Oakwood Forest Church

Emma Major is Licensed Lay Minister at St Nicolas, Earley. She tells how three friends from local Berkshire churches started Oakwood.

I became a Licensed Lay Minister (our local equivalent of a Reader) four years ago and, right from the start, have been pioneering. I'm not what you might call a 'standard' Licensed Lay Minister (LLM)!

I have been at St Nicolas for 11 years and I had my calling while I was there; they supported me brilliantly through my training which was in the evening and at weekends though the Oxford Ministry Course. I was previously a civil engineer, running Government workshops, but I have always been interested in pioneering.

Oakwood Forest Church - leaves

Oakwood Forest Church all started when three of us were talking at a joint churches' event about how close many of us feel to God when we're in the countryside; how he feels less removed from our prayers and he seems more alive in our hearts.

The general thought was, 'If we could worship outside, that would be amazing'.

In the summer of 2013 we were in the Maiden Erlegh Nature Reserve when this seed of an idea grew a shoot of a plan. The reserve is a lovely green space, which includes eight medieval oaks, in the middle of a 1970s urban area.

We decided that we could meet together in the reserve to worship God differently; meeting people where they are already finding the source of their belonging. That became Oakwood Forest Church (OFC) and, over the last 18 months, we have met every month to walk, explore and pray together at the reserve. We have grown in number to 30 adults and 20 children who attend at least four times a year.

Oakwood Forest Church - walking

It's important to say that, while we love the creation all around us, we are not worshipping it – we are worshipping God as the creator. We are very Christ-centred in our programming at Forest Church; always coming back to Scripture and prayer. We generally pick up a Bible passage that relates to the season and take it in turns to plan our time together. It's particularly encouraging when young people and teenagers are asking if they can lead sessions or elements of response which we describe as 'Mossy Church', a title I know others are also using.

We started out by putting details on Facebook of what we were planning to do and we got 20 people coming along. Then others started to ask us questions about Forest Church as we were walking around and some dog walkers joined in! There has been quite a mix of people coming along; we've had people who have been separated from God for so long but said, 'This is church for us, we don't want to go into a church building'. Others have wanted to go into a church building again and some have said they want to do both. All of them, whether they've had experience of church or not, don't see Oakwood as 'just' an event – they all recognise it as being far more than that.

Oakwood Forest Church - thumbs up

Facebook and all the social media give us the opportunity to keep on connecting, we are 'meeting' every week in that way and, as a result, prayer for each other – and the Oakwood community – has grown out of it.

This spring, four of us who feel called to lead OFC over the next few years, got together to pray, plan and prune. We reflected on what had been going well and made changes necessary for the ongoing growth and strengthening of this fresh expression of church. We decided to reduce our meetings to five times a year, linked to Christian festivals at Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Summer and Harvest, in order to ensure the sustainability and depth of our services. We also made the decision to hire the Rangers' Interpretation Centre at the nature reserve in order to make OFC more accessible and allow us to have a fixed base to worship and share a meal together.

Everybody loved it from the moment we started to use the centre because it felt like a home or us. Personally, I have developed a debilitating illness so I can't walk too far any more but knowing that I can stay at the centre and pray – while others are responding more physically – is broadening the accessibility of Forest Church.

Oakwood Forest Church - cross

Word is beginning to spread about what is going on here and we have people from other churches, schools and individuals nervous of the institutional church, asking what it's all about.

We are so blessed because we have such support. Our local Churches Together love it and The Bishop of Reading, Andrew Proud, has said that he trusts us in our planning for this while our priest at St Nicolas', Neil Warwick, tells us, 'Just go for it!' I feel so lucky to be part of this and to be alongside people as they come to faith through Oakwood Forest Church.

I'll be part of the team involved in the Thames Valley mission shaped ministry course, starting this month, and I'm looking forward to reflecting on what is happening here as part of that. During the summer, Oakwood Forest Church will be providing prayer stations at local church and community fairs. We trust God to lead us as we continue to grow and evolve.

