Church of the Apostles (COTA) in Seattle – some reflections on my visit 14th to 17th May

This community describes  itself   as ‘an intentional, sacramental community in the way of Jesus Christ’ . Here is a brief excerpt from their website describing how they came about:

‘Church of the Apostles was launched in November of 2002 (under the auspices of the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia Washington and NW Washington Synod ELCA). Begun as a house church gathering of five young adults, Church of the Apostles has grown into a community of 150 apostles with an average age of twenty-seven. Church of the Apostles seeks to explore new ways of being church and living mission in today’s cultural context and among today’s generations.’

Conversations at a birthday party

Yesterday evening (Saturday) I had the chance to meet some of the community at a birthday party held at one of the community houses. It was a 20 some-things party with a few oldies like me as extras. COTA, as their website suggests, is a young community.

From the few people I chatted to it was clear that, while they are linked to the Lutheran Church and the Episcopal Church, the community is drawn from a wide range of backgrounds. A couple of the women I chatted to came from a southern Baptist background: a young man was a ‘mission kid’ from a very evangelical church: another woman was a Deacon in the Lutheran Church. The question of denominational affiliation is currently very pertinent as they begin to look at constitutions, sustainability, finance of ministry etc.

One comment was that COTA was for evangelical casualties – once again a place for the post-evangelical. The openness of COTA was hugely valued, a place where they were not told what to believe or how to behave but could be in community with people from a broad range of backgrounds and beliefs. Interestingly the person I was speaking to wanted to make it clear that despite this inclusivity at the heart of the community was an affirmation of the creed as a summary of the Christian faith. The importance of the creed in their worship – not on a weekly basis but fairly regularly – was commented on by others that I spoke to.

Coming, as I do, from a denomination that rarely says the creed (if ever!) I was intrigued by the use of the creed as the core statement around which, in a sense, this very disparate Christian community could gather. In many ways, of course, this is about aligning themselves with the very ancient traditions of the Church and giving a sense of historical continuity to a modern relevant congregation. There is also the fact that the creed, while formulating belief, does not come from a modernist mindset and so perhaps connects with a more post-modern sense of mystery.

Speaking later with Ned (long term member of the community with whome we were staying) about the creed he mentioned a comment he had heard from Nadia Bolz-Weber, who leads an Emerging Lutheran congregation in Denver When asked about the creed and the fact that it was difficult to believe it all she said that was fine because some people in the community believed some parts, others other parts, but together as a community they could affirm it all. I thought that was a great post-modern way of approaching the creed and it also emphasised the importance of the community of the Church and moved away from an individualistic mindset. It’s not just about what you as an individual believe but about how as a community together we, in a sense, hold to the ancient faith of the Church.

Another interesting comment from an older member of the COTA community was  her?) sense that COTA did not connect with issues of social justice in the way they would have hoped a Christian community would. This is something that I hope to speak to other members about.

I spent some time talking with a member of the community about the community houses and the constantly changing nature of the COTA community. The community houses have been running for some time – but currently there is only one. They have clearly been an important part of COTA but have always been very fluid and not prescriptive in nature.

I had expected of the houses a defined community with regular prayer times, shared meals etc. But this was clearly not the case – the community houses were defined by the people who lived in them, most but not all of them involved in COTA. They decided among themselves how much they wanted to be connected  to one another in terms of community living. I was struck by how this enabled a great openness within the houses (they were not closed Christian groups) and also how people were left to direct themselves rather than having prescribed forms of living presented to them.

COTA, because of its age demographic is a constantly changing community. As we chatted I reflected on the similarities to the community at Keele where we have a more structured changing congregation with the annual departure and arrival of new students. In many ways what we have to face is not dissimilar to communities like COTA who work with a fractionally older, but often equally mobile, community.

Financial sustainability is difficult with a young congregation who may well not be earning a great deal (if anything) and who may dip in and out of the community. There is a lack of denominational affiliation (something that is so marked among our young congregation at Keele) and therefore a lack of interest in how the community relates structurally to the wider Church.  Yet ,at the same time, there is a recognition by a number that for sustainability and accountability there needs to be some sort of connection with the wider Church and that will inevitably require some form of denominational affiliation.

Joining COTA for worship – but first some history

On Sunday afternoon we joined the COTA community for their weekly 5pm service. It was interesting to hear how, when COTA started, the weekly service was on a Saturday and that, for many, it had felt quite a sacrifice to move to Sunday. The move to Sunday had come about because the Arts Centre, where they met (more below), really needed to be able to have the venue on Saturday nights.

