I was asked recently what a typical day looked like in my new part time role to which my answer was that there is no typical day or even a week. “Well, could you not give us a snapshot of what it might be like?” So, this is my response to that request with some reflections along the way as to what it means to be a Northumbria Community leader and a part time Pioneer Coordinator with the Baptist Union of Great Britain.
Returning to work after a three-day break in the Scottish Highlands to celebrate my birthday I begin the week by ‘signing off’ the next edition of our Community Prayer Guide. A really important publication that I write with the help of a new team who help in its compilation, editing and proofreading. The rest of the day is spent making a few phone calls to people in our community and reducing the mountain of emails that had awaited my return. Having had a brilliant PA for fourteen years, her loss is greatly felt. I try to do some reading each day in addition to the rhythm of our Celtic Daily Prayer which has for many years and continues to inform and inspire my life and faith. I read Edwin Dowler’s excellent Grove booklet Inclusive Gospel? I find Grove booklets really helpful in keeping me informed and thinking about all kinds of topics covered in the areas of ethics, leadership, spirituality, biblical, pastoral and missional topics covered, see: https://grovebooks.co.uk
The evening saw me curling and whilst I returned home very satisfied with my own and the team’s performance in a creditable and very enjoyable draw, the tweak of my hamstring playing tennis on Sunday was not helped by my curling and I am now walking with a limp and requiring some remedial care and attention.
Tuesday morning saw me driving down through the beautiful and emerging spring countryside of Northumberland to Durham to Cranmer Hall. Our Community Prayer Guide called us to pray for Trevor and Freda, “ giving thanks for the love, stability, inspiration and example they have set the Community and for their steadfast faithfulness throughout the many seasons of their own and the Community’s the life.” The 1.5 hours it takes me to drive to Durham allows me the time to not only give thanks for Trevor and Freda but to recall the many experiences of journeying together and the invaluable companionship and deep friendship that I have enjoyed for many years with Trevor as a fellow overseer. We’ve served through seasons of joy and pain, adventure and anxiety but as the older men of the community now, are able to rejoice and give thanks to God for the way in which things have developed, from early pioneering years to a good, still exploring, still seeking, yet healthier place for the growing community of Companions and Friends.
At Cranmer I took a couple of tutorials and met with our Baptist discipleship group, comprising students training for ministry and others on the Free Church Missional Leadership course at Cranmer Hall. As I’ve said before they are a great group and if the future of church pioneering and missional leadership featured more people like these remarkably gifted and relatively younger leaders, my optimism and buoyancy would rise.
It was great to catch up with Andy my Missional Leadership course colleague, the full time Free Church Tutor at the college and together with the discipleship group the issue of what it means to be Nonconformists, both in society and in a predominantly Anglican setting was discussed. I love my Anglican colleagues and friends and have been privileged to have been given opportunities to serve in many Church of England settings, including being made a Fellow of St John’s College but the experience, as well as enriching my own faith journey, only helps to serve my conviction that I am a monastic nonconformist! Bless them, I have to keep reminding many of the Anglicans who I am privileged to work alongside that they are not the only church and that their natural tendency to assume that they are, can on occasions, border on arrogance and a dismissing of those of us from other church traditions is a pain, hurtful and undermining of both the gospel and kingdom relationships. I’m weary of ecumenical conversations that talk the language but find it incredibly difficult to embrace true collaboration and mutual respect and honouring of one another’s differing traditions and expressions of faith.
