Katie Miller wonders what the fixed festivals and and celebrations of our communities are.
Many of us who have grown up in the church have learned to appreciate the rhythm of its seasons; the changing colours and rituals of Advent, Lent, Harvest, The Passover suppers and Harvest dances – or whatever our particular community celebrates with regularity.
I remember as a small child being in awe of the Maundy Thursday practice of stripping the altars. The servers in our modern Anglo-Catholic church in North West London would, piece by piece, remove the candles, the altar fronts, chairs – in fact anything portable – until only a bare wooden table remained and a palpable sense of unsettled urgency. Into this we were expected to keep an all-night prayer vigil.
While we may not all have kept this tradition; the walk of Holy Week from triumphal entry to cross and empty tomb; or the herald of the angel to Mary through kings and shepherds to the heavenly host and Glory in the Highest, are deep within our perception of the Christian year. They are important to our sense of belonging and identity.
Recently we have been looking to move our small fresh expression of church, The Marlpit in Norwich, from its current home in a school to the local café. We decided to have a few trial runs and sat down to decide when these should be; Christmas of course, but when else? We were forced to accept that Easter, perhaps, was not such a key event to our local community and while we would seek to make it so, we needed to start where they were ready and needing to celebrate and find ritual.
What were the 'Holy Days of Obligation' for people in our area – whether or not they recognised any holy content in them? How could we meet with these days and offer some sense of marking them as a community? How could we create a space for people to create their own ritual and liturgy, their own coming together, and so reinforce our sense of belonging and identity as a whole community? For some people, these days will be the marking of a significant tragedy or loss, for some it will be a celebration; some may change from year to year; others may be more long standing.
For ourselves, we concluded that, while Easter may not mean more than chocolate and rabbits to many people, Mother's Day was clearly an immovable feast, so we duly set up the café for Mother's Day with plenty of accessible activities, posies and songs. It would be fair to say that it was not a resounding success as no-one, other than the church members, came through the doors – though we had a good time. Left therefore with many bunches of flowers at the end of the service we decided to simply go out, walk around the estate and give them to any woman or girl we could find, wishing them a Happy Mother's Day. The effect was wonderful. I spoke for some time with a woman who had recently lost her mother and was particularly touched by the gift. Everyone had a smile or a story to tell.
As we look to celebrate and tell the Christian story, it is important also to celebrate and tell people's stories – and for them to see how this is really one story. We shall continue to look for the immovable feasts of our community and we're learning that maybe the place to encounter them is not even in the café – but on the street and in listening.
Katie Miller is a Reader with St Michael's CoFE Church, Hellesdon, near Norwich, and heads up a lay leadership team serving the Marlpit council estate. As she prepares to train in pioneer ministry at Ridley Hall, Katie tells how Christians can fall into the trap of stereotyping council estate residents.
The first half of the Marlpit was built in the 1930s with the rest going up in the 1960s and it is squeezed between a main road and the River Wensum. We are with the parish across the river so there is a very real sense of the Marlpit being out on its own.
It is known as a deprived area and St Michael's had been involved in the Marlpit for 40 years before its first 'home' on the estate closed down in 2007. It turned out that not having a permanent church base was a blessing because there is such a sense here that the church is part of the establishment so it was very helpful to be able to say, 'We are church but we have got nowhere to meet.' Relationships grew from that and it was useful to learn that you can very much build from a position of powerlessness.
Our fresh expression of church, which meets in a school, has grown entirely from local people and it includes young and old, different nationalities, those with church backgrounds and others with no previous experience of church at all. At one stage, there were two people (including me) with doctorates in a congregation of 15. It's important never to assume who is going to turn up at any given time!
We tend to describe ourselves as having six ministries in the Marlpit, one of which happens to be a Sunday morning time of worship. The rest involve all sorts of things, including a community choir and a mid-day mini service which takes place after our toddlers' group. Bex Toft, who lives on the estate, now oversees all the children's work and it's wonderful to have such a good local leader.
The major advantage of being in such a great place as this is its diversity. I find incredible honesty here, people tend to be very open and are not frightened of saying, 'I'm having a terrible time; this is what's happening.' That sort of openness creates close relationships very quickly and makes for a quality of fellowship that I have rarely come across elsewhere.
I'm shocked at the ways in which some people imagine life on a council estate. The fact is that Marlpit residents are the same as anyone else; they want to have stable relationships, they want their kids to do well at school and so on. I don't feel what I'm doing is more 'worthy' or 'radical' simply because of where I'm based.
Stereotypes abound and terrible assumptions can be made that everyone on a council estate is unemployed and living on benefits. The truth is that there is a huge mix of people in varying situations, there are working people, people looking for work, people who have retired from work, people who are not well enough to work and many, many others.
