As a fresh expression of church in The Congregational Federation, The Studio is still finding its feet. Its Missioner, David Richards, explains how it came about.
Heaton Park Congregational Church in Prestwich, Manchester, was built in 1881 but it closed down five years ago because the Grade II listed building had fallen into a serious state of disrepair.
The elderly congregation found it increasingly difficult to use the site and there was a big question mark over the future of this particular church. They decided to sell it to a developer and the church was converted into 23 apartments and penthouses. A new, modern worship area was also built next to the old church as part of the scheme and this is now used as The Studio community space.
When The Studio first came into the ownership of The Congregational Federation, General Secretary Michael Heaney explored how best it could be used. At that time I had just finished a pastorate in Rhiwderin, South Wales, and Michael told me about this space in Manchester. We met and the whole thing just snowballed!
I was a photographer's assistant at a studio in Cardiff and we were very much part of what was going on in our area so this was a big move for us because we didn't know much about Manchester at all. We did quite a lot of preparation before we came, researching the area and the feel of the community. We also came up to see the building a few times and thought in detail about how it might best be used – though we could see the concept of it being an art space straight away.
We drew up a comprehensive report along those lines and presented it to the Council of the Federation. They were very supportive and the Federation paid for a nearby manse as rented accommodation for me and my family. The three years of initial funding take us to end of next year and we've now been given a further three years after that.
In our first year here, we had a general concept of it being a studio space so we did lots of things just to see what happened. It was a frustrating time because it was a very slow start.
At the start of the second year we connected with a woman who was very much a person of peace to us. She had an artist friend called Micah Purnell who had an exhibition at The Studio which attracted a bit of media attention and it kick-started a lot of other activity. Since then, there have been several exhibitions and we have got at least five in the diary for next year. It did take us a while to find that niche but once we started to get the contacts, it snowballed.
That all continues to go really well, both with Christian and secular artists, and – in other developments – we have also made some strong connections with local community groups. We are starting to break ground locally and in the wider North West area where we are making some key faith connections with various projects. For the next stage, we need a few others to partner with us in prayer and resources. We need to build a group that can take it on, strengthening each part of it because there's a lot of potential here.
Our Sunday Gathering meets every week at 3.30pm as there are quite a lot of other churches in the area and we didn't want to set up yet another 10am service! It's very informal, café-style and we generally end up with a group discussion based on a biblical theme and look at how it applies to our day-to-day lives.
At the moment it's still a relatively small group. We have had our ups and downs with it but we are holding it very lightly because we would very much like a new church community to generate itself through what happens at The Studio. The Sunday Gathering is more a place of support for us as a team coming from various church backgrounds than a place where new people would ultimately end up. We are trying to see it as a bit of an experimental ground for ourselves but it would be marvellous to eventually have two emerging faith communities running simultaneously.
The Sunday Gathering group includes people from The Congregational Federation's national youth and children's office, based in our building. They have three main employees and an intern and they were all 'transplanted' into the area when the office moved to Manchester. Their presence not only makes the building much more sustainable in its usage but they have also been a great support to us.
What we wanted to do is to have another church community that could quite easily emerge from people who express an interest in it. The Sunday Gathering is an opportunity but it isn't 'be all and end all'. As we start to put our heads above the parapet and say to people, 'We would like to explore with you,' then that would give us the beginnings of an emerging congregation. As a pastor that's what you want, that's the position you want to come to and it's very easy to become impatient but I need to keep on reminding myself that God is on the case.
One of the things we are trying to look at is how best to have spiritual interaction when the exhibitions are on. At the moment we give people a postcard to write down their own opinions and thoughts but we are currently trying to figure out how to do that in a more effective way than at present.
In terms of accountability, we have a management group in Nottingham and I go over and meet with them. I also have a direct line manager and I see her quite regularly in order to pray and talk through where to go next. Until now, lots of the strategic thinking has been coming from me. This has involved bringing forward an idea, working through it, getting a feeling for it and looking at partners who will join and the relationships that will bring. What has become clear in recent times is that we need to have more people involved in local planning because the management group are not in the city. They can take it so far and then we really need to get people on the ground to act as another group to take it forward from there.
The Studio has already attracted attention from people wanting to start similar projects elsewhere. A Manchester-based charity, called The Mustard Tree, has launched an art course for homeless people and they are going to be doing an exhibition with us as well.
This is all really good news but we have got quite a few things that are on hold because of the challenges of resourcing them. I'm 'officially' part-time and involved for about 18.75 hours a week but, of course, it tends to be longer than that though I try to be as disciplined as I can. I know I'm very fortunate in pioneering terms as a far as funding is concerned, I'm very privileged. However, I still rely a lot on my part-time wage; I'm doing additional bits and pieces but it's not sustainable particularly when know that, for many organisations, the fifth year of a project is seen as the 'make or break' crunch year.
Our programme is quite varied and all of our projects look for new ways to engage with people about our connections with God. They include:
- Doodle: an art and craft group for toddlers and their carers every Wednesday from 10.30am to 1pm during term-time;
- PAUSE: encourages busy people to take a few moments to stop and reflect on life. The technique used is loosely based on an Ignation meditation exercise;
- varied exhibitions;
- Gotosofa: A community that meets once a month at a cinema as an opportunity to discuss life and meaning through the medium of film.
Our Sundays currently look like this:
- Gathering Around A Screen (1st Sunday of the month). Short video, small group discussions and a video;
- Messy Gathering (2nd Sunday of the month) Fun family time with art and craft activities leading into a time of short reflection;
- Prayers and Praise Gathering (3rd Sunday of the month). An inspiring time of music, art and creative prayer;
- Gathering at the Table (4th Sunday of the month) Share a meal together, including Communion;
- Gathering with a Guest (5th Sunday of the month).
It would be great to hear people say, 'We see the value in what you have established and we would love to come on board and help'. That might come from other Christians in a local fresh expression of church or a totally different source. Time will tell.