Fremont Abbey

COTA meets in Fremont Abbey – an arts centre based in a Lutheran Church. But that is not where COTA began. It was started by Karen Ward, a Lutheran pastor with the vision and ability to think outside the box. It began with a few people in her home and then for a good many years it met in ‘The Living Room‘, a coffee shop across the road.

When COTA was in The Living Room, Karen effectively ran a coffee shop and arts venue during the week along with the few staff members she had as part of the COTA team (Music Director, Liturgical Director and some others, I believe). What struck me was that the success of COTA was based on the combination of vision with substantial financial investment by the churches.  There was one key person with the ability to connect creatively with those on the edge of faith but there was also money to fund brilliant music, consistent liturgy, community events. This didn’t just ‘happen’: it involved considerable financial investment from the churches.

 It seemed that The Living Room had functioned as a real focus of community. It was widely used by those with nothing to do with the Church – bands were booked, arts events happened. It was a vibrant coffee shop –cum-arts centre. It was in that context that the worship of the COTA community would happen on a late Saturday afternoon and I sensed that, rather than only gathering for worship, it would organically flow into a time of socialising and friendship. The very context of the Living Room helped to break down the sacred/secular split. This was a place where you could worship and have a real community and friendship with people like you.

I wasn’t clear exactly how the move to the Abbey across the road came about. The building was a disused Lutheran Church and whether it was given or loaned to the community I am not sure. What is clear is that the current financial difficulties are linked to the need to now pay the mortgage for the Abbey which was not something the community previously had to do. This of course raises the question as to when an emerging/young congregation is expected to carry the full financial responsibilities and whether the Church needs to think in terms of a longer term ‘subsidy’ of such congregations. In a sense the Church has always recognised that particular church communities (students  in my case!) will not be able to support themselves financially and have invested long term. But the Church also needs to use its resources wisely and at times even emerging/young congregations need to face the financial realities.

The move to the Abbey involved a greater separation than there had been between the arts centre and the COTA community. The Abbey had its own staff and agenda, which complemented but was not, it seemed to me, as closely connected as The Living Room had been to the COTA community. I was unclear as to the financial connection between the two. One event that was mentioned which clearly connected both elements at the Abbey was something called The Round. This happened monthly, I believe, and had started in The Living Room. It was an Open Mic evening but also involved some visual arts –  music, poetry, painting etc and a creative gathering which was open to all.

As people talked about the Abbey and the connection between the arts and COTA it reminded me of Sanctus 1 and I reflected that I really needed to go back and properly visit that community and the arts centre there to get a better feel for what is going on.

Back to the service! It was held in an empty hall which had been transformed by an altar surrounded by a number of large candles, a screen with PowerPoint and beautiful visuals, a large life-size modern icon, rows of white fold -out seats and some sofas and toys at the back.  There were about 30 people plus kids I would think, and I suspect there may often be more. The worship was a fusion of contemporary and liturgical; there was a sense of mystery and drama but with a very modern  and informal style.


The music was crucial and was of a really high quality. There were 2 electric guitars, a drummer and singer. It was contemporary but not using ‘worship songs’ rather adapted ‘ancient’ songs, psalms and prayers. They had a really gifted music leader who held the service together in an unobtrusive way. It really reminded me of what Charles and I are trying to do with the Ten:15 service at Keele, but better! (Although Emily said Ten:15 can be as good – but she was probably just being nice!)

COTA Altar

The service began with singing and two people processing in with a cross and candle (no robes, just trendy 20 something Seattle clothes required!) There was a psalm, sung and read to a modern musical setting. The entry for the Gospel was dramatic and effective – one person confidently and slowly walking in with the gospel held high as if they were stretching to the sky. The music that accompanied it was a Taize ‘Alleluia’ as you have never heard it before! Funky guitar and strong drum beat: it was really effective. There was a children’s talk (a new thing for the community) and sermon (called ‘reverb’). Everything was led by different members of the community but it flowed smoothly and easily.

Following the ‘reverb’ there was something called ‘open space’. This was about 10 minutes where people could move around to a variety of prayer stations and provided people with space for private prayer and the opportunity to think about the message. There was background reflective music.

The communion was led  by Josh, their current priest/pastor who is standing in during the vacancy (Karen left around Christmas time). He had no role in the service beyond celebrating the communion. From my low Church background I found it strange that the rest of the service was community led and then suddenly the ‘priest’ popped up!

