Heather Cracknell, a pioneer curate near Norwich, is looking to establish a social enterprise café and community project on a new housing development. She hopes it will develop into a fresh expression.
Since I was ordained as a pioneer minister in 2011, the diocese of Norwich has encouraged me to explore what it means to be 'church' in an area of new housing.
Launched in June 2007, the Roundhouse Park development is on the outskirts of Norwich at Cringleford. Building work is still going and eventually there will be 1065 homes. In the next six to nine months there should be a school and eventually a community centre but, at the moment, there isn't a public place to meet at all.
I live in a house bought by the diocese at Roundhouse and my role is split between pioneering there and a traditional curacy in St Peter's Parish Church, Cringleford.
New housing areas are interesting because they have a very distinct culture and don't tend to integrate well with the villages around them. This is compounded at Roundhouse because the development is separated from Cringleford village by a dual carriageway so it's not easy to grow it as one community. Another factor is that the people moving to the new housing tend to be younger than those in the village. Cringleford is near the hospital, research park and university so the new development offers many young professionals and their families a more varied mix of housing.
I have been here for just over 20 months and, in that time, my priority has simply been to get to know as many people as possible. I started by having regular curry nights at my house and, from that, people would suggest different things we might do. This led to 'Stitch and Yarn' which involves people coming together for crochet, knitting or some sort of stitch craft; a cup of tea and a lot of chat. We've also had quizzes, running sessions, picnics and even a 'bake-off' around the kitchens of Roundhouse Park. We are trying to offer as diverse a range of activities as we can but we are still in quite an exploratory phase.
Once a fortnight I host something called Table. People come together for a meal and they're free to explore Christian faith in a safe space. We eat together, have a simple reflection (usually with bread and wine) and get to know each other.
It's so important to try and discern what people are concerned about in the area rather than make any assumptions as to what you think they are concerned about! As part of that, we launched an online community survey in the autumn to find out more about what people wanted and why. The idea was that it would encourage increasing numbers of people to get involved in building community spirit.
We also used the survey to suggest the idea of creating a community project. This involves setting up and running a cafe to provide a place for people to go, spend time with friends, meet others and join in with community activities. It's good to try and get feedback on something like that because there's no point doing something that people don't want in the first place!
The café would not only provide a physical focus for activities but, from the very start, be a spiritual hub. For us it's very important that Christian contemplative prayer and prayer stations of some sort would be 'built into' the rhythm of all activities there to give people the chance to explore Christian spirituality in a very familiar setting. It would be part and parcel of what's available and should beg the questions, 'What does it mean to live well? What would that mean to a community of people exploring faith together, meeting in a café space or school?'
The exciting thing is that we already have the embryo of that community at The Table. We are small in number but I can see the beginnings of a prayerful and supportive group of people.
St Peter's Church is fantastically supportive of what I'm doing on the Roundhouse and they have given me time for that. They also recently launched an appeal for various things associated with mission at the church, including updating of the church hall – and my community café project. If the fundraising goes well, then we will go out and find some match funding.
I have been very clear with St Peter's right from the beginning that the Roundhouse work is not about getting people to come along to the traditional church; some may well want to do that and I'd be delighted if they did but that's not the purpose of developing community in the new housing area.
As a giving, supporting, encouraging new community of faith is formed at Roundhouse; that will be 'proper church' too.
It's taking time to develop a team to help me with what's developing at Roundhouse, and a number of local people are involved in helping create the community project planning. They're not necessarily involved in the parish church but they all have a heart for doing something in, and for, community.
I'm trying my very best to create a team but young professionals are understandably very busy. Many of them have got young babies or they're working full time, are in the process of setting up their own businesses, or work irregular shifts – so I am still doing most of the work on my own but I don't think there's any way round that at the moment.
This is an unusual area in that – although we have a German Lutheran congregation which meets at St Peter's – we do not have another church, of any denomination, in our parish. We are fortunate in that we have had some great support from Methodists who are not too far away and they have helped me to link up with regional Methodist projects, but there is no other Christian community on the doorstep.
Officially I have two-and-a-half years to go here but I hope I would be able to stay on as an associate priest licensed to the newer church. I don't know yet whether it will be a BMO but my aim would be to stay on in order to see it through because it is now generally recognised that seven years is the minimum time required to make something sustainable. We'll see!