Walking Church

Phil WoodWood Green Mennonite Church, London, is piloting a 'walking' fresh expression this year. Phil Wood, a member of Wood Green, explains how the monthly church is a mixture of walking, talking, prayer, liturgy and meditation.

Walking has always been a passion of mine – whether hiking, rambling, bird-watching or prayer-walking. I first came across Rebecca Seaton and a Methodist South Lakes 'Walking Church' experiment in Cumbria. Their 'boots on the ground' approach proved something of an inspiration.

It has taken a few years and a move to London for the idea to become reality. There has been much to consider. For a start, we've had to take a fairly close look at what we understand by the term 'Walking Church'. There are plenty of organisations for Christian walkers and many churches have walking groups but we are not looking at an ecumenical 'fellowship' made up of Christians who walk in their spare time but a church that walks! Imagine a congregation where the essential elements of church – mission, sacraments, worship and the Word – primarily take place on the move or in the context of hospitality along the way. The idea is to create a community of faith where the heartlands of 'church' happen in the course of walking.

Walking Church - bridgeWhen I first talked of this, responses were mixed. No matter how practised I become at explaining the notion of a congregation where church occurs in the walking there are still people who don't 'get it'. That isn't surprising. Walking Church was never intended to be in competition with worship inside a traditional church building – some still think it is a gimmick but I believe they are wrong.

But my congregation at Wood Green Mennonite Church caught the vision and, following an Epping Forest taster last autumn, we pulled on our backpacks for a full-blown 2012 pilot. We're walking four London locations this year with walks arranged for the final Sunday morning of the month, changing location every quarter.

Every walk has a leader responsible for a theme and three or four reflections. We walk, eat, listen, meditate, pray and sometimes sing – though the latter is a topic of discussion. It also involves hospitality – whether in homes, pubs or cafes. Each time we learn a little more. Much of our missional energy is focused before the day of the walk because it needs a good deal of preparation with routes needing to be surveyed, publicity disseminated and conversations had.

We have just completed our Highgate series of walks. In February, I joined others on a walk between Highgate and Alexandra Palace. Wayne Hostetler led it on the theme of 'perspective' and there were some splendid views of north London to illustrate the point. We talked about the panorama from Alexandra Palace with the City skyscrapers to inner-city Tottenham and the 'smudge' of Epping Forest – all that poverty and power cheek by jowl.

Walking Church - sign

Since then, we have also tackled the 4.5 miles Parkland Walk in London's largest nature reserve following the old railway line from Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace. Now Walking Church is preparing to travel south of the river to Richmond for walks in April, May and June. Our first is scheduled to take place on Sunday (29th April) in Richmond Park with the aim of covering 2.5 to 3 miles in about three hours.

Where do we go next with this idea? There are multiple possibilities but we are trying to get our priorities right and inclusiveness is a challenge. How do we accommodate 'serious' ramblers, not-so-serious amblers, exponents of 'walking meditation' and pilgrimage and those walking for health and ecological awareness? Also, how do we go about youth and children's work and what provision are we making for those with limited mobility?

I see Walking Churches as having enormous mission potential. According to the Mission-shaped Church report, 20% of the UK population is involved in walking as a leisure activity – a figure just slightly lower than that of the entire British churchgoing constituency. There are 139,000 members in the Ramblers (formerly the Ramblers Association) alone. In large areas of Britain there are more people out walking on a Sunday than going to worship.

Walking Church - group

Of course, there are a number of potential pitfalls for Walking Church – with one of the most obvious being the weather! Although the main activity would obviously be walking there is clearly a need for some time indoors as well as outdoors – as long as this doesn't undermine the nature of the church.

Hospitality is the bridge to providing this support, especially where a Walking Church is linked to an existing congregation. What a wonderful way not only to cope with the weather but also to nurture a profound link between walking and welcome, between continuing and emerging churches. However, there's nothing to say that hospitality needs to be in a church building; it could be in a pub, a home, a youth hostel or any number of other locations. Walking Church also raises the possibility of linking together fresh expressions of church – for example by partnering with a cafĂ© church.

