Saturday, October 25, 2014

Sabbatical Visit 7: London

Welcome to London and St. Barnabas Church!  I've never seen a congregation with this kind of laser focus on mission.  By the way, the image above isn't from the fresh expression of church -- it's a normal Sunday morning at St. B's.

Here's the text, if you prefer it that way:

Coming to London, what does an Episcopal priest want to find?  Old stuff.  And London does not disappoint.  Whether you're touring the Houses of Parliament, or worshiping in Westminster Abbey, or marveling at St. Paul's -- seeing something a thousand years old is nothing around here.  Old lives next door to new.

We've seen a pattern like this in these sabbatical videos -- traditional, inherited expressions of church alongside fresh expressions.  And walking up to St. Barnabas Church in North London, in a neighborhood that reminds me of Brookside, you think the pattern might continue.  But St. Barnabas fits few Anglican patterns, as it turns out.  People here talk about where a church is "up or down the candle" on the scale from high to low, from Anglo-Catholic to evangelical.  You might say St. Barnabas is at the bottom of the candle, not only evangelical but deeply charismatic, too.  Worship there included several prayers for spiritual healing, words of prophecy, prayer languages, hands in the air -- and no apologies.  St. Barnabas intentionally holds together the false divisions between being rooted in Scripture, being welcoming with the Sacraments, and being open to the Holy Spirit's sometimes radical activity.

They're also clear about where this evangelical and charismatic identity leads them: outward.  As their vision statement says, St. Barnabas is about nothing less than "transforming lives and changing the world."  These are people who are sent -- apostolic, in the true sense of that word.  Mission is literally plastered all over the walls at St. Barnabas.  They support people across England and around the world promoting the Gospel.  They belong to "missional communities," small groups that study, pray, and listen to the Spirit sending them out to change the world next door.  And now, St. Barnabas has outgrown its traditional space -- a space that doesn't really communicate an intimate, personal relationship with God anyway.  So last week, the building went on the market.  St. Barnabas is now on the move into the largest commercial space in its London neighborhood.

But before that, four years ago, St. Barnabas went on the move to a less glamorous setting:  a London housing project called Strawberry Vale.  The Rev. Helen Shannon -- a long-term member who heard God's call to ministry with the poor -- began this missional journey herself, moving with her family to Strawberry Vale to practice the deeply incarnational ministry of getting to know people and showing them God's love.  They left cards and treats in people's mail slots, offered free meals at the community center, put on children's and parent groups, and spent hours simply listening.  Over time, more St. Barnabas members joined her, some also moving there; and hundreds more were praying for the effort.  Now it's grown into Church@Five, a weekly gathering of worship, conversation, and a meal -- very important in a place where food poverty is a real issue.

So, in a place with a deep commitment to mission and a worship style most Episcopalians wouldn't even recognize, where's the "both/and"?  Where's the inherited church and fresh expression of church side by side?  You can see it in the way worship works at St. Barnabas and at Church@Five.  Though it looks very different to most of us, Sunday morning at St. Barnabas is fairly traditional in the sense of who's doing the talking or singing and who's doing the listening.  As it's been for centuries, those in authority stand up in front of the gathered community and share truth, as they see it.  So St. Barnabas is traditional in the sense that the people up front send God's message, and you receive it.  At Church@Five, the order of worship is basically the same, but it feels very different.  The congregation gathers in groups around tables.  They pass the baton of authority, with Strawberry Vale residents co-leading worship with Rev. Helen and offering the beginning prayer.  The sermon is led by a pastor, but it's not just given:  Preaching is a shared event, with table conversations and discussions with the whole group about the day's reading and how it relates to your life.  And then, of course, there's the food, binding the community by breaking bread together.  The beauty is that this mixed economy of church works.  Whether it's Sunday morning at St. Barnabas or Sunday afternoon at Church@Five, both approaches fit the context to which God has sent them.

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