'A Beautiful bit of ruth harvey portrait
Subversive Artistry'

CTE Reflection November 2014
Ruth Harvey, Churches Together in Cumbria

At a recent ecumenical gathering in SW Scotland, while discussing contentious and controversial issues, after a moment of silence, one participant offered: ‘churches together networks are a beautiful bit of subversive artistry’.

My delight was followed by intrigue as we unpacked this image. What she meant was that very close beneath the surface of formal church interaction is a network of people prepared to stand up for a radical interpretation of the gospel, and the life of Jesus that reaches beyond definition and doctrine to a deeper belonging together in the spirit. (For an inspiring reflection on the Quaker approach to ‘belonging in the spirit’, and being ‘open for transformation’, see the 2014 Swarthmore Lecture by Ben Pink Dandelion on YouTube.

So, in what way is Churches Together in Cumbria a ‘beautiful bit of subversive artistry’?

Our flagship project, building a Mission Community in each area of the county, made up of Anglican, Methodist and United Reformed members and leaders, is a beautiful new dance that is being written in this part of NW England. As with any new dance, we’re kind of making it up as we go along, trying to bring the best of our traditions into this new configuration. In the process we are laughing, and sometimes crying. Laughing as we realise that there is no blueprint, we do need to trust one another, God and our instincts. And crying as we discover new steps together, while also treading on one another’s toes.

In the process we are giving birth to a new model of ecumenism which is rooted in mission and a passion for justice. It is also, but not primarily, a pragmatic project: each denomination is aware of decline in membership and leadership. But this project is no last minute flurry, but rather a prayerfully grounded outworking of Jesus’ call ‘that all may be one.’

In the process, this new dance has spin-offs: smaller dances emerging round the edges. It is in these, and more places that I believe we are reaching for the subversive nature of faith that Jesus modelled.

  • ‘Social Responsibility’: Jesus’ bias to the poor is key in the gospel. In Cumbria we already have a well-established and highly respected Social Responsibility Forum, engaging with the third sector and with local and national government to keep the needs of the poorest to the fore. As we work together on a shared mission, it is this bias that we must continue to affirm and adopt as our core mission.
  • ‘Companion Churches’: Jesus kept the door open always to the small, those on the edges, the forgotten ones. As we deepen our relating, the three lead denominations keep the door open to the other 6 member churches of CTiC who are involved as ‘companions’, not yet fully part of Mission Communities, but welcome to join in. And our Church Leaders continue to meet with leaders of smaller, independent churches in the county, always widening the network and remaining open to the surprise of the Holy Spirit.
  • ‘Growing through Conflict’: Jesus did not shy away from conflict, but walked towards it. The letters to and acts of the early church model a startling degree of conflict, and an ability to respond. As we change in Cumbria, we will encounter conflict and tension. So a network of mediators from across the denominations is being trained and equipped to support situations of conflict. The development of Rose Castle near Carlisle as an international centre for reconciliation is a welcome gift.
  • ‘Gender Aware’: Jesus promoted and affirmed the voice and ministry of women amongst his followers. One potential tension in Cumbria is over the role of women in leadership. And so a Gender Aware project is being nurtured through CTiC to broaden our shared understanding of the role of women in the church.
  • ‘Ecumenical Spirituality’: Jesus took himself to places of quiet for reflection in times of stress. Prayer was never far from his lips. Our already existing network of spiritual directors, gathered up in the ‘Ecumenical Spirituality Group’, continues to offer a ‘Nourishing the Soul’ course, and a ministry of availability to all seeking to deepen their spiritual life. This group takes on a new energy and focus as we deepen our structural relationships.

As our new dance in Cumbria takes us outside our comfort zones, offering a ‘refreshed’ (or as in the moto of the Church of Scotland, ‘always in need of reform’) model of church that challenges perceived norms of structure, form and mission, so we must remain alert to peril. We may be forging a new dance, but it certainly won’t be perfect, and will contain many of the pitfalls of the old ways. Complacency and short-sighted historical perspective will remain our companions, but need not cloud our vision as we continue to model a Gospel-inspired, ‘beautiful bit of subversive artistry’ in Cumbria. Come and join the dance!

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