The journey south from Durham to Birmingham afforded the opportunity to think, reflect and pray and also take two very significant phone calls. One from one of my successors at Portrack in Teesside, where I was privileged to serve as its first pastor back in the 1980’s. Drawing on many of the insights from the church planting movement of that era it was a pioneering situation on an urban local authority housing estate non book culture. Eight remarkably formative years that shaped so much of my thinking and practice as a missional leader. It was very encouraging to talk with Linda, now leading the church, building new expressions of being a community church on the pioneering foundations of welcome, hospitality, compassion and service. Thank God we’ve moved beyond the confines and errors of failing to recognise the many women whom God has called to lead in both the church and society. Under Linda’s strong, strategic and nurturing leadership the church is growing and developing emerging leaders. I have been disturbed by the lack of leadership development in so many of our churches. Self preservation or a survival mentality has curtailed any notion of succession planning or recognition, training, releasing and resourcing new leaders. The second phone call came as a result of an interview I did for Radio Lancashire a few weeks ago. Someone who I’d never met inspired me in his sharing of how God had called him to plant and pioneer in Cumbria. Embracing the call to risky living which entails huge vulnerability he, with his wife and children had been led to both share the Good News with people beyond the walls of the church and serve with compassion so many people who last year had to contend with the trauma and consequences of their homes and businesses being flooded. He enlightened me to happenings in church planting, a ‘New Things network’ that would defy definition or categorisation but nevertheless reflects the creative chaos that is emerging throughout Europe of missional hubs and communities, plants and initiatives.
Driving through the busy Birmingham rush hour traffic and seeing people walking about on a mild evening, I am reminded again of the cosmopolitan nature of Britain. Not where I live in the countryside but true of so many urban and suburban areas of the country. A different world and missional context; exciting, enriching, challenging and opportune.
Arriving at IMC (BMS ~ Baptist Mission Society’s International Mission Centre) I am met by good friends and hosts for the night, Mark and Claire. We first met on my Baptist Presidency travels ten years ago. Travelling with other Companions of the Northumbria Community, three Baptist ministers and a dance choreographer (sounds like the title of a great book) we did a road tour of Europe, taking in eleven countries in the space of four weeks. We started off as three middle aged men and a young woman but within days became three adolescents with a mother! In Italy we visited Venice before moving onto Genoa where we stayed with Mark and Claire and enjoyed their welcoming hospitality. Together we shared our Daily Office and formed a friendship that has lasted through the ensuing ten years. It was together again around a meal table that we met with two young couples, Simon and Sarah, Sam and Katie, along with two other good friends, Graham, a Regional minister and Chris an ecumenical missional leadership enabler. Too busy sharing together and enjoying the Indian take away (Birmingham is great for its varied cuisines) and Italian red wine and coffee poured over delicious ice cream, I forgot to take a photo to record the meeting or even the meal.
We’d come together to encourage the two young couples for whom it was obvious that God was calling them to pioneering. Unconventional, radical and innovative, here were folks who had a heart to reflect God’s in reaching out to people beyond the walls of the church. For Simon, at present, this was being expressed in his work as the Bar Manager of a Sports Pavilion in Bournville which is run by the church. Among the many things that he is seeking to do is remove the wall that exists between the church community and ordinary folk who use the bar and sports and other facilities. At present the hatch in the wall that is located between the two groups of people is likened to when you are introducing a new pet into the home where there is an existing pet. You gently get them used to each other by keeping them apart but allowing them to see and sense, ‘sniff out’ and adjust to the change and new presence the other side of the wall that would be coming into a new shared space. I found the imagery that Simon painted both funny and provocative and also highly descriptive of the challenge so many churches and Christians face in simple being with people who are outside the church and its many subcultures. For Sam, his heart was in creating missional expressions within the business community. Finding ways of demonstrating how businesses can be operated and be a force for good in the world.
Two couples who were energising and passionate, thoughtful and insightful of how the world is seen through the eyes of the Millennial generation. The only sad and awkward moment in the evening was to hear how these two great missional leaders had not received the welcome, encouragement and nurturing from the institution of the church as they had hoped and were looking for.
It served for me the necessity of the ‘institution’ needing to reform itself to be a supportive, appropriately accountable, recognising and nurturing environment. It’s not that the institution, be it Association, Union or any other denomination recognition scheme is deliberately obstructive but given the issues of safeguarding, historic abuse cases etc, there is a necessary caution but this must never obstruct those whom God is calling and who have the character and gifting that is integral to that call to serve. When the pioneers, planters and entrepreneurs don’t fit, it’s time to look at changing the system and making it fit for present purposes.
