[ACNS, by Gavin Drake] Wales is a country built on stories. But it is an art and a culture that has been – to a great extent – lost with modernity. Now a diocese in the north-east of the country is seeking to re-establish the tradition of storytelling as a way of encouraging churchgoers to tell their story – and the story of God’s work on their lives, in what has been dubbed "the Gospel according to everybody".
The diocese of St Asaph is a mixture of relatively small communities. The full length of the cathedral city can be walked in about five minutes. And its scattered communities contain a mix of areas that are, according to Bishop Gregory Cameron, “waning and struggling.”
He highlights north coast seaside towns that offered resort holidays “until everyone discovered that it was cheaper to go to Costabomb in southern Spain”; communities in the Dee Valley that were built on now-gone coal mines; and rural communities that – like many farming communities throughout the UK – struggling to survive.
Against this background, the diocese – like the other five dioceses of the Church in Wales – are gearing up to what they term the 2020 Vision: a new structure for the church in which parishes with a vicar are being transformed into mission areas with a team of workers and in which every member of the congregation is expected to play their part in the mission and ministry of the church.
As part of its approach to 2020 Vision, the Church in Wales has established a £1 million transformation fund – and allocated £250,000 of it to the Diocese of St Asaph. The diocese has used some of this on a project to feed children during school holidays when free school meals for the power are not available.
But perhaps the most innovative use of the money is the “quite an investment” it is making in the appointment of the American youth worker, teacher, community innovator and storyteller Mark Yaconelli to the newly created post of Missioner in Residence. During the six-month appointment, Mark will live in north Wales and will focus on youth work, community engagement and spiritual growth, through the medium of storytelling.
“We did at one point consider just calling him the Storyteller in Residence, but that sounds so trivial – come and talk to a few children in circle-time – and it is much more than that,” Bishop Gregory said. “We talked about the fuller title of Community Innovator and Storyteller because it is also about building community.” In the end, the settled on Missioner in Residence.
He will do so in a community that has many similarities to his home in Oregon, which he describes as “the Wales of the USA” – but it is also a community that is very different. “This is a very disorienting environment for an American,” Mark Yaconelli said. “To be in a building that is older than our country opens up a new sense of wonder and awe [and] to be in a landscape that is filled with stories – that’s very different.
“There are stories around every corner about what happened 100 years ago; about what happened 300 years ago; about what happened 1,000 years ago,” he said. “I’m living in Llangollen right now and to have people say ‘Saint Collen came here and he set up a little hut here’ and ‘up there the Welsh built a castle’ and ‘around the corner Wordsworth came and wrote poems’ - It is filled with stories.
I live in the west-coast [of America] which is a young country. We don’t have those stories. Or, we killed the people who had those stories – you know, the native people.”
Storytelling should not be confused with preaching. Mark is convinced that the church needs to refocus its efforts into listening to communities rather than preaching to them.
“My title is Missioner in Residence,” he said. “Previous missionaries focused on words and I think in contrast to what I think previous outsiders might do; I’m hoping to focus on listening and creating listening places. . . So with youth leaders we are going to focus on how do we listen to young people in this particular time; how do we listen to what the church has to bring; how do we listen to the context that we are in.”
Storyteller Mark Yaconelli will be installed into his new Missioner in Residence role by the Bishop of St Asaph during a special service at St Asaph cathedral on Sunday, when he will also be given a cathedral stall for his use during the residency.
Photo: Gavin Drake / ACNS
It is a concept that Bishop Gregory is keen to embrace. Mark visited St Asaph last year for a diocesan conference on prayer; and it is the way he unpacked prayer using storytelling at that conference the led to the invitation to make the extended visit.
“What we saw in Mark was a storyteller,” Bishop Gregory said. “Now, storyteller sounds rather trivial but what people love, what people resonate with, is telling stories – telling stories about each other, telling stories about their own truths. And it is often through story that we discover truth. . .
“There is difference in humanity [but] there is also much common ground, much coherence between the human experience. And when you start telling stories it usually elicits a story back. We resonate through stories.
“What Mark has been invited to do is to tell stories of his spiritual experience and journey . . . and eliciting a story back. We think [this] is something the church needs to be engaged in in mission – that we need to listen to society’s stories before we can start telling them our stories. And that is at the heart of what we are encouraging Mark to enable in us.”