Some provision has to be made for the practicalities of teaching, worshipping and sharing the Good News on the move but otherwise the business of 'church' remains much the same. A church that walks still needs leadership, administration, health and safety and safeguarding, for example. We would also need to bear in mind the optimum size of a walking church given the practical limitations of audible conversation and the challenges of arranging hospitality for considerable numbers of people.

Walking Church - cycle route

In terms of organisation, I believe the cell church model – with some adaptation – offers the best insights for structuring walking churches. The largest investment in walking church from the outset is not finance; it's time – although salary, training and staff accommodation costs should also be considered.

I have been thinking too as what might be possible as Walking Church develops. Here are some of the early thoughts:

  • a link with a Tourist Information Centre;
  • versatility of Walking Church – urban, rural or suburban;
  • launching Walking Church via a long distance path such as the Pennine Way or the Ridgeway, perhaps involving people from different churches along the route;
  • there is a strong ecological dimension – opportunities for awareness raising and practical conservation;
  • walking with a webcam would enable a Walking Church 'service' (a walk) to be viewed live online. Potential to link congregations in different areas or across denominations;
  • offers a natural window into powerful expressions of social justice in identification with the stranger, the homeless and the refugee;
  • walking Church 'guidebooks' could be an exercise both in devotional and travel writing;
  • play a significant role in extremely rural communities;
  • could walk 'home or away' (i.e. near or far away from where most members live) or it might draw members from a wide area based on a network connection. So, a Walking Church might have a close association with one locality or much more of a network focus.

Walking Church - smileWe're learning something about evangelism in the values driving this particular fresh expression. One of our walkers likes us because we don't 'proselytise', instead we 'reflect'. Are we too peaceable to share faith? I hope not – but our message isn't 'become like us and you will be saved'. We are a 'peace church'. Yes, words are important, but mostly peace is in the pace. It's easier to listen at three miles per hour.

The Dock

Chris BennettBelfast's Titanic Quarter is at the heart of the city's regeneration. A few years ago the area was largely deserted, but a large-scale redevelopment programme is transforming it into a 21st century 'urban village'. Chris Bennett is chaplain of The Dock.

I had been in parish ministry for 10 years before taking this on in November 2009 and I can honestly say I have never had so much fun. I am not finding it a burdensome and terrifying thing – though there has been quite an adjustment to make.

In my first year here, after coming from a busy parish, I thought we would be singing songs and getting on with church life within a matter of months. That, of course, was not the case and wise people have talked patience into me.

The Dock - waterIt requires a kind of reordering of your expectations in a new way. It's a process. I was coming in with some expectations which were pretty standard parish-based ideas and it's been fun having that knocked out of me.

I've tried not to rush to plant a church on an existing model, or to do what is familiar or recognisable. Instead I have had to move from the focus on attractional and instead think about something incarnational; that's the essence of chaplaincy. It's about a whole 'other' way of doing things – to go and walk the streets and live the life of the community around you.

There is a lot of talk around chaplaincy when thinking about its relationship – or not – to fresh expression of church. What I have found in this context is that the chaplaincy word seems to describe what I am aiming at and it also helps those from a traditional situation to grasp what I'm doing. This is quite important from our faith background here in Belfast.

The Dock - craneThe idea of yet another expression of church in a place where division and sectarianism has caused such problems in the past can be seen as not overly helpful. There are very few working models of how Christians all share a ministry other than chaplaincy – why should it not work in the Titanic Quarter? The variety of needs here is too great to ever be encompassed by one minister or even one denomination. Chaplaincy is helping us to work out shared working in denominations. It's a key that unlocks unity rather than describing my absolute mission statement.

Over the next 25 years, the Titanic Quarter will evolve to include residential areas, businesses, a new college, a film studio, the £97m Titanic visitor attraction – and links through to East Belfast and the nearby Odyssey Arena.

