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Interview: Andy Paxton, Believe in Hull communities of culture co-ordinator

04 September 2015

‘We still have a lot to resolve, but this is a great place’

We were given City of Culture status for 2017; so churches just couldn’t resist building on that in fun and artistic ways. Believe in Hull is directed by a group of city church leaders of all denominations, and chaired by the Bishop of Hull, who is also new in post. I’m glad I’m not the only new kid.


I think of culture as the way a community expresses itself in its play, its work, its rest, its celebration, its worship. It’s a very broad word, but ultimately it doesn’t leave much out, which either makes my job easy, as we can do anything, or impossible, because everyone expects everything. I hope to find the first true.


The key is definitely to change Hull’s image. People visit Leeds, Harrogate, and York . . . but we’ve got more museums than Leeds, for example, and ours are free. There’s the Wilberforce Museum and HMS Bounty. We’ve got an amazing Streetlife Museum, a terrific art gallery, and a world-class aquarium called The Deep, where you go up five floors in a lift through the water, seeing sea-life you can’t see anywhere else. There’s a lot of heritage and history, music venues, every single cuisine in the world. . .


Every church is making a different contribution, according to its location and talents. There isn’t one who isn’t doing some sort of social-action outreach, which amounts to 10,000 hours of service to individuals a week. It’s the largest support-service in the city by miles. We want to add things that are manageable and sustainable, creating a lot of big events built up from smaller pieces. And we want local people to have events going on in their part of the city, not just the city centre.


We want to reclaim Easter — try to change people’s perception that it’s about chocolate. So we’ll do a Passion play, but contemporary. And there are proposals for debates, live music, home-group beer festivals, marble festivals. . . We’re going to try things at Christmas, too, and perhaps an animated Advent calendar through the city. Something big for Harvest, definitely. . . My job is to work out what’s manageable, appropriate, and find the right people, share the work through the churches.


We’re starting now, planning speed-dating events looking for talent before this Christmas, and organising workshops to develop people’s skills in things like dance, practising with smaller events in 2016, so we’ll be really confident for big events in 2017.


We hope to get a lot of benefit from this: many more families and friends talking, new people coming on Sundays — and the legacy of this needs to be something that’s got some quality. We’re making new traditions, and developing talent — like the dancing and music — which will go on enriching our worship for years.


Some people have suggested getting churches to work together is like herding cats; so it has to be a work of God on that basis alone. I have seen people move from living in tents in graveyards to getting stable homes, cutting down their addictions, and starting to help others. It’s not a tidal wave of change, but it’s significant for them and our community. The city as a whole has an optimism it’s never had in the 40 years I have lived here. People talk about change now in a way that was unthinkable even three years ago.


A few years ago, we had the worst schools, and were voted worst place to live, with high rates of everything undesirable, from heroin addiction to unemployment. We still have a lot of issues to resolve, but this is a great place, full of love and creativity.


I want to see people transformed within Hull, and be optimistic and hopeful. That’s the part “Communities of Culture” can really tackle: people getting worthwhile fulfilling employment, and keeping it. Because with jobs come most other things: health, happy families, strong resilient communities, and a vibrant social and cultural scene. That, in turn, will transform our church life, as new people are drawn to why we serve: our faith.


I’d done 20 years of youth and community work in my city, mostly with churches in one form or another. I also run an ethical festival catering business called the Magical Tea Machine, and that’s helped me build contacts and experience in the world of large-scale secular events.


I fear there’s rising greed in some areas of society and politics. Churches are a counter-cultural force to that, thankfully. We’re better at practising what we preach and believe. Social action has never been higher on our churches’ agenda.


I’ve mixed feelings about our culture as a whole. I think we’ve become too isolationist, too selfish, and too quick to criticise others, with little understanding. We can work on that, though. We’re still redeemable.


My first experience of God was nuts. As a child, I was brought up in the Salvation Army, and it wasn’t until after a pretty epic ’tweens rebellion, and a mission week in my late teens, that I found faith, and God burst into my life. I sat in a meeting one day and simply prayed: “I know about you, but you are not real to me. Do something real, and I will believe.” To my amazement, I then could not get up at the end of the meeting. I couldn’t and didn’t move for ten minutes. I knew it was some wild God-spirit thing going off. I felt elated. It was frankly a freaky and awesome way to be brought to faith. Never happened since, but it hasn’t needed to, either.


Like most people, I have had some desert years, tricky second-album moments. Having young kids has taken me to the edge of pretty much everything, including my faith a few times. I hear that’s common. I’ve become more relaxed about my faith, too. I’ve journeyed to some more fringe theologies based on study, and I love to ask profoundly challenging questions and seek the answers.


My grandparents and, later in life, my mother were Salvation Army officers. I’m the family renegade that moved away from it, but I still have a soft spot, and the Salvation Army are heavily involved in Believe in Hull. My close family have all now moved to Scotland — nothing I did, I’m sure — but I grew up in Hull, and love the place.


I was known as a bit of a rascal in my youth, and never totally lost that spirit. I just refined it. It’s payback now, as I have two young boys, both equally spirited: Toby, who is nearly four and already climbing trees way above my head — well, anything in fact — and Danny, nearly two, who tries to copy his brother. My wife, Lucy, and I look at them, already knowing it’s going to be a wild ride with them. Lucy still climbs trees, too. It’s one of the many things I admire about her.


I love travelling in West Africa and Eastern Europe. The former is not so safe these days, sadly, but we honeymooned in Senegal a few years ago, a place that is still safe and stunning, and with wonderful people. I have travelled around Eastern Europe since a child, and still love Poland and Romania especially. They both still have truly wild places, great food, and people with great generosity.


I’m happiest on a snowboard in the Alps or Carpathians, with my wife and close friends making tracks in the snow beside me. There would, of course, be clear blue skies and views all the way to heaven. It’s so liberating and spiritual to drift down a snow-covered mountain. If you need some peace in your life, go to the mountains. Jesus did.


I delight most when my wife is happy. There is no greater gift than seeing the person you love most happy.


The best sound is silence. That means my boys are asleep, and I can follow them. I also love the sound of a breeze through deciduous trees in leaf. Such a restless calm, somehow. Creation is full of contrasts that mankind could never master the same way.


A man called Ian Mayhew influenced me most. He was evidence to me that Jesus was not stuffy, but radical, and loved fun. An older lady in my youth called Ethel, who had such a passionate heart for God. Every week, she asked me how my walk in faith was. I hope one day to drink a coffee with her again. And a man I will call a theologian called James Hawes. He inspires me still to think beyond the normal, think of the unlikely, dream of the creative and obscure, to ask the difficult questions.


Right now, I pray for sleep for my family. Every night, Toby and I or Lucy pray that God will bless us, keep us, and watch over us until we are together again in the morning. We also pray for anyone struggling in the world. It’s become a little family ritual.


I’d have Albert Einstein with me in a locked church. He was a rare man of huge intellect but also a profound understanding of humanity. He was a peacemaker. He had a good idea of how to make an atom bomb, but refused to build one. A man of wisdom and compassion.


Andy Paxton was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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