“When we talk about storytelling we might assume [that it is] the storyteller who is weaving the story,” Mark Yaconelli said, before explaining that three elements were necessary in storytelling. The first of which was a listening space. “A story happens between the speaker and the listener,” he says. “It shows up in between; and any good storyteller will tell you that a listener can pull a story from you. The story doesn’t even exist unless you have a person that is attentive and there.”
The second element is “paying attention to experience,” he said. “If I say to you ‘tell me a time when you fell in love’ or ‘tell me a time when you felt deeply connected to a stranger’ well then you go back and remember that experience – what you saw, what you felt, what you heard, all of that – and it deepens your experience. Particularly if I ask you that question and you can tell that I am listening. You are going to be attentive to your experience in a much richer and deeper way. That’s where we meet God. That’s where the sacred exists. God is in reality.”
And he said that the third element to storytelling is “meaning making”. He explained: “I take all this random experience and put it together. That’s what a story does. I am putting random experience in order in a particular way that I’m structuring it. And that is what a storyteller does.”
Bishop Gregory said that centuries of storytelling and the art of oral history had – to a great extent – been lost in recent years in Wales because of the way society consumes media.
“Media has become the storytellers,” he said, “and in the same way that people used to go out and play football, now all they do is watch football. . . There is a sense in which society used to tell stories and now we only listen to stories because there is such a plethora: You switch the radio on in the morning: stories. You switch . . . the television on later in the day: stories.
Telling the story: Mark Yaconelli and Bishop Gregory Cameron are photographed in St Asaph Cathedral as the local media prepare to tell the story of the six-month Missioner in Residence appointment.
Photo: Gavin Drake / ACNS
“You are looking at your media and you are being fed stories all the time and the danger is that storytelling becomes passive – a recipient thing.
“What we need to revive is the idea that everyone can tell stories. Within the church, the preacher, the bishop, the priest – we’ve all got the words and we can spin, you know, ‘how long do you want me to talk for?’ We can do it; but have the congregation got the ability to tell stories?
“They’ve got wonderful stories to tell, but are they empowered to?
He added: “So many of our people in our churches and in Wales are frightened by the idea of testimony. There is . . . a culture of self-effacement – that you don’t talk about yourself. And yet I think we want to encourage a culture of storytelling. . .
“The tradition is there but it is one that has been professionalised – commercialised – and I think we want to release it back into the ordinary community. I suppose you can say ‘releasing story back into the wild.’”
Mark Yaconelli agreed, adding that storytelling for young people – who had become used to communicating using text and emoji’s rather than personal interaction – was so rare that it had taken on an element of the “exotic.”
“This is old Christian wisdom: everybody has to be inside the building and we have to share the bread and wine together. And depending upon who is here changes the quality of how God shines on us. That’s the ancient roots of storytelling. You have to be there in the room.
“I’ve noticed this: younger and younger adults want that experience [of sharing stories together]. It feels so exotic.”
Bishop Gregory is convinced that everybody in church has a story to tell. “Everybody who is in church has had some experience of God in some way, however uncertain, however long ago, there is something to tell. . .
“Modern society doesn’t like to be told what to believe. It doesn’t like to be told how to behave. Instead, it will learn from experience. . .
“A church where the bishop says ‘all come to church on Sunday, repent and believe in the Gospel’ – that doesn’t hit a chord, by and large, with society. But if people say ‘I see something of God in this person; I see something of holiness in that person, I see something redemptive in this third person’ – I think that will draw people back into the life of the church.”
He hopes that the work Mark Yaconelli does in St Asaph over the next few months will train up a number of people who feel confident to tell their story – and to teach others to tell theirs. Mark describes a community of Christian storytellers as “the Gospel according to everyone”.
At the end of Mark Yaconelli’s residency, Bishop Gregory is looking for 180 people trained up to organise storytelling events: 60 with the community, 60 building spirituality, and 60 with youth leadership. But, he said, “the outcome that I am really looking for is for a sense of buzz; a sense of excitement.
“When you talk about renewing the church it can be very dry. It can be all about rearranging the deckchairs. But actually what we want is the buzz. What we want is a sense of excitement about the Christian message.”