We concluded our evening by praying for one another and our wider family that laughter and lightness, faith and imagination would be shared around tables wherever pioneers met to eat and drink together.
Up early the following morning, managing my sports injury and as a consequence trying to avoid walking far today, I drive into the centre of Birmingham and find a parking place just yards from the conference centre. An early morning taxi back to my hosts on the other side of the city lands me in a fascinating conversation with my driver, a third generation muslim, who only confirms my own and his fears that the way we are responding as a nation to the issues of immigration and refugees is stirring up racial tensions. He said he dreaded the elections this week in Stoke, for a “UKIP win would pour petrol on a simmering racism” that is being felt on the streets and in the neighbourhoods of Birmingham. I think as I hobble back inside the IMC for breakfast that whilst politicians and commentators talk about the economic consequences of Brexit, we need to be aware of a far greater threat to society, the unleashing and permission giving that has come as an unintended consequence by the Referendum result, a furthering and accelerating fracturing of society and the potential breakup of Europe, not just the European Union.
Returning to the conference venue, trying not to applaud my organisational efforts in securing a parking space whilst others are battling with time limited parking meters, I am met by friends from across the country, many of whom I have known for several years. Fellow pioneers and church planters, missiologists and missional leaders, most of whom are my age but there is also a good spread of younger folks and the ethnic diversity and mix of evangelical streams is heartening.
Two good presentations highlight the work of Jürgen Moltmann on our understanding of the Kingdom of God and church planting and the practice of moving beyond established expressions of church which are stimulating. Likewise the coffee and lunchtime conversations provide opportunities for networking and the sharing of our hearts and hopes.
A chance conversation with a Salvation Army Major leads to the discovery, yet again, of the influence of Celtic Daily Prayer. Not only has he been using the Office himself for years but has passed it on to numerous fellow Officers. He takes great delight in telling me that the Office is now used at one of the Army’s training colleges in the States. Remarkable!
Each Wednesday is marked as a day of intentional prayer for the Northumbria Community. It is a day when I am often directed in my thoughts and prayers to Companions and Friends who are more alone them together in Community, geographically distanced from others yet is part of us. I’m drawn today to pray for those in Eastern Europe, for Oxana, Denys, Ruslan, Anton and his family, Jean in Japan, Rosemary in Ethiopia and Bendang in Nagaland.
I am also remembering my mother who died eight years ago. Had she lived she would be 104 today. Precious memories of an amazing mother gave me the greatest ‘attachment theory ‘that any child could ask for. Her unfailing, unconditional love, encouragement and support along with my gentle, generous and loving father provided a stability, security and foundation for my well-being throughout life.
Before the day is out I will return to the liturgy I wrote, In Remembrace of a Good Mother, for Volume 2 of Celtic Daily Prayer:
In you I was formed and given life. You cherished and comforted me; encouraged and enabled me, but now you are gone.
In the absence of separation, where no voice breaks the silence,
in the abandonment that longs for comfort that only a mother can give,
I cry out to the same God who formed you in your mother’s womb,
the mothering God in whose image you were made and to whom I now, in pain and joy give thanks.
Separated from you I cry out, in pain and in thanks, to God,
the mothering God in whose image you were made.
Hear the pain of my heart and heal the wounds of my bereavement.
Turn my tears of sadness into tears of joy.
Rekindle within me the memories that gladden my heart.
Comfort and strengthen me when I feel bereft,
when the child within me cries out for a mother’s love.
Protect me as I wander through this landscape of grief without my
and soothe the bumps and bruises as I stumble onward through this
Fill my memories with thanksgiving and my stories with laughter,
and may my life build on the gifts given me by a life that truly loved.
