This weekend I have had three different experiences of innovative church.
On Friday I went over to the east end of London to meet with the East London Anabaptist Study Circle. If I expected a group of people who would sit in a circle and study and make erudite comments, I was in for a culture shock!
Wapping is in a poor part of the city of London which was particularly hard hit during the Blitz in the Second World War. A huge influx of immigrants from all over the world has had an enormous impact on the face of the community since then, but so has the major redevelopment that took place in this area during the Margaret Thatcher years.
I had been invited for supper at the home of Karen Stallard and her friend Ruth. Karen is a psychiatric nurse and Ruth a teacher, and they are two leaders in Wapping Community Church, a new and very fragile church plant started by the folks at Urban Expression, a church planting organization wanting to do mission amongst the poor of the city. Over supper Karen and Ruth told me a bit about their background and about their vision for the Geoff Ashcroft Community (you can find out more about the Geoff Ashcroft Community here – and please do follow the links, it’s something really exciting and worthwhile).
After supper we went over to another home where a group of about ten people gathered for the Anabaptist study group. They were all younger people, pretty well all of them involved in Urban Expression, and obviously a bunch of enthusiastic mavericks with a strong sense of mission and a willingness to try and to fail if need be. Our study for the evening consisted of playing ‘Dutch Blitz’, a Mennonite card game! It was fast and furious and I was soundly defeated at it! I did get some conversations in, but the evening took a very different shape from what I had expected! Fair enough – as my brother likes to say, Christianity is meant to be a doing religion, not just a talking religion!
I got back to the London Mennonite Centre quite late – around 11.30 – and had some preparations to make for the next day, so it was about 12.15 by the time I got to bed. I was up again at 6.30 to catch a train down to south London, to Battersea, for ‘Workshop’ – a course in Christian discipleship. You can find out about it here, and again, please do follow the link because I don’t have time or space to tell you all about this wonderful year-long course.
The weekend was held in a primary school, with the main sessions taking place in an assembly hall and breakout groups in various other places. About forty people were there; after opening worship we had a two-part session on Old Testament wisdom literature – Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs. The woman who was teaching the section on Ecclesiastes and Job mentioned her gratitude that such books are allowed to be in the Bible; she had this past month been diagnosed with breast cancer, she said, and it was good to know that doubts and questions are allowed. I really appreciated that. After a coffee break we had a session on healing which was quite different – the teachers are all volunteers and each put their particular stamp on the subjects in question.
I was getting very tired now, but after lunch we had a small group time. Apparently the small groups had chosen ethical topics to debate; in each group one person facilitated the debate and two people had prepared opposing viewpoints on the subjects – in the case of the group I was in, on ‘Euthanasia’. After they had spoken, the other group members got involved and a lively (and very respectful) discussion ensued. I thought this was a great model, but the obvious level of trust in the group helped make for a good atmosphere.
By now I was very tired and decided to skip out on the rest of ‘Workshop’ and take a break for the rest of the weekend. I was a bit disappointed as I had been looking forward to the whole weekend, but my body was telling me otherwise.
Today (Sunday) instead of going back to ‘Workshop’ I went over to St. James’ Anglican Church in Muswell Hill. This is another lively Evangelical church, like St. Mary’s Maidenhead where I went last weekend. My observation is that a lot of Anglicans in England seem far less bothered about ‘Anglican identity’ than we are in Canada! I had walked past St. James’ several times and been attracted by their colourful signs and the fact that they have a coffee shop built on to the side of the church, with a small bookstore.
I went to the 9.30 service there this morning; I arrived at 9.15 to the sounds of the music group and choir singing ‘In Christ Alone’. They practiced a few more songs while I was waiting for the service to start, and then they broke up into groups of three at the front and committed their work of leading worship to the Lord in prayer.
I was warmly welcomed by the greeters, who soon found out that I was visiting from Canada. In fact, I have to say that this was one of the most welcoming churches I have ever been in. The greeters were warm without being overly smothering; the vicar was wandering up and down the aisle chatting with people, and when he saw that I was new he made a point of coming over to chat. There was an older man who seemed to be ‘patrolling’ the aisle smiling at people, shaking their hands and pointing them to seats, and during the greeting time in the service the people around me all greeted me and asked if I was a visitor and all that.
Notice I said ‘seats’. No more pews at St. James’ – at least, not in the main worship area – the side aisles still had a few, but they were not being used. The main part of the nave had been covered with a warm red carpet, and chairs with red cushions took the place of pews. This made for a very warm atmosphere, and I thought how easy it would be to stack the chairs and use this great space for other things midweek! What great stewardship of space (I noticed that even Westminster Abbey has no pews, by the way!).
I took my seat about two thirds of the way back. I was one of the first ones there, and as people arrived they all came and sat in front of me! In most Anglican churches I know the back third would have filled up first, but not here! There was a buzz of conversation as people came in; the congregation was very young with a high percentage of families with children. The atmosphere was mainly informal; some people dressed up for church, but most dressed informally. They have six services a Sunday: 8.00 Communion, 9.30 and 11.00 Morning Worship, 2.30 Spanish Church, 5.00 and 7.00 other strange stuff! I would guess about two hundred people were at the 9.30 service.
The service was led partly by the vicar and partly by the music team. It was not a Eucharist and the liturgical element was kept to a minimum. Here is the outline:
- Opening song (‘Crown Him with Many Crowns’)\
- Confession and Promise of Forgiveness
- Songs (‘His Love Endures Forever’ and ‘Who is There Like You?’)
- Children left for their groups (not called ‘Sunday School’) – vicar encouraged us to greet each other and have a few minutes’ conversation.
- Apostles’ Creed
- Prayers for the Church and the World, led by someone from the congregation, not using a litany but a prepared, ‘conversational style’ prayer.
- The Lord’s Prayer
- ‘Church family news’
- Song (‘There’s No Other Name that is Higher’)
- Reading: Acts 16:11-34
- Sermon (the fourth in a series on ‘Great Conversions’).
- Song (‘In Christ Alone’)
- Final Prayer
Clergy did not robe or wear clerical collars, and no titles were printed in the bulletin, just the names of their jobs (e.g. ‘Vicar: Alex Ross’). The sermon was preached by their ‘Minister for Mission’, a lovely title I think! The songs were printed in the bulletin and also thrown up on a screen at the front of the church.
After church there was coffee at the back and also out in the parish centre where the bookstore is. There was also prayer in one of the side chapels; I went for prayer for some health issues and was warmly welcomed and prayed for by the people there.
I was impressed and excited by St. James’, Muswell Hill. A lot of people back home would turn their noses up at this and say it wasn’t a proper Anglican service, but the Gospel was preached and people are obviously being led to Christ and mobilized in mission for him. I certainly felt I met God there, and the sermon was very nourishing. I applaud the willingness of these folks to innovate and do something outside the Anglican norm.