A church taking shape

Rev Dr Ben Aldous uncovers the ecumenical roots of a growing worship community in Northstowe in Cambridgeshire.

Are ecumenical churches planting new ecumenical churches? In many cases, probably not, but my recent visit with Rev Dr Beth Cope (Anglican pioneer minister with ecumenical superpowers and leader of Pathfinder Church) in Northstowe in Cambridgeshire left me feeling encouraged about the future.

Marketed as “a unique 21st century town”, and a “healthy new town”, the first residents moved in to Northstowe almost 5 years ago in May 2017. Like many new towns or housing areas its story is not quite so new.  Archaeological excavations have uncovered traces of life in the Iron Age and possibly earlier. More recently, much of the land was used by RAF Oakington: part of the Pathfinder Force guiding night-time raids over Europe during World War 2 (yes, that’s where the church gets its name). By 2034 it will be a town of around 25,000 residents.

But it’s also a place that has had Christians from across denominations praying, reflecting and planning about how to bring the story of Jesus to the place for a number of years. A planning application for Northstowe was first submitted in July 2005. Around that time Peter Wood from neighbouring Cambourne and the Country Ecumenical Officer Priscilla Barlow from Cambridgeshire met and worked with others to consider an ecumenical partnership in Northstowe.

The delays to the building of Northstowe caused by the 2008 financial crash became an ecumenical Achilles heel. Had there not been a delay to the start of the estate to 2016 it was likely that a robust ecumenical partnership would have been established; as it had in Cambourne.

Yet, all was not lost and when things finally got off the ground, the Anglicans (who had built the primary school) bought a house on the estate and committed to pay the stipend of Beth for five years as well as offering some seed funding to get things off the ground. They also set up a Baptist mentor for her first year, to help embed the ecumenical vision.

Beth was licenced to minister in the community in September 2018 starting, perhaps a bit unusually, with a service in a spare school classroom, surrounded by playdoh and fruit bowls, with the Archdeacon arriving by motorbike armed with a guitar. A handful of people came along to ‘see’ quite what this was all about.

An essential ingredient in this story is that although Beth is an ordained Anglican pioneer she is decidedly ecumenical in temperament and formation. Whilst Pathfinder Church may be Anglican on the label, it feels different. Beth was part of the ecumenical Cambourne Church, which was started in 2001, as a Church of England, Baptist Union, United Reformed Church, and Methodist Church partnership.

CTE’s Ben Aldous with Beth Cope and Becky Ecclestone from the Pathfinder Church

Ecumenical backstory

Whilst Northstowe isn’t an LEP, Beth is very passionate about seeing churches really working alongside each other and drawing on the gifts of other traditions. She is clear that their ecumenical backstory shapes any vision for their church. She wants to bring the gifts of other traditions into the community – whether a Lent series using “Wesley’s Wisdom” to explore spiritual disciplines, or helping a URC trainee minister to find ways of expressing their own tradition as they led worship while on placement in Northstowe. Beth acknowledges her canonical obedience as a priest with legal obligations, whilst longing to stretch those boundaries in response to the needs of the community as those of all traditions and none start to gather.

Beth and the team at Pathfinder church are doing a brilliant job in noticing how God is at work forming God’s church. Their ability to encourage, nurture and release is already in evidence. To intentionally work at being more ecumenical, both structurally and spiritually it will need committed, creative and courageous leadership. In many ways it’s much easier to work alone and just plough our own furrow. But seeing, and grabbing opportunities to work together reveals God’s heart for unity. The ecumenical potential at Northstowe is enormous at a time when churches must surely consider how they work together more closely.

If you are interested in working ecumenically on new housing estates read more on our new housing page and consider bringing a team to the new housing summit on 21 June at Regents Hall on Oxford Street, London later this year. Contact CTE’s Principal Officer for Mission and Evangelism, Rev Dr Ben Aldous, for more information.