It’s great to see some other Companions and Friends of the Community, Mary and Simon. The offer of a lift up to Leeds will give Simon and I the opportunity to catch up with one another. Still regarded in some circles as one of our younger leaders, Simon is now middle aged and the church he planted is 27 years old! But he remains an inspirational figure, theologically very astute and remarkably creative and its been a privilege to be both a friend of his and something of a spiritual director accompanying his amazing life journey, as amazing as his wife and children are.
The afternoon witnessed a great session with Andrew Vertigan who heads up the Salvation Army’s Fresh Expressions and Church Planting initiatives. His eloquent, engaging presentation about movements not falling on old ways but being prepared to move onto the new things God is calling us to and unleash a new creative imagining in our church planting.He quoted someone who was a formative figure in my early days as a follower of Christ, David Watson, the vicar of St Michael le Belfry, York who said over 40 years ago, Christian work is crippled by clinging to blessings and traditions of the past. God is not of yesterday. He is the God of today. Heaven forbid that we should go on playing religious games in one corner when the cloud and fire of God’s presence has moved onto another.
The Salvation Army was called 125 years ago to pioneer with 17-25 year olds and particularly young women. Think of that; it was so counter cultural back in the late 1800’s.
The last presentation was from Emma, a young woman from south London who shared about table hospitality; simply inviting neighbours and others in the nearby area to a meal. Simple, at times challenging but so effective in forming friendships, bringing hope, healing, faith and transformation to individuals and improving relationships in a neighbourhood. I came to the conclusion many years ago that it’s when we do the simple things well that significance and transformation is realised. Her moving and honest story sharing only served to confirm my conclusion.
It was good to spend a few minutes with Ann part of the YBA (Yorkshire Baptist Association) team who I now work with in this pioneering role. She exercises both a role with the YBA and being the minister at Harrogate Baptist Church. The church that nurtured me as a very young believer when I came back from Outward Bound in Scotland in the mid 1970’s and where I was baptised, met Shirley and got married in the long hot summer of ’76. I turned up at the church with my old school mate Chris Brain, (yes, Chris of Nine O’Clock service fame that sadly went so badly wrong). We’d both just come to faith, were 17 and there was just a handful of other young people in the church. Ann told me that one of those young people, Lindsay, who has remained in the church, now married and with children, was asking after us. Her parents were fantastic folk; down to earth and so welcoming and encouraging of young people. They opened their home up every Sunday night after the evening service. In the next two years we were privileged to see a movement of the Holy Spirit that saw dozens of young people come to faith and who were baptised. We experienced ‘signs and wonders’ before we even had the language or understanding to articulate it properly and so many of us saw our lives propelled in new directions, including Chris and I into ministry. Would we have done so if we had not been welcomed, encouraged, given responsibilities as young people who were very young believers to take Bible studies, lead groups, take part in the services, etc Looking back on that time, the then minister of the church, Jack Pike, who was very conservative and traditional in his theology and character, took amazing risks in giving us the opportunities to explore God’s calling on our lives. Thank God for churches and leaders who are prepared to recognise potential and encourage young and other emerging leaders. One of the most concerning things I have picked up in conversations with current leaders is an absence of leadership development in our churches and a lack of commitment to succession planning.
The good day in Birmingham dispelled the miserable drizzle that accompanied our journey north. Simon and I had a great time of catching up and sharing and thanks to his navigational skills with google maps on his mobile we managed to miss two severe six mile tailbacks and gridlocks on the A38 and M1 due to accidents. We saw parts of the Shropshire and Derbyshire countryside that were new to both of us, particularly the ‘farm track’ that made that part of the journey like a car rally! Dropped him off in Leeds, popping in to see his lovely family and made my way over to my brother and sister in law’s for a relaxing evening, again enjoying the ‘sacrament’ of a meal and wine and good conversation. A catch up on the phone with Shirley on happenings with her and life at home, she alerts me to the prospect of snow on my returning home tomorrow. The absence of a 4×4 or winter tyres may for once prove a challenge. Driving my new ‘Superb’ car in such conditions will be interesting but having ‘rallied’ with Simon today it held the road well in near ‘off road’ conditions!
