Presence was formed by Bishop's Mission Order in December 2009 to set up a new church to the west side of Leicester's city centre in an area of new apartment blocks, waterside redevelopment and the DeMontfort University campus. Its leader, city centre pioneer minister David Cundill, gives an update.
Our aim is to provide church for people who don't go to church, never did, don't anymore, don't think they fit in, doubters, sceptics, seekers and the spiritually curious. We've adopted a grass roots approach built around relationships that embraces festival and fun, hospitality and welcome and safe space to ask questions. One of our regulars describes us as working out together and for ourselves what it means to follow in the way of Jesus.
We've met and made many new friends along the way as we attempt to help grow community where it doesn't exist. We're regulars at a local pub quiz, enjoy nights out at the cinema together, run men's events and weekends away in the hills, girls' nights in and lots of parties. We've tried some open mic nights and got involved with Christians Against Poverty and tried worship in many unconventional ways.
Our journey has been eventful and wholly unpredictable not least due to the dramatic change to our BMO area in this time. Our first base was a pub, which was bought by Tesco for a convenience store, just prior to the widespread collapse and closure of most pubs, bars and most meeting places in the area. Building work has largely stopped – with even the biggest waterside development having to put plans on hold for the community elements of their project, including space for shops or new meeting places. We've had to be very flexible and adapt to significant changes in the various neighbourhoods that our BMO area includes. This has been very much like a wilderness journey, looking for where God has been at work, for people of peace, and places to meet them.
As a result we've done a lot to make spirituality accessible in public spaces, in the parks for instance and through shared community rituals such as floating lanterns and memory gardens at the city's riverside festival. We've got accustomed to worship in the rain and expert at putting up gazebos. The church year has been really useful in helping people connect with us and God in new ways; we’ve reinvented festivals and claimed secular ones back, celebrating with food a lot and always providing space for spiritual encounter: Todos los Santos at Halloween/All Saints, beer and carols, Rasa/Mardi Gras, curry feasts for harvest, and even our own annual mini 'Greenbelt-style' festival under canvas at the diocesan retreat centre, Launde Abbey.
Over time, our connections with the local community have grown. We now have good links with a local primary school and have hosted a community cafe to help the university's Square Mile community outreach programme which falls into part of our area. An engagement with ancient future, involving labyrinths and Easter sunrise services, has proved popular and – combined with endless opportunities to show hospitality, welcome the stranger and share fellowship round a table over food – we're finding much of what we're doing is similar to others exploring new monastic approaches to church and life.
We're conscious that our name has had a significant part to play in this in that we've increasingly worked on helping people connect with the presence of God through what we do as a presence for God in the local community. This is now leading us to plan about how to put down roots in a local redundant church to create a community meeting place that will connect arts and spirituality amongst other things. A monthly cafe church event has evolved into a near weekly pattern of worship in many different forms, all aimed to help seekers encounter God.
Our story shows that often you cannot know the shape of church when you start to form it and that the way God builds it can be both challenging and deeply rewarding. We’re discovering the gift of not fitting in, resilience and optimism based on realised hope of what God can do for, with, and through us. Three years in, things constantly evolve and we keep finding that God opens up ever more possibilities for us to enjoy.
* On Sundays, Presence meets weekly at 3.30pm at 12 Frog Island, LE3 5AG, (next to All Nations Church) for informal worship or prayer. We also host 'Cream Tea Communion' featuring cake, community and cream tea – organised with the University's chaplaincy centre – at the same time and place on 28th October and 25th November.
Presence, based in Leicester, has been operating as Bishop's Mission Order since December 2009. How is it getting on? David Cundill, Presence leader and City Centre Pioneer Minister, outlines the story so far.
Presence continues to be a CofE church doing things differently. It is primarily a church for people who don't go to church and focuses on friendship, community and finding God in the ordinary.
In our work with students we are working in partnership with De Montfort University Chaplaincy to create fresh approaches to encountering and following Jesus around the city campus.
We've just started a monthly Cafe Church event – a relaxed way for people who do or don’t go to church to meet up, share life and explore spiritual things at their own pace. We offer 'cake, coffee, great company and spiritual stuff' and our next café church will be on 19 June at St Andrew's Hall.
We're also trying a fresh approach to worship in public spaces through a calendar of festivals and celebrations. These take place about once a month and have a definite alternative flavour. Our grass roots worship is designed around the people we meet and we are currently exploring more regular events in homes and flats, coffee shops and in a blues club. We're also making friends through meeting local people's needs, providing special events, short term lifeskills courses and support groups, social action projects and getting involved in longer-term social action through our links with people like Christians Against Poverty.
What we call our Life Groups are the building blocks of our church. These are authentic mission shaped communities meeting midweek in people's homes. for friendship, food, worship, talks and discussions, prayer and ministry.
Site Meetings are meetings for the planting team in the area to dream, explore and pray, develop vision and action and to keep mission at the heart of our lives. We usually use these to plan cafe church events.
