From Kernow to Cumbria: Missional Relationships and Loosening Structures

Ben Aldous, CTE’s Principal Officer for Evangelism and Mission, reflects on how the most fruitful mission-shaped endeavours almost always have some key themes we can learn from.

Ben Aldous, CTE’s Principal Officer for Evangelism and Mission, reflects on how the most fruitful mission-shaped endeavours almost always have some key themes we can learn from…

This past week has seen an epic amount of travel as I started at Churches Together in Cornwall, speaking as part of the filling station, and ended in Cumbria at the Fresh Expressions Threads day, arriving home at past midnight on the Saturday. Being away is tough some weeks on my little family, but I’m beginning to build up a bigger picture of what is happening across England, and how the most fruitful mission-shaped endeavours almost always have some key themes, as well as some other bits and pieces.

As part of my role at CTE, I am secretary to a number of groups that attempt (I purposely use that word) to gather key denominational leaders to share, think, reflect and pray together what it means to work in partnership.

This past week I hosted a day for those working in the area of housing. The Group for New Housing Areas has been in existence for about 18 years and has done some really interesting work (read more about it here).

We got to hear from Tim Norwood who is Area Dean in Milton Keynes. The story of 50 years of church in a new housing space. Milton Keynes has grown to become one of the largest regional centres with more growth expected. Besides hearing the ebb and flow of churches that have sprung up but also fallen by the wayside, a key issue that came out was around the transition to second generation leadership. How do new contextual churches plan for transition right from the outset? What structures at denominational level need to change in order to facilitate better appointments? Does the appointments system itself need an overhaul? What type of training needs to be in place when pioneer leaders are in the formation process? Can we make more use of the pioneer spectrum and the complexities and charisms of first and second generation leaders? It seems there is much to muse and reflect upon in our scheduled meeting for 2020.

Then I hopped on to a train Cumbria.

Everyone in ecumenical circles talks about Cumbria being a shining example of what it means to work together at denominational level. In Cumbria, they say, it’s second nature. So, part of my visit was to check that out for myself.

Part of that is the God for all project This is a partnership between Anglicans, Methodists, The United Reformed Church and The Salvation Army. So, is ecumenism the lifeblood and the default position for churches in the county? I think so, for both a careful balance of pragmatic reasons (diminishing numbers in inherited church means that there really is little choice to work in silos) and bolstered by an intentionality to do things together at every turn.

So, I’ll reflect on a few of the key things I saw…

1. Relationships, relationships, relationships

It’s so obvious that it seems a bit stupid to point it out again, but where things are flourishing, healthy and innovative its largely down to quality relationships.

I spent a lovely morning in Kirkby Lonsdale right down on the South of the county of Cumbria (almost on the edge of the Yorkshire dales) in the biggest rectory I’ve seen in a long time simply listening to what is happening in the Rainbow Parish.

Firstly, I was struck by the lack of ego. Richard, the Rector, and Wendy the Team Vicar shared how the idea that she apply to the post of team Vicar was almost a throw away idea… that grew into an application. Wendy, a Methodist, and Richard, an Anglican, work well together – although there are issues around governance and decision-making, these are secondary.

At the Threads day on the Saturday (a gathering of fresh expressions people and those interested from across the North) I was again struck by the fact that where things were thriving there was an open handedness, a willingness to allow space for people to lead all flowing from relationships.

And on reflection in my post over the last five months, it’s relationship building that is absolutely central to all ecumenical work. I gathered some leaders recently and one Orthodox priest came to me after the meeting and said, “Do you know why I came to this meeting today? It was because of you. I came to this because you took the time to meet me and get to know me.”

Again, it seems obvious as followers of Jesus but listening, being genuinely interested in each other’s lives, beyond the work is essential. I’ve been in meetings where the work of ecumenism feels more important than the people doing the work. There is little future in that.

2. Structures follow mission not the other way around

Again, this follows on from the first point in the recent shaping of ecumenism. If mission and ministry are about following the missionary Spirit, then we probably won’t know quite how things will turn out and we won’t necessarily have structures in place. The nature of collaboration on the ground may cause some structural havoc on occasion. This is fine. In essence don’t stop doing something because a system hasn’t been created yet. You may have to decommission a structure. Or ignore it. At the Threads day we were encouraged to kill some sacred cows if necessary for the sake of mission and connecting with those far off. Hamburger anyone? 

3. Genuine listening

Back to Kirkby Lonsdale. We all know that church buildings are both a resource, and, at times, a burden. I was deeply impressed by the work of the folk behind the big vision project, partly because there was a genuine desire to listen to the community. For three consecutive Thursdays members of the team did a listen exercise asking the townsfolk about how they would like to see the buildings used…and why it was valuable to them (read responses here). As a vicar I wish I had understood (not that I wasn’t told, I just chose to ignore it) the residual religious memory that people have about the churches buildings in their midst. Even though they may never come in them more than once a year (or less) there is, in the English psyche, I think, a connection. There is a need for sacred space when overwhelmed, distraught or afraid. There are great plans to use the church, rectory, glebe field and a heritage site called cockpit hill in creative and dynamic ways… just not sure quite what they are yet.

4. Fragility and weaknesses are vital

In all this there is an inherent fragility. Financial resources are limited. Numbers in the inherited church are continuing to fall (although brilliantly around 3,000 people are part of a fresh expression of church in the county). There are decreased numbers of clergy. It’s difficult to recruit new ordinands, who want to stay within the M25. Some denominations are choosing not to replace clergy as there are no funds to do so.

In Kirkby Lonsdale they have employed someone to reach out to families and children through the family project. It was refreshing to hear Rector Richard say, “It’s not about bums on seats. It’s not about getting these families into church. It’s bigger than that – this is about kingdom -seeing families and children flourish where they are.” On one level what is happening in Cumbria is both impressive and yet wonderfully ordinary. Therein lies its power. It’s vulnerability makes it somewhere worth visiting…