Steve Collins tracks the 20 year history of Grace, an alternative worship community based at St Mary's Church, Ealing.
Our 10th anniversary in 2003 came as a bit of a shock, because we'd always thought of ourselves as fragile in the face of circumstances and liable to end at any moment; we had to readjust our mindset when we realised that we were in it for the long haul! Our 20th anniversary offers us opportunity for reflection and re-evaluation.
Grace was born out of dissatisfaction with standard forms of Anglican worship, while taking inspiration from various experiments that were happening at the time. The dissatisfaction was that the standard forms did not seem to relate well to the culture of the world outside of the Church, or even to the culture of many people inside the Church. The inspiration was that Christians in other churches were acting to create new forms to bridge the cultural gap. It seemed that it might be possible to do something constructive within our own church community, rather than put up unwillingly with the status quo or leave.
So a lay member of St Mary's and the then-curate obtained permission to hold an experimental service on two Sundays a month, starting in November 1993. The 8pm slot didn't interfere with existing church arrangements, and suited the intended demographic, which was people in their 20s and 30s who might have been out on Saturday night – and would prefer to give Sunday morning a miss – but would see Grace as a good way to round off a weekend. The demographic did, of course, include the team, their families and friends, rather than an abstract target market that might be 'out there'. We felt that if it didn't work for us, regardless of who else came, how would it work for anyone else?
At first the services were created by a team of five people, but the twice-a-month frequency was too much work. So Grace took a break and returned with one main service a month, which continues to this day. From 1998 we again ran a second service each month, initially as a vehicle for experiments with the Eucharist and later as a place for community-focussed prayer, but the second service had to be kept simple to be sustainable. It never attracted a large congregation or had a long-term fixed form. Eventually it lost direction and numbers, and we finally abandoned it in 2013.
Over the years Grace has generally had a core of about 10-15 people who get involved in creating services and other events, and another 10-15 people as the direct community. Beyond that we have variable numbers of regular and irregular visitors. Congregational numbers have been as high as 100 and as low as 1, but the long-term average has been 20-40. However, we never know until the service starts who, exactly, will turn up! Our location in London means that we get quite a lot of overseas visitors who are studying new forms of church in Britain. We've made some good friends this way.
Grace is a strong example of what the Church Army's Research Unit recent report into fresh expressions of church and church plants calls 'lay-lay spare-time' leadership – people who are mostly not ordained and who do not have any formal training or accreditation. They generally serve in their spare time and so face all the associated limitations of resources and energy. There has never been any full-time or paid leadership, and the ordained people who were involved in Grace were doing it in their spare time, not as an official part of their ministry.
For many years there was no formal structure at all. This went with our stated commitments to openness and equality of opportunity – but those who got involved found that they were involved all the time, and those who were not involved in making the services had no other clear way to belong. There were also buried power issues common to all 'open' groups – male versus female ways of working, getting stuck in default roles, people whose word carried more weight than others. In addition, as we grew older and members came and went, we became more diverse. The diversity challenged our (sub)cultural focus – as we knew and intended that it would – but amazingly without causing conservatism or loss of creativity.
In 2001 we moved the main service to a Saturday night, 8pm to 9 or 9.30pm with our cafe open to 10.30pm or even past 11 if there's demand for it. The café allows us to be properly hospitable to visitors, who have often travelled a long way, as well as properly hospitable to ourselves!
The next change was to move to a 'curation' model for service planning – meaning that someone gathers and leads a group of volunteers to create a service. Since it's a different curator and group each time, nobody has to take part all of the time. The curator can also call in specific contributions from people who can't or don't want to be otherwise involved.
Grace has always been mission-minded, but our sense of what that mission might be has changed over the years. At the beginning we hoped that creative worship events would have a direct appeal to the unchurched, as well as the dechurched and the disaffected still within churches. We wanted to encourage and resource others who were on similar journeys, in gratitude at how we had been encouraged and resourced. We created worship events for youthwork conferences, festivals such as Greenbelt, and even individual churches, to inspire people to try it for themselves.
In doing all this we found ourselves, ironically, on a mission to the Church. We have a constant stream of visitors from around the globe, studying what we do and how we do it and taking it back to their own churches and denominations. It wasn't the mission we expected to have, but we've embraced it as the one we were given.
At the same time Grace has been a support for our own personal missions, in whatever places we find ourselves. Some of us do 'official' mission work, with mission agencies in the UK and abroad, or training pioneer ministers, or working with charities. Others are involved in more mainstream contexts but our community and creative activity as Grace supports our faith and witness wherever we are.
Over the last few years, individuals have faced major stage-of-life issues which make it hard to find the time and energy for Grace. Ironically, our deepening personal commitments to mission have also had an impact. With core members struggling to be available, or unwilling to commit, and a decline in the congregational numbers (probably for similar reasons) the structures we set up 10 years ago are proving hard to sustain. Our 19th year found us at a low ebb, barely able to make the monthly services happen. We openly discussed the possibility of giving up.
In the circumstances it didn't seem right to make a big fuss over our 20th anniversary. We had a fairly low key celebration for the actual anniversary, and filled the rest of our 20th year by revisiting favourite services from the archives. The intention was to take them 'ready-made' to make things easy, but our creative instincts seem to have revived and most of the services so far have been significantly reinvented. It seems to be part of the DNA of Grace – even through all the changes in personnel over the years – that we have to reinvent things, we can't bear to do the same thing twice, even when it costs us or risks failure. We constantly re-use parts of previous material, or other people's material, but the sum totals don't repeat. Life, technology, circumstances, who's in the room, all move on.
We're in the fortunate position of being able to give ourselves permission to change if it suits us – so, for instance, when the second service ran out of steam we ended it and shifted our focus to community meals. All of our structures are self-imposed, so the questions as we look forward are: What do we want to do now? What are we capable of doing now? What do we need to do, to continue as a missional and worshipping community?
For Grace the secret of longevity seems to be in having a mix of new people but also people who have been there for most or all of the community's life. The former stop it growing stale, repetitive or inward-looking, the latter carry the historical memory of the community, the wisdom and fortitude that comes from having been there and done that before. Don't have the new people, and you settle into a routine that offers nothing new for others or yourselves. Don't have the long-term people and you fight your first battles over and over again and never get past the beginners' stages.
For those just starting on this path, we offer two lessons from our experience: persistence, and publicity. Persistence is essential if you are to last long enough to grow into community and to develop your own mission. It turns failures into experience and success into a foundation. Publicity brings outsiders to inspire you and stop you becoming a clique. It allows you to share your wisdom and receive wisdom from others. It lets you be part of a bigger picture.
How long will Grace last? We don't know, but we don't know what else we would do as church. This experiment became a way of life and an enduring community.