Over the last few days I have so appreciated the gift and opportunity to be able to have stimulating conversations about what’s happening in the world, mixing catching up on one another’s lives with humour and some serious discussion. A component to life that is sadly often missing in our contemporary society.
A more relaxed and leisurely start on Thursday morning, I feel encouraged that the reading in Celtic Daily Prayer for today includes, The first invitation of the Desert mothers to us is to stop and seek the space and time to listen. For some, this may take the form of the silent retreat. Brothers, it may entail sitting on the porch after the kids are in bed instead of listening to television. For others, it may mean not answering email getting on the Internet for half a day. Still others may discover it by being in the car alone, with no radio or music playing. The wisdom of the Desert mothers tells us that this way of life does not require a physical desert. It does require creating regular space and time to be still and to be silent. So I do not turn on my computer to look at emails until well after breakfast. Instead, I sit looking out of my brother’s window, observing the dark sky across the fields. The green of the earth carries with it the promise of new life and growth but the black sky is foreboding. Happenings across the world contain both signs of life and death, light and darkness, good and evil. I am thank God for Patrick, one of my grandchildren who is 9 today and wonder just what kind of world my generation has bequeathed him.
I make my way to York to meet with Phil, one of our Regional ministers. For convenience we meet in the lovely hotel by the station but decide against eating lunch there given that my latte cost nearly £5! The nearby pub served burger and chips and whilst not a particularly healthy diet it did avoid us going bankrupt. The journey home, whilst not having to contend with snow, entailed driving on very flooded roads in very blustery conditions as Storm Doris wreaked havoc across the country. After the demands and responsibilities of the previous few days, I enjoy listening to the omnibus edition of the Archers, the world’s longest running radio soap opera. There was a lovely phrase that Miranda, the obnoxious, snobby wife of the city business entrepreneur Justin said when wondering why on earth they had ended up in Ambridge, a ‘godforsaken cultural wasteland…. There’s a dearth of restaurants, bars, culture. What do people do all day!?”
It’s great to be back home with Shirley and the evening is spent relaxing and chilling out. Death in Paradise provides nonsensical and amusing entertainment on the TV before the realities of News at 10, Question Time and the prospects of the two by-election results emerge through the night.
I wake up pleasantly surprised that Labour held onto Stoke, defeating UKIP but any sense of satisfaction was quickly squashed when I learnt that the Conservatives had taken the Copeland seat. Gillian Troughton, a local woman, a former hospital doctor, now ambulance driver and devout Christian stood for Labour in the by-election and lost the seat. If Jeremy Corbyn is decent, honest and honourable I hope that those qualities will enable him to see that he is incapable of uniting a divided party and that he will never be given the opportunity by the public to serve as Prime Minister. I hope that he will stand down because the lack of a coherent and effective opposition to the present government it is not only undermining democracy here in Britain, but to my mind seriously damaging society and route marching us into some very severe and dark days ahead. A conviction that is only deepened by my Skype conversation call with one of our Companions in Community this morning, who alerts me to the deepening crisis in so many parts of Britain as a result of Brexit. We spend time sharing about the changes and developments within the Community and the world and the implications we face to embrace and live out our Rule of Life, Availability and Vulnerability.
I then turn my attention to emails (82 currently in my Inbox) and pulling together a Community team for this years Cliff College Festival in Derbyshire, I am doing so against the backdrop of enormous changes taking place in the church and wider society. The theme in today’s Community Prayer Guide is timely; Embracing Change ~ Europe. We pray for the peace of Europe, asking that the winds of change currently blowing may not trigger the re-emergence of nationalism and extremist political parties that fuel the fires of violence and war.
Much to think and pray about, thoughts to ponder, people to follow up with but to conclude this chronicle of a working week in the life of a pioneer and community leader, some words from Walter Bruegemann: The prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial and expresses hope in a society that lives in despair.
Have a good weekend.