Shaping a community of hope
This story is written in the context of a time of epochal change. As churches awaken to how deeply implicated they are in this unraveling of all things, leaders are being shaken, recognising their training has not prepared them for this moment. But in this descending darkness, God is calling into being communities of hope that will be patiently formed to join with the Spirit in an emerging story that will reweave the life of a desiccated world. Here, Roy Searle of the Northumbria Community and Alan J Roxburgh of The Missional Network describe a journey of the Spirit unfolding in an old sports pavilion in the middle of a park in Birmingham. As you read this story, perhaps you can sense ways in which you can participate in bringing to birth communities of hope where you live?
In the late 70’s Martin and Lynda Robinson along with friends planted a church (Trinity) in Birmingham. Several years later (1987), the Trinity community moved to a rental hall in Rowheath Pavilion in Bournville. Bournville, the home of Cadbury chocolate, has an amazing history of Christian imagination shaped by its founder, George Cadbury (1839-1922). Cadbury was a Quaker who saw the appalling social conditions created by the Industrial Revolution and its factories. Along with his brother he sought ways of addressing the social evils industrialization brought. Practically and concretely, the brothers built a model village for Birmingham workers together with schools, churches and community buildings . The conviction that the gospel called us into our local communities to reweave social life was deeply embedded in the story of this part of Birmingham. George Cadbury founded a Trust, Bournville Village Trust, to protect this vision and nearly ninety years later Trinity Church rented a hall in one of the most iconic community buildings, Rowheath Pavilion. It was at that point, in 1987, that Mary Publicover and her husband, Steve, turned up at Rowheath to be a part of a church that was a few hundred yards from their home. They did, indeed, dwell as God’s people where they lived as a family. Over these thirty-six years, Mary has seen the church shaped in this dwelling by many adventures. Alongside this Rowheath journey, Mary and Lynda have been at-large Companions of the Northumbria Community. Northumbria is a dispersed network of companions united in their desire to explore a monastic way of living in their local communities through a Rule of Life.[i] Daily Office is a practice of this rule and a life of stability. These practices shaped Mary and Lynda as they participated in the life of the Rowheath congregation.
Rowheath Pavilion not only had a large hall for the church to meet in but changing rooms for football players, smaller meeting rooms and a pub-like gathering space. It was managed by a group called the “Rowheath Centre Trust”. In early days those directing the Trust and those using the Pavilion and its fields (players etc.) were somewhat resentful of the little congregation and ambivalent toward its presence. Much hard, patient relational work had to be put in by the church community to build the relational connections that would shape their coming years. In the midst of this, the Rowheath Centre Trust went bankrupt. Because the church had been working at its relational capital, Bournville Village Trust asked them to manage the building and its surrounding grounds. This turned out to be far more than simply an extended rental agreement. The church eventually became responsible for the oversight and management of the Pavilion and its parkland and sports fields. They’d been handed something others had failed to achieve but saw this as a sacred trust from God, an incredible opportunity for shaping a community of hope in that place. Unexpectedly, they had gone from being renters to lease holders in a way that enabled them to incarnate Christ’s life. They were now dwelling deeply in their local context.
Out of this new relationship the church embarked on many adventures shaped by an entrepreneurial imagination. As Mary described it, they “fiddled about” and tried lots of experiments on a small scale, a mothers and toddlers, a chaplaincy drop in, fairs and festivals. Many of these experiments only lasted for a brief period; most were carried out on a shoestring. They set up a “tea room” that consisted of a hot water urn, tea pot and not much more. It was a little step that didn’t last long and never got established. But they were testing and exploring ways of being God’s people where they dwelt. Lots of mistakes were made; they didn’t always count the cost and some suffered burnout. But something was happening in the midst of all this. Rowheath was emerging not just as a church meeting place, but a local community centre. All of this was happening through members like Martin and Lynda, Mary and Steve, embedded in their church, in their own local community.
Around 2008 things began to accelerate for the church. Circumstances brought a group of students to the Pavilion who were able to undertake a community survey. Their survey asked the community what they would like to see at Rowheath. The answer that came back was “a cafe and a playground”. The church was expanding and deepening its relationships with the community. On the basis of the survey they brought together people from the church and the neighbourhood to raise funds and build a playground. In this creative partnership everyone was working together for a common good. There was a sense everyone was in, carrying the load and doing the work. It was really physical stuff – digging foundations and post holes, hauling dirt and building structures. This was a positive time for the men of the church and men of the neighbourhood as they laboured side by side. Boundaries were set aside by the rigours of the task.
Shortly after finishing the playground, the cafe was launched. Again fixing up the rooms was very physical work that bound people together. There was decorating to be done, resources (kit for the cafe) to be found and people to be trained. Again, in listening to the community and doing this work together another kind of adventure was happening between the church and its neighbourhood. Initially, the cafe was run by volunteers but as it grew it became clear that something more than volunteers would be needed.
