and trying to do that in a way that is not to become a hero. Not long ago some very close friends and I did a Clearness Committee, which is inspired by Parker Palmer who was inspired by the Quakers. It’s a beautiful 400-year-old process where for two hours you’re surrounded by people you trust and love, and their job is to help you understand yourself through open, curious questions. Strictly not to give advice. Our world is full of advice, and from Parker Palmer’s point of view advice is control. The principle, which I embrace, is that we have the wisdom within us. And a Clearness Committee is a space to allow that wisdom to emerge. It’s a profound experience. For me, one of the outcomes was I just want to potter in the garden; I want to have a family. I want to make bread. I don’t know, maybe there’s a romantic thing there as well. But I just want to potter in the garden. When you really dig deep, of course one doesn’t actually want power, money and status. It’s a cliché for a reason, and the Clearness Committee helped me feel that truth. And so now I’ve bought a vineyard. Pottering around 6000 vines.

And you are about to have a baby.

Yeah. So that’s really nice. And just that process of a clearness committee is a beautiful way of really getting to an authentic understanding of who you are and what you need. The first 15, 20 minutes I kind of say what I want you to hear because I’m a human and I’ve got this ego thing going on. Two hours. There’s no escaping. And it comes out, which involves fear of death, because that is in all of us.

So I also want to talk about the kind of zeitgeist that you’re tapping into with the Service. What you’re seeing happening in an urban environment. A lot of the things you talked about before, the need for belonging, but what are the things that you see in the people coming to the services that they’re looking for? And then there’s something about the fact that you’re doing something that’s very ancient in practice. But it also feels very modern at the same time.

There are not many, maybe church, maybe North Fitzroy church, but if you don’t have something like that there’s really not a space to sit down, take your mask off and feel your whole self. I think people are drawn to it because there’s an authenticity there. And I think people understand the Weekly Service. This is a weird concept, right? It’s hard to market. And it sounds slightly religious in some ways. But I think deep down people have a real understanding of what this is serving. They come and they can connect to it.

Well I think I said to you before, for me coming along, I had this feeling of like, “Oh that’s the thing that I’ve been looking for.”

Yeah.

It made so much sense in my body that it’s what I needed.

Yeah. I led a service on the joys and sorrows which was just about what are the joys and sorrows today on 15th of November 2017? What are our joys and what are our sorrows? And it’s extraordinary how the sorrows were, you know, beautiful successful people that we all see and compare ourselves to are just like, “I feel alone. I’m desperately alone.” And I think there are two things going on when you hear that. One is there’s a reminder that we all feel desperately alone and we’re not alone in that. Because everyone’s going through that same kind of thing. And then there’s also a community of like-minded and like-hearted people that you can suddenly connect with.

The second part of that question—I shouldn’t have asked you both at once—but it was about the feeling of it being ancient and modern and whether that’s a conscious thing for you guys?

There is an intellectual understanding that we’re in a scientific, rational age where career is central and often prioritised over love and family. This sort of individualistic, hyper competitive modern society we find ourselves in is just so painful. So there was an understanding that that was needed. And of course an understanding of the ancient process of storytelling to create narrative. But I think Kirsty in particular has really brought the ritualistic side to it, acknowledging our ancient rituals and belief systems have been replaced by often socially and ecologically damaging rituals that cause us pain. There’s a real need for it for reclaiming and reinventing ritual. And I think people yearn and understand but it’s how do we create those structures? And how do we create those structures of belonging? And how do we not turn those structures into the same structures that exist? We’re playing with our version of activism at the moment. And it’s an activism that really mobilises me which is an activism of fierce kindness or complete forgiveness and just creating a space where people can come and not be judged.

So looping back to where we started, have you found the thing that you realise was absent from your life?

I think I’m moving towards it. I feel like it’s a life-long process. I’ve just bought a business—this vineyard and winery—which is sometimes getting me back to that quite stressed place. I feel myself going into that anxiety. That mid-20s anxiety where I’m worried at night. But The Weekly Service acts as an anchor in these rough times. A place I can reconnect with to be nourished. Loved. Seen. All of me. And that is powerful. I now have a better relationship with that anxiety. I know it and I feel okay to own it. I’m not cowering at three in the morning and feeling like I’m not coping ’cause I feel anxious. I know lots of people are going through this. And that’s really, really rich.

Yeah that’s interesting. When it first arrives in your life it’s completely debilitating. And then when you experience it again or when someone else is talking about it in the way that you experienced it, it feels less scary.

Absolutely. And I remember my mid-20s I’d get insomnia to the point where, you know, the birds would be tweeting, I still hadn’t slept, and just horrible, dreadful feeling. And then not being able to own up to it. I’d have to go into work. And just cower. Go into work and lie otherwise I’d be judged. The Weekly Service has given me so much strength and courage over the years and it eventually led to me leaving my job, without having a job to go to. Which was definitely the right thing to do. I mean I’m privileged in that I can afford to eat and I was lucky enough to sell a house in London so I’ve got some savings to last me for six months. But there’s no regrets. It’s definitely not a, “You leave your job and then it all becomes clear.” I’m a big fan of Parker Palmer. And actually his book Let Your Life Speak was part of the inspiration for me about leaving work and trying to follow my purpose. He talks a lot about depression and messiness and finding your calling, your purpose, you need to really, really go deep and down. So I still feel like I’m on that journey.

But the breakdown is really important. You know, when a fire goes through the bush. The bush needs that to regenerate, it’s kind of what you did when you quit your job.

Exactly. And my job was one of those jobs your mother loves. You know.

Ego job.

Exactly, yeah. Fairly senior position, interesting work. Well-respected company doing good things. Good pay. And so there’s a lot of identity loss when you go through that. How do I answer the “What do you do” question at dinner parties? What am I if I don’t have some kind of career success in this society? The pressure is immense to stay on that ladder. And so The Weekly Service is a massive, massive help. We have all these kind of external pressures but you have this group of brilliant, skilled people that are like, “Go on. You can do this. And we’re doing this. And we’re in this together.” A lot of people at The Weekly Service is in that transition space. They know their work is unfulfilling and not life giving. But don’t know where to next. This is where having a community of like hearted people can be so powerful. You’re not alone. And you can use the community to form their own projects ’cause there’s a bunch of people going, “Yeah, go on! We’ll support it!” But also a bunch of people who are like, “Yeah I’m going through some tough times as well.”

To find out more about The Weekly Service, head to theweeklyservice.org, or follow at facebook.com/theweeklyservice

Nathan Scolaro

Nathan enjoys getting elbow-deep in sentences, pressing and pricking them like a Chinese doctor until the blood is flowing just right. He hails from Western Australia, where he first experienced the joy of putting together a magazine, and now indulges his love of thoughtful, life-giving storytelling by bringing Dumbo Feather to life once a quarter.

I want more things that inspire me to...

Dumbo Feather Newsletter

Let’s be friends. We'll tell you all the good stuff.