Again, during communion, the use of music was impressive and reminded me of what we try, and so often don’t manage, to pull off at Keele. Contemporary music in the background, a sung modern Sanctus, a reflective Agnus Dei. I was also struck by the fact that rice crackers as a gluten free option were automatically offered and that we don’t, despite having those with gluten intolerance in our congregation, offer an alternative at communion – what does that say about our welcome and inclusion?

Directly after the service I managed to talk to Lacey, the Music Director. She was the only person during my time at COTA whom I interviewed on film! I was so struck by the quality of music and what a difference it made to the service. I was also aware, as someone who leads and plans worship, that a service like that doesn’t ‘just happen’ and I was interested in the process.

The first thing that struck me as significant was that Lacey was employed 20 hours a week as Music Director and had been in post almost since the beginning of COTA. They had invested in high quality music recognising that it was vital to have music that would connect with younger people. Lacey was clearly very gifted and wrote and adapted a lot of music herself. In the beginning COTA had paid some of the musicians as well but now they are all volunteers.

The worship (or liturgy as they call it) is planned by a Liturgy Guild. It is an open group and people are invited to come and help plan for a season (Advent, Lent, Pentecost etc). When Karen was at COTA  she and Lacey along with the Liturgy Director (another paid post in the early days) would be the key people on the group – but it remained open for anyone else to get involved.

The group brain-storms and then delegates jobs within the worship. The only aspect reserved for the minister/priest is celebrating communion. Even when they had Karen as a full time minister she would often only preach a couple of times a month. There was clearly a sense of shared ownership of the worship/liturgy and the fluid and open membership of the group enabled a fresh creativity. But it was also clear that Lacey as the paid member of staff currently held the whole thing together, even if that was in a very gentle way.

After the service there was a shared meal for those who wished to stay – this was a new venture (week 3) and was the vision of two people who had recently joined the COTA community and were looking to starting a café in the Abbey. The food was unusual and delicious and all vegetarian. It gave an opportunity for open hospitality (and for me the chance for more conversation!)

Emily had a long chat with the two people  and found their vision of mission through hospitality very inspiring. They had previously been travelling around Eastern Europe setting up cafés and using them as places to minister to people through food. They had come to COTA with a similar vision, the idea of meeting people where they are, of offering them good food and engaging in meaningful relationships with people through that ministry of hospitality.

The welcome of newcomers was clearly good at COTA and always had been. In the service newcomers were invited to a meal and/or the opportunity to meet with a COTA regular for coffee and chat. There was an expectation of new people and a system for welcome and inclusion.

Josh, the priest who is covering the vacancy  (just 10 hours a week) commented that it is a very involved community. If people are part of COTA then they are usually actively part of it. There was a young man who had only been coming for 3 months but was already helping in the kitchen. Belonging was primary, adherence to any formulated set of beliefs was secondary.

I was reminded of how I work at Keele, encouraging involvement as a way into the community (badgering people to help with stuff is the other way people look at it!!) Emily commented on the contrast with the church she is currently attending where you have to have been coming for at least 6 months before you are allowed to help with anything (including serving coffee!)

Over dinner I chatted with couple of people from COTA who are involved in a group called ‘St Julians’. It is a loosely formed group of those with an interest/gift in pastoral care. It seemed to be a place where prayer would be offered for those in need in the community, but also the group would notice if an individual hadn’t been around for a while, or seemed to be having a tough time. As with COTA generally it was an organic and fluid group, no prescribed way of functioning but a place where, in a sense, some of the pastoral needs of the community were held.

Dinner with Karen Ward

On Monday evening we had the chance to join Karen (the founder of COTA) and Ned and Jeanette for dinner. It was an evening where conversation ranged back and forward from life at COTA, past   and present, to the joys of Greenbelt (UK Christian Arts festival) to which we discovered we were all going!

COTA is at an important point in its life and there are many challenges ahead. Karen was clearly a central person in the community, its founder with vision and flair and therefore the point when she moved on would never be easy – but it clearly has been a more painful process than anyone expected.  A real testimony to Karen’s leadership, though, is the continuing sense of strength and purpose within in the community. There are clearly ‘rocks’ in that community (like Ned and Jeanette, and many others whom we did not get to know so well) who give the community depth and strength, along with new and innovative people who continue to provide the creative flare at the heart of COTA. I would love to come back in 5 years time and see how COTA has grown and changed.



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