Sometimes Christians can be nervous of coming on to the Marlpit. I have known people be rather unsure – to say the least – about bringing their cars onto the estate for a joint church meeting. It's a sad fact that I have also come across churches more willing to go to Africa with a mission team than serve a local council estate.
To me, much comes down to a ministry of reconciliation because one of the major obsessions in our society is class distinction. Church should be capable of breaking moulds and not be put off by the 'externals' of people not wearing the same kinds of things as us or acting in the same sort of way. We, as Christians, should be the last people to judge others on how they look and where they live.
I think people are worried that they will be overwhelmed by need. What I have learned is that if we are spiritually trying to fix people all the time we'll burn ourselves out – whether we serve on a council estate or anywhere else. Our first calling is not to fix people but to love people.
And whatever we do, just remember to listen to God and to the people he places in your path. Listening is one of the greatest gifts that we have to offer in contemporary society, wherever we live.
Katie Miller serves as a Reader with St Michael's Church, Hellesdon, near Norwich, and heads up a lay leadership team serving the Marlpit estate. Now hoping to train as a pioneer minister, Katie tells how the team built relationship with the community from a position of powerlessness.
St Michael's had been involved in this estate for 40 years before its Marlpit base, built by donations from local residents, was closed down in 2007. To me it's very interesting that what could have been the end of something instead became the start of something new because it was then that we truly started to build relationship with those around us.
The Marlpit is a council estate, half of which was built in the 1930s and the other half in the 1960s. It is squeezed between a main road and the River Wensum. We are with the parish across the river so there is a very real sense of it being a unique entity.
We found that not having a permanent church home became a blessing and we made friends precisely because we had no building. There is such a sense here that the church is part of the establishment so it was very helpful to be able to say, 'We are church but we have got nowhere to meet'. Relationships grew from that and it was useful to learn that you can very much build from a position of powerlessness.
There are four of us in the core leadership team, including a couple who came to the estate 20 years ago and lived through various curacies. We recognised that it was important to break the cabal of the four of us so we have gradually built up indigenous leadership from within the community. That's why, when the time comes for me to move on, I will be ready to hand over because that joint – or new – leadership is now in place in all of the areas for which I had personal responsibility.
We have found it important to put two or three possible leaders in place because many people's lives are so chaotic on the Marlpit that it's important to have someone else to stand in the gap if an individual can't make it for whatever reason. In terms of context, this is a place where some people have lived for a very long time with generations of the same family around the corner from each other. There are also people who only stay for a while, people who are 'housed' here rather than live here.
We are fortunate in that there are public community places on the estate; it has its own primary school, play group, health centre and a couple of shops. It also has two community centres, one of which is set up as an internet café and drop-in sort of place. We have rented rooms in both of those centres and also in the school; we've been everywhere at one stage or another! The toddler group grew to such an extent that it had to move off the estate to a Methodist Church nearby.
We tend to describe ourselves as having six ministries in the Marlpit, one of which happened to be a Sunday morning time of worship. The rest involve all sorts of things, including a mid-day mini service after toddlers' group – something which has all the hallmarks of a church. The mums from that group all care for each other and want others to be part of it.
We set up the Marlpit community choir and we're now asked to do many gigs; it has become a focus of real pride for the estate – not only for the people who take part. The estate really 'owns' it; there’s nothing like making music together to make people feel as if they are part of a community. The choir also has a Facebook page where the members pray for each other. We have 25 people involved and they're not all brilliant singers by any means but when the whole choir is singing together; they really do make a great sound. There must be a message in there for the church! We basically do karaoke and use backing tracks for music from the 1940s to the present day. Bill, one of our leadership team is the choir master. He finds the backing track and we go with it; we did Born to be Wild and something from Queen when the Archdeacon came to visit us!
We also lead a monthly service in local sheltered housing as part of our ministry here but that's very different. There we do hymns and have a very calm service; we pray for all the residents and we have some little thought or reflection as part of that. It's very gentle but we are welcomed in. In all of this, the parish church is really positive about what's happening here and we have never been stopped from doing what we do in this context; we have just got on with it.
My own background has very much fed into this time. I am an academic palaeontologist (the geology of ocean beds), have been a theatre director and now I'm pioneering. The link is that it's all about storytelling – a good geologist collects data and puts together a story from that; a theatre director is there to let the actors play through creativity and chaos before telling them, 'this is the direction I want you to go in' and pioneering is all about God's story and those whose lives are changed by it.
I have loved what I do here and I'm shocked at the ways in which some people imagine life on a council estate. The fact is that residents here are the same as anyone else; they want to have stable relationships, they want their kids to do well at school etc; I find absolutely nothing different about that.
I don't feel what I'm doing is more 'worthy' or 'radical' because of my location or context. We should be helping the poor, people who require committed support in order to give them the backing they need. We shouldn't be judging them.