One of my friends described my research method as one based on serendipity as the choice of Emerging Churches that I am visiting has been largely based on the distribution of friends and family around the country!
Last weekend (30th April/1stMay) we were staying with my mother-in-law in Bristol so I took the opportunity to visit Foundation, an Emerging Church/Fresh Expression that has been around since 2005. Foundation meets on a Sunday evening in Cotham Parish Church in Bristol (near the University).
Below are edited extracts from my meeting with them. The audio quality is pretty poor.
Foundation followed on from Resonance which had been part of the Alternative Worship movement. Resonance mostly produced large scale worship events involving a lot of creative preparation and technological set-up. It became clear to those involved that it was not sustainable long-term and so Foundation was born with a pattern of ‘little-services’ most weeks and about every 4 to 6 weeks a ‘big-service’.
The week I went was a ‘little-service’, and as with Sanctus 1, it was probably a ‘low’ week in terms of numbers (week after Easter, royal wedding weekend etc). I arrived early and there was no sign on the notice board out-side nor on the front door that this was where Foundation met. So frequently in Church communities we forget the basics – expect newcomers and make it easy for them to come in!
Anna, who has been involved with Foundation since its beginning, was there setting up. She welcomed me with a cup of tea and as I was early I helped set-up. The Church was a standard Anglican Church but with clear signs of a lively worship life (children’s toys, huge wicker tree behind the altar decorated with flowers etc).
Foundation used the space behind the altar; a carpeted area with a semi-circle of chairs. Cushions were scattered, a small screen and projector were put up and a tray of candles placed in front of a large Taize cross. Slowly people arrived, nearly all in their twenties I would guess, we were about 8 people in total.
The worship was led in a gentle informal style by Anna and was reflective and simple. There was a book of prayers and liturgies that had been put together for Foundation ‘little services’ that Anna used alongside some images and personal reflections.
Chatting afterwards to some of those who were gathered it was clear that a couple of them went to other Churches on a Sunday morning while for some this was ‘their Church’. We headed off to the pub (the usual post service social) and I had the opportunity to interview Adam and Anna, both of whom had been involved with Foundation since it began.
For Adam, Foundation had been a way back into ‘Church’. The openness was very important to him; this was a place to journey, to explore questions, not a place for hard and fast answers. Community was also crucial; it was a network of friends. There were community meals, meetings for those with kids. It was somewhere you could bring your friends along to.
Adam used the phrase ‘we are all sharing the burden of this journey of faith’ , in otherwords there was not an expectation that faith would be easy but the journey would be one where you travelled with companions. He also used the phrase ‘safe space’ as a description of the ethos of Foundation.
But there was also a sense of sitting lightly to things – things happened for a while and then they stopped and that was fine. I had previously looked at their website and it was clear that a number of groups that used to meet were no longer doing so but there was a sense that it didn’t matter. It was about responding to people’s interests, energies etc not prescriptively holding onto things. It was the fluidity of a group of friends.
Foundation Families had started when a number of those involved started having kids. It was interesting to note that instead of changing their weekly meeting (as Sanctus 1 had done) they had opted for additional occasional meetings for families. Foundation Families might visit a farm and then look at the creation story; integrated worship and play. With regards to the Sunday evening worship a number of those with kids enjoyed alternating who would come who would stay at home while others were beginning to explore a more traditional Church for Sunday mornings.
Like Sanctus 1, Foundation had also fairly recently been through a time of change with the departure of their ‘founder’. They had had to look at their ‘structures’ and leadership. Foundation had begun as an additional service of Cotham Parish Church because the Parish Priest had started the group. When he moved the group made the decision to function separately (while still meeting in the Church). They had clearly worked hard on producing a constitution that reflected the openness and independence of the group while trying to keep a level of accountability and Christian focus at the heart.
The question of membership had been tough. Many of those who came to Foundation were casualties of very prescriptive Churches and were therefore resistant of anything that smacked of a formal set of beliefs. On the other hand this was clearly a Christian community and wanted to keep that at the heart. In the end they came up with an interesting definition – to be a member of Foundation you had to be baptised and/or seeking to follow Jesus. You also needed to have been involved in some sort of Foundation ‘activity’ for 3 months.
From this broad based ‘membership’ group a leadership team of 7 was elected annually with a rolling 3 year term and a defined gender balance (at least 3 women). There were also two ‘critical friends’ on the leadership team (two ordained ministers) who come to meetings, and occasionally to services and offer a level of accountability and critical support. It seemed to be a group that took shared leadership seriously and had put structures in place to enable that to happen. It had begun with the vision and inspiration of one person but it continued with the shared hard work and creativity of a much larger group.
They remained linked to the Anglican Church and relied on their two ‘critical friends’ to come and preside at communion every 6 weeks or so. They financed themselves in terms of publicity etc but relied on the ‘free’ space offered by Cotham Parish Church and the ‘free’ support of their critical friends.
Foundation had clearly chosen to define itself independently of the Parish Church and the freedom to lead and plan worship, to develop their own models of discipleship, was very important to them. But there was also a sense that it could be hard work running the show with a small team of volunteers and that at times it would be great to have the back-up of a ‘paid’ minister/worker.
I couldn’t help but wonder if Foundation wouldn’t have been more effective if it could have remained under the umbrella of a local Church community but with the freedom to explore worship, develop groups, to grow as a community in all the ways they are doing. Is there something about the power relationship between those who are ordained, or paid by the ‘established’ church and those who are seeking to develop new ways that makes people resistant to a more formal connection?
I raised the question of who Foundation was for, and Adam, very honestly, said that it was maybe for people on their way out of the Church as much for people on their way back! As with Sanctus 1, a good number of people who came along to Foundation were also involved with other Churches. But there was also a core group for whom this was very much their Church.
Foundation is a small community, with the ‘Big service’ maybe getting 30 people and the ‘Little Service’ maybe 10 to 15. There did not seem to be a huge impetus for growth, although people spoke of how it was a place you could bring your friends to. Clearly it was a community that was ‘fruitful’ for those who came, a place that had ‘kept’ them in the Christian community at a time when they might have left, somewhere they had space to ‘safely’ explore their faith journey.
At the heart of Foundation there was a building of community with people of similar age and outlook. It was about creating an open space for questions, for exploring issues of faith. It was not rocket science – not new fancy worship – but real community, friendship for a generation who have felt out of place in the Church. This won’t (I suspect) reach the un-churched, but it might be a home for those who have grown-up in the Church but find it a place where they are culturally out of place and have no contemporaries to share the journey with.