In the midst of all this creative connection with the community the congregation continued to experience resistance and there were difficult times for the church as they felt their life was continually being lived in a battleground even as these other stories continued. Mary remembers how she, with others, wrestled with this tension of call and resistance, remembering a sermon from Nehemiah with its call to “move in” and “lay brick”. Here was encouragement to keep on the journey. In it all, despite exhaustion and struggling to “see” what was happening, there was also excitement about being part of an emerging community of Christians, a belonging that meant something. The church changed its name to Pavilion Christian Community, then Rowheath Pavilion Church, more closely identifying with their physical context, their home.
What was also affecting the life of the Rowheath church was the way in which some members were also part of the Northumbria Community with their commitment to place, rhythms of life and the presence of God in the local. Lynda and Mary were both members of Northumbria’s extended network and this was an important element of how they were present at the church. Lynda was appointed the Community Development Coordinator of Rowheath for a time. She was, in effect, the “Abbess” in the midst of Rowheath. Her strong community vision and tireless relational work helped to bring down the “us/them” barriers. Lots of groups began to rent space in the Pavilion and the language began to shift from “users” and “renters” to “community groups”, a sign of the changing ways people were seeing and experiencing one another. A midweek Communion service was begun and Northumbria Daily Office was shared at mid-day. All of this was shaping a new set of relationships for the church with the community.
The structures of these rhythms, the framework of prayer, helped the gathered community recognize that the day is from God. People would sense being held together corporately by something bigger than the everyday demands on their lives. For a time these practices were sustaining. But it was hard to hold the business and church together under one vision and leaders were overstretched and divided by the complexity of the operation. The challenge of the business was overwhelming. Eventually, in the midst of conflict and hurt, the rhythm of prayer faltered and the team fragmented.
In the midst of this disappointment, the church community continued. The dwelling was a continued reality, this was their home, listening and discerning continued. New festivals under the banner “Love Bournville” were held at the Pavilion, celebrating events in the year and lifting up the story of Bournville and its roots in faith and grace. The cafe and community centre thrived, attracting thousands to some events, but eventually at the cost of a more commercial and business driven culture. However there was still room for experiment.
There was talk of creating a ‘Men’s Shed’ at Rowheath, an Australian idea, a way of gathering men in a non-churchy, unthreatening environment.[ii] It was a casual proposal but the story awakened a desire in Mary and Lynda again to offer radical hospitality in their busy community centre. This desire converged with a new movement, “Places of Welcome”, which was growing rapidly in their city.[iii] The Places of Welcome network was initiated by Thrive Together Birmingham [iv] as a response to a Birmingham Social Inclusion report published in 2012 called Giving Hope Changing Lives. It sought to respond to the isolation often experienced in the city, particularly for newcomers and those suffering some trauma. From 2018, at Rowheath, Mary and Lynda have hosted a Place of Welcome every Friday morning (bar a few Covid weeks). It is simple but profoundly relational, a powerful way of welcoming and being with the other. There is nothing fancy about either the place or the resources (bread, cheese, coffee, flowers and cake). Indeed resources, energy and creative contributions often come from participants. This is a key aspect of any Place of Welcome which is structured around basic practices of Christian life: hospitality of place, people, provision and attention and also the opportunity to contribute.[v] There is no agenda to this gathering beyond relationships and on a Friday Mary and Lynda have seen relationships flourish across boundaries of church/unchurched, capacity (some participants have learning disabilities, some have dementia) and class. Other types of communities of welcome have sprung up at Rowheath (eg. Rowheath Creative, Rowheath Active) among the many popular, more commercial, community events. City agencies have welcomed all of this and civic relationships have deepened too. Rowheath Pavilion continues to be an iconic building suggesting an alternative way of living in a culture of individualism and isolation. The Spirit continues to gestate kingdom life in the journey of this community.
Alan J Roxburgh and Roy Searle
This is an extract from the forthcoming book, Forming Communities of Hope: Leadership in a time of cascading disruptions, reproduced with kind permission of the authors, Alan J Roxburgh and Roy Searle, who point out that this story was written in conversation with Mary Publicover whose editing was invaluable.
[i] For those in the Northumbria Community this Rule of Life can be summarized simply as availability and vulnerability (https://www.northumbriacommunity.org/who-we-are/our-rule-of-life/)
[ii] See Andrew Menzie and Dean Phelan, Kingdom Communities, 2019. Men’s Sheds are non-churchy places where men can connect and talk. They have caught on as a way of connecting with men alienated from what they experienced of church
[iii] https://www.placesofwelcome.org.uk/ There are now more that 600 Places of Welcome across England. Places of Welcome is a Church Urban Fund initiative in partnership with the Together Network and Near Neighbours
[v] These are summarised as Place, People, Provision, Presence and Participation by the Place of Welcome coordinators
This story is featured in the Pentecost 2023 edition of the T4CG Newsletter.
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From space to place: Renewing the parish and the priority of mission by Martin Robinson.