The numbers involved will be staggering:

  • 20,000 residents;
  • 10,000 businesspeople, mostly in finance and IT;
  • 15,000 students at the new Metropolitan College;
  • 500,000 tourists per annum (the target for the first year alone).

The Dock - chainClearly the Titanic Quarter, when complete, will be big enough to merit its own local church. But the opportunity runs even deeper than the chance to plant another church along existing models. A brand-new community, in a brand-new part of the city, offers an opportunity to re-envision church for a new cultural context.

The Dock is in a position to register a new type of Belfast. There really is a feeling here that the Titanic Quarter, as neutral ground, could be seen as Belfast's chance to start again. Someone described it to me as 'the best blank page the church has had in Ireland since St Patrick stepped off the boat' – it's our challenge and a core value of The Dock to find out what it means to share the ministry in this place.

The Dock - walkI would see our expression of church as our weekly Dock Walk where we chat about a passage of Scripture as we're on the move, or as we stop, pray, or listen to meditations or music. We use Wordlive multimedia resource as a jumping-off point for our chat but people are very welcome just to turn up and we'll take it from there. We don't sing, or preach, or walk around with sandwich boards. It's comfortable for all of us – yet we engage in issues in quite a profound way. Then we all head for coffee afterwards and spend a little more time together.

This is a three-year pilot project post. I now have a job as a Titanic Walking Tour guide for two days a week. The role has got me into all sorts of businesses and buildings I wouldn't have been able to do otherwise and it's also an attempt to show this work can be self-sustaining because most of The Dock's money still comes from the Diocese of Down and Dromore – though we are in the process of being formed as a company, limited by guarantee, with charitable status.

Sometimes I do get asked, 'When is it going to look like a church? When are you going to have people singing songs and listening to a sermon?' but I've got a fantastic amount of support from Bishop Harold (Rt Rev Harold Miller) and all the denominations. I'm very fortunate in that. I also have a Methodist co-chaplain working with me now and hopefully this is the shape of things to come at The Dock.

The Dock - cakeAs part of our future plans, I also hope to get a boat – that has been the concept right from the start. Quite a few people ask us why, particularly with all of the Titanic associations here, but it feels like we are at the stage where we have done all we can do in coffee shops and a boat would give us an operational base. That means people could physically find us rather than having to rely on a website and a phone number for information.

In practical terms it's a good idea because development here is quite tightly controlled – and expensive. A boat is the only way to have a physical space for us and it's a relatively cost-effective way of doing things. Our budget is in the realm of £500,000.

A boat in the Titanic Quarter would carry great iconic power. As a boat doesn't look like a church from any denomination, it would be new territory for all – neutral waters.

The Dock - postitAs for being associated with the name of the Titanic, we're all accustomed to queries as to whether it's bad taste to commemorate that link at all. In fact the view in Northern Ireland is that it was all right when it left here; it was later on when disaster struck. But for many years there was a real level of shame about it – I actually think there is something of God about the way that everything is tying together in Northern Ireland at the moment. Somehow, the Titanic, from being a thing we never much talked about, is being re-born because it pre-dates the Troubles. For all that it was quite clearly a tragedy on its maiden voyage, the very fact that it sank has stamped its name on history. Many other ships suffered tragedies but the scale of the Titanic's amazing construction makes it unique and people now feel it's right to remember the incredible expertise that went into it. That's why there was such interest surrounding the recent 100-year anniversary of the Titanic setting sail.

The Dock - appThe talk in the corridors of political power is all about Shared Future and Community Cohesion – redefining the existing communities and asking them to change but here we have the opportunity to create a new community that looks very different from our sectarian past.

We are aware that the international community is looking at this too. People can view Belfast through a very narrow lens but The Dock can offer a phenomenal witness. In the past, Belfast has been the example of the danger that religion can bring. How wonderful instead to be an example of the healing of faith.