I am visiting such an eclectic range of ‘emerging churches’ (or what- ever you choose to call them). The choice has been largely driven by personal interest, geography and chance! Last Sunday (5th June) I went to Birmingham to visit Sanctuary, an afternoon service currently based in the city centre Church of St. Martins in the Bullring. Sanctuary describe themselves as an Asian style service specifically for British Asians, but open to anyone who wishes to find a safe place to explore their spirituality. I have often travelled to India and I was interested in how they were building bridges to the British Asian community.
Sanctuary meet at 4.30pm on a Sunday afternoon in the café attached to the Church. The room had been transformed with the use of saris, candles, Indian sculptures, sofas and soft lighting. There was also a screen with words and images describing Sanctuary and in the background Asian music from the group Arahdma (an Asian Christian group that I had heard at Greenbelt and who have been very influential for Sanctuary).
There were very few people (around 10 including myself and an Asian friend who had come with me). I was told that this was an unusually small number of people and was given the impression that usually there were at least 20 people.
It was a simple service with the use of a video and music and a chance to offer individual prayers by lighting candles. The main ‘content’ of the service is offered by a different person each week. The week I was there someone gave a presentation on Celtic spirituality. At the end of the service people were invited to individually go to one of the prayer stations at each of which bread and wine were available It wasn’t a communion service in any formal sense but was clearly significant for the individuals. The service was led by Pall Singh, the leader of Sanctuary. I was delighted to be able to briefly speak with him after the service. Pall’s prayers were beautiful and gentle incorporating smatterings of Hindi amongst the English.
After the service food was shared and a small group of homeless men who had gathered at the door were invited to come in and join us. This was clearly a regular occurrence depending on whether there was enough food.
Pall explained that Sanctuary had been going for around 10 years but had changed in venue and focus along the way. Pall himself had been involved in youth work in a full time capacity in a Church he described as ‘white middle class’. It was an evangelical Church which ran things like the Alpha course but wasn’t in any way connecting with the Asian community.
Two things then happened: Pall began to want to explore his own Asian roots and to find connections with his Christian faith and he was also interested in how the Church could reach out to the Asian community more effectively. With a number of friends who were also interested he began doing a few one off events at Christmas, Diwali etc. It became clear, though, that there were people who were interested in something more regular.
Pall, along with a number of others, spent time in prayer and they felt that they had a word from God telling them to offer a place of sanctuary where anyone could come. The idea was not to start another Asian Church but rather to respond to the fact that many British Asians have a foot in two cultures and therefore there is a need for worship that reflects that. Pall described the worship at Sanctuary as ‘focused and centred round Christ but drawing on both traditions’. As Pall said ‘British Asians want pizza and Curry’!
Even in my brief conversation with Pall it was clear that at times it had not been easy in terms of being a bridge builder between the Christian Church and those of other faiths. There were those in the Christian Church who were suspicious of Sanctuary, who were unclear as to their ‘Christian’ credentials. Pall himself had come from an evangelical Church and while Sanctuary had a clear focus in terms of reaching out to the Asian community and an evangelical desire to bring people into a real relationship with Jesus, I sensed that his relationship with the more conservative evangelical Churches was not easy.
The last three years has seen Sanctuary find a home in the Anglican Church. They are funded by the Church Missionary Society (CMS), are an Anglican ‘Fresh Expression’ church and use an Anglican building. Pall himself is not ordained but is the leader of the community. Sanctuary comes under a broader group called East and West Trust for which Pall works (and he may be the only paid worker). East and West promotes understanding between the Asian community and the wider community through lectures and events.
In terms of numbers Pall said that there was a core group of 20 for whom Sanctuary was their Church and there were then around 30 to 50 people who would drop in and out and for whom it was their ‘dessert’. I thought that was a great phrase because clearly many Fresh Expressions churches are functioning as dessert for a lot of people. The broader question, particularly in relation to the funding sustainability, is for how many people is Sanctuary their main course and are they able, in long run, to fund and sustain themselves? Or is this a place of missionary outreach which the main stream Churches should continue to fund?
Pall touched on how Sanctuary is able to build a bridge into faith for those from the Asian community, be a place for people to begin to explore Christianity in a safe and culturally appropriate setting. The choice of St. Martins as a venue in the centre of Birmingham, away from the Asian districts of the city, means that people can come anonymously. For some Sanctuary then remains their main community of faith for others it is a stepping stone into the ‘established’ Church. (you say quite the opposite two paras later!)
I suggested that Sanctuary could also be a way into faith for non-Asian young people, who are attracted by eastern spirituality, and asked whether this was part of their mission focus? Pall said that their clear focus was the Hindu, Sikh and Muslim communities, but that of course anyone was welcome.
It was an interesting group with a clearer mission focus than many of the groups that I have visited. In a sense, they benefited from having a defined focus in terms of whom they wished to reach. For some they were a stepping stone into the established Church but for a core group this is their, i authentic Church community. I didn’t have the opportunity to explore questions around the sacraments (communion, baptism etc)but it would be interesting to see how that develops with their strengthening links with the Anglican Church.