Norwich Christian Meditation Centre has given rise to an ecclesial community with Eucharist, worship, discipleship nurturing and community building at its heart. Developing Consciousness, an 8-week introductory course on spirituality, has played an important part in the Centre's development. Rev Nicholas Vesey, vicar of St Augustine's, Norwich, explains more.
St Augustine's Church pioneered the Developing Consciousness course as a means of connecting ancient Christian truths and practices with contemporary spirituality. The result is the Norwich Christian Meditation Centre.
Developing Consciousness, and the follow-up 'Into Christ Consciousness', attracts people who are seeking to deepen their personal spirituality and explore Christian faith.
St Augustine's meets as a church on a Sunday but it now offers a lot more than that. The church itself dates from 1163. In 1993 the congregation, some 40 to 50 people, moved out of the church because the roof was dangerous. About £80,000 was raised to renovate the church hall for worship. In 1999, during a long period without a vicar, the old church was declared redundant. By then our numbers had dropped to about 25.
We wanted to grow from there and identified quite a strong 'alternative' community living in our area, and made a decision to be less churchy. New signage encouraged people to 'come and develop your spiritual life'. Then, after surveying newer members to find out what attracted them to St Augustine's, we created the Developing Consciousness course which now runs twice a year.
We re-ordered the building to make it more attractive and rebranded ourselves as the Norwich Christian Meditation Centre – with the blessing of our bishop. Using modern marketing and advertising techniques to publicise our events, we encouraged the development of a community group to include those on the local estate, and organised a regular garden party for all local residents to create a village feel, although we are near a city centre.
Once in contact with the Centre, individuals can connect with the Christian community through our many expressions of worship, spiritual practice and community life: Ambient Wonder (alternative worship community), weekly Christian Meditation group, learning events, Sunday morning services, small groups meeting in people's homes and local community projects.
We are rarely, if ever, all gathered together but our values are to provide space for people to express themselves, connecting with their own creativity in pursuit of our Creator. We are committed to learning from each other and using the skills and talents God has given us to explore new understandings and cement our spiritual experiences into our everyday lives. We know we are called to be in our contemporary culture but not 'of it', and so we aim that what we do together enables us to authentically reflect God's presence in us.
As our community evolves we are working to increase the cross-over between the different groups under the umbrella of the Meditation Centre. We have a database of those who have attended the courses and invite them to guest events with interesting visiting speakers. We finance the entire venture through the speaker programme. So far we have held conferences featuring Richard Rohr and Cynthia Bourgeault. John Bell has just run a two day intensive course for us entitled Moving the Contemplative Heart to Action. This means people can belong without having to pay for the privilege of belonging. We feel that this template could work for any church in any town or city in the UK, so long as there is an interest in meditation among the church members.
The Centre has also launched a programme for men in and around the Norwich area. Soul Brothers is a group formed out of the experience of those learning from the American Franciscan Richard Rohr's teaching on the role of men within a spiritual context. At the moment we hope there will be a large group meeting once every couple of months, with an opportunity to be a part of a smaller group of men (about 10) to get together more regularly. Our next meeting will be in October.
We aim to be a liquid network, with each event or group acting as an access point to belonging in our spiritual community. People can find their home in one or more activities and we journey together towards God, not assuming that we all start from the same place but knowing that we're heading towards a deeper knowledge of divine love and freedom in Christ.
The problem is that churches today are finding it difficult to find a niche within contemporary society. What we see as part of the solution is that many such churches fit naturally into some part of the contemplative tradition and there is a hunger in contemporary society for 'spirituality' or the cultivation of a sensitive and rewarding relationship with eternal truth and love. These churches could institute local Christian Meditation Centres to teach the contemplative tradition, and so appeal to those in search of spirituality. In support of that vision, a book is about to be published which includes all the contents of the Developing Consciousness course.
The Meditation Centre now has 1000 'members' with a small group programme and church at the centre. This provides access points through a culturally relevant structure, enabling people to participate in a Christ-centred community, promoting the purpose of God and the practice of the presence of God.