We're involved in a lot of activities including Presence in the Pub, meeting in a local pub for Tuesday quiz nights; film nights at the Showcase Cinema in Highcross – usually on the second Saturday of the month. Often we get something to eat, then watch a film and talk about it afterwards over a drink.
We also organise men's events such as activity weekends in the Peak District with walks, pub lunch and games into the night, or helping to kit out a community centre using our DIY skills. Sometimes we get involved in local environmental or compassionate issues such as helping people with debt and money management.
A major development for us has been our involvement in festivals as well as staging one of our own. This year we have an 'extra' Presence Festival from 29th to 30th May at Launde Abbey, Leicestershire, which is an overnight taster of the full festival in June. On Bank Holiday Monday more than 3,000 people are due at Launde for a farmers' market, entertainment, car boot sale, fresh food and beer tent, free access to the retreat house grounds and so on. Presence will be providing fun and spiritual installations for everyone.
The full festival, from 10th to 12th June is also at Launde Abbey with shared feasts, live music, sports, crafts and workshops. We aim to have a family feel and for all to feel part of a unique community that gathers for a weekend.
We have organised it to add a spiritual stream of optional activities and experiences alongside all the usual festival fun. Workshops and activities range from foot massage to dancing, story circles to crafts, music, family fun, games and sports for people of all ages, meditation, discussions, spiritual installations, a labyrinth, shared worship experiences and space for silence, contemplation and personal spiritual exploration and much more.
In the weekend before the main festival Presence will also be hosting a shared community ritual as part of Leicester's Riverside Festival on 4th June. We will be making a memory garden for people to enjoy and contribute to and we're hoping that people will add their recollections to a Memory Tree on the day. We'll also have our chillout gazebo and pub quizzes.
Last year we hosted a floating lantern ceremony when there were 1,000 lanterns on the canal as the festival finale. Hundreds of people took part during the day making free lanterns for themselves or writing a message for a friend or loved one. Others made statements about climate change. The ceremony was a moving and deeply spiritual moment for those who enjoyed the spectacle and allowed the spiritual to be at the heart of the festival.
In August at Castle Park Festival, Leicester, we will provide a labyrinth and barbecue on 24th August. We typically set up two labyrinths; one on the grass outside and one inside the church for people to walk at some point in the evening.
Beer and a singalong helped to launch Leicester-based Presence as a Bishop's Mission Order. City Centre Pioneer Minister and Presence leader, Revd David Cundill, looks back at a whirlwind year and outlines his hopes and plans for the future.
It all happened very quickly. I started in post at the end of May 2009, discussions took place over the summer to sort out the BMO, and it was signed in December at a Beer&Carols event. We certainly reaped the benefits of the hard work that other BMOs had done before us in Exeter and Thanet.
Bishop Tim Stevens started the ball rolling when he gave me a brief to 'just go and plant a new church in the city centre. I give you permission to fail; you have got to take risks.'
That church was to be in an area of new apartments, waterside redevelopment, and the DeMontfort University campus. The result is Presence… a fresh approach to church. We describe it as a church for people who don't do church or go there, never did, don't anymore, don't think they fit in, doubters, sceptics, seekers and the spiritually curious.
In the middle of the BMO area is The Quay, a canal side pub which was itself part of a regeneration project a few years ago. It is now the base for Presence's midweek meetings, and some of those at Presence have become regulars at the pub’s open mic session on Thursday nights.
My first task is to develop a 24-strong planting team to reach out to the area's diverse communities; including those based around a series of tower blocks in gated developments at Freemens Meadow, Westbridge Wharf and Leicester Square.
These new blocks are in stark contrast to the area's traditional terraced streets. Each tower block looks in on a quadrangle, and you have to get through two gates to get into the heart of it all. There are no community facilities. When you look at the ads for these apartments you'd think that we had so many stockbrokers just about to nip on their bikes to Canary Wharf – and yet the development stands at the edge of the country's biggest Hindu population, but you’d never know that from the marketing image portrayed.
The regeneration of great swathes of the city means that new communities have become cut off from parish churches because the landscape has shifted, but by starting a fresh expression alongside those churches, we can redefine a pastoral boundary. It has just worked brilliantly in that it's possible to run a straight mixed economy which lets the existing parishes do what they do while we look at how we use these places in new and creative ways.
In other areas people may say, 'we are all in this together', but underneath the surface they are worried. In Leicester I believe it has worked – and, with God’s help will continue to work because of the unique circumstances surrounding redevelopment of this city.
This is a minimum 10 year project, and part of the challenge is that the landscape will continue to change dramatically during that time. Large brownfield sites in our area are set aside for new developments but are yet to be built on, so we need to be flexible in our approach and planning.
But some of our plans are very firmly in the pipeline, including the launch of a film club in the Highcross area; the setting up of a Christians Against Poverty (CAP) centre and money management course; and a term time Street Pastors scheme around DeMontfort University.
We also very much hope to be involved at The Quay on St Patrick's Day. There are lots of possibilities but we might look at having a religious 'bit' followed by Open Communion using Naan bread – reflecting the type of area we're in. We want to reclaim these celebrations for God, and show that we're a church of festival and fun.