Exeter Network Church made history in November 2009 when the Church of England’s first ever Bishop's Mission Order officially authorised ENC as a new form of church. Jon Soper, one of ENC's leadership team, says it gives them a 'mandate to be missional'.
It's generally business as usual but, in saying that, I do feel a little bit different because the BMO does explain us to the rest of the Christian community. We are recognised as being part of the Church of England but not within the parish system; and by not being geographically set in one place, we do have a licence to roam, to experiment.
On the day that we became a BMO, the Bishop of Exeter, Rt Revd Michael Langrish, spoke about us being a Heineken church reaching the parts that the others don't necessarily reach. It's certainly a real bonus to have the weight of something bigger than ourselves mandating what we’re doing.
We celebrate our fifth birthday this year, and it will be a real year of change. One of the biggest of those may be to make use of St Matthew's Anglican church and hall in the city.
Currently we meet in a private girls' school but now some things could possibly operate from more of an established regional centre. The Maynard School is in its own grounds so people don't walk past the building. Previously we met on the quay and we built up strong relationships with people coming in from near and far. We need to get back to making those sorts of connections.
Also our core gathering on the second Sunday of the month at the school can involve up to 250 people so the hall gets pretty full. Some people may question us going into what is recognisably a church building. I would say that as we move forward into different premises, we should hold firm to the mission and vision that God has given us wherever we are. Where we go next will be our third place, but we are going to call it a base or a tent – not a home. Having everyone move from one venue to another means that it will be important to keep focused on what God is doing in Exeter.
We have to look at making it a really great place without becoming vain about it; being streetwise but also gracious and humble and using the buildings as a tool. There is a small congregation at St Matthew's and they are offering a long lease on the church and hall for us to use as we like though we will keep a small area in the church where the congregation will continue to meet for their own services.
We will develop some new things too. One of the most recent initiatives has seen us partner with Christians Against Poverty to open a CAP Centre in Exeter. We’re already seeing God bring some interested people to our door and we want to see change in people’s lives. We have offices in the town but the work also goes on in people’s houses. There are enormous problems of debt and the stories that we hear are heartbreaking.
ENC has become quite a different thing to what it was even a couple of years ago – changing from one size to another means it changes how people connect with each other and to those around them. In our early days, everybody used to pitch in and do everything together; now it's so big that you can't possibly know everyone.
Whatever the size of the ENC and its challenges, it's good to celebrate what God has done. Our fifth birthday will see the whole church, about 250 people, go away for a weekend to Fistral Bay, Newquay at the beginning of March. Revd Mark Bailey from Trinity Cheltenham, is our guest speaker, and we will also have worship, surfing, and a party with a band on the Saturday night.
Networking in all sorts of ways is important to ENC; and we have various groups which meet in venues across the city. Some of the networks are more evangelistic while others are created to build up faith; the networks range from a large group for 18 to 25-year-olds called Essence to social activities with Women of a Certain Age!