Postcards from the UK: St Mellitus College and the London Anglicans

Having completed the Fresh Expressions International Learning Community (which you can read about in my earlier postcards), I’ve moved to London for a few days meeting with interesting church leaders in a variety of settings.  The emphasis has shifted a little away from FX to other areas of interest for the Synod of Queensland.

Checking in at St Mellitus College

I swung by St Mellitus College today, and joined the student body for their regular Monday morning worship before sitting down with Russell Winfield, the International Development Officer for the college.

Now 10 years old, St Mellitus is a theological college launched from the well known Holy Trinity Brompton church. While it now operates largely independently of HTB now, it does still retain close links.  The story of St Mellitus has been one of rapid growth, from its initial year with just a handful of students, to now over 650 students spread across four campuses around England.  I’m led to believe it’s comfortably the largest of the Church of England’s theological colleges, and draws students from 35 (of the 41) dioceses in the country.

Those are the numbers.  Beyond that, the range of courses offered (both post-grad and undergrad, along with non-accredited “lay” training) are typical, including a pioneering stream common to many UK colleges these days.

The mood in the room, at least on the day I visited, was buzzing. Something like 2-300 students gathered (as they do each Monday) to start the college’s teaching day with worship (part of St Mellitus model is that all teaching happens on the same day – leaving students to do private study other days, and to be in field placements for 3 days per week). The worship is student led, so it various in style and format from week to week, and on the day of my visit it had a solidly contemporary/evangelical flavour.  There was a buzz in the room, of anticipation, of chatting and catching up, of preparation for the day in what looked a relatively young student cohort.  It was an altogether lovely and encouraging way to start the week.

One story told during worship stuck with me. The leader was sharing an experience in which she with a group of friends had rented a house to live in an economically depressed area, with the intention of investing in the community there. They came to be known as “the church house”, with neighbours welcome anytime, the community supported, and people knowing it was a place they could always turn for help.  Even “non-church” people in the community appreciated their presence and pitched in to help from time to time. It struck me that perhaps this is the core purpose of church, and that just about every neighbourhood could do with “a church house” like this one. No, it’s not rocket science, but I appreciated the reminder.

St Mellitus College is located in an old cathedral style church called St Judes.  The church building was turned over to the college in a pretty poor state, and with very little use from a pretty small congregation.  The venue itself has been remarkably transformed – with the heritage of the building honoured (to my eyes at least), but an unapologetically contemporary flavour with smart, well planned additions to the building to enable it to serve both its original purpose, and its new place in the world.  It strikes me that this is something of a metaphor for what St Mellitus are attempting to do – to honour their heritage while building a new church entirely.  In a country expecting a huge number of clergy to retire in the next 10 years, and in which the church is in decline, St Mellitus is one way the church of England is addressing that challenge.

The college’s philosophy includes study that is grounded in prayer and worship, and that is intricately entwined with the real world – where students are at the college building only one day a week (plus occasional residential intensives), but out in real-world field placements the rest of the time.

Time will tell, of course, how successful St Mellitus will be. They seem to have their feet firmly grounded, and when I asked about evidence and outcomes, Russell was pretty clear that at only ten years of age, it’s hard to be sure.  His view was that I should ask the question again in 40 years’ time to see if the initial growth, and early anecdotal evidence is supported by long term value for the church.  I was glad to visit St Mellitus, and encouraged by what they’re up to.

 

London Anglicans Planting 100 New Churches?

After St Mellitus I headed over to visit the HQ of London Anglican Diocese church planting team.

Formed as part of the Diocese’ vision for it’s future agreed to in 2013 (under the banner Capital Vision 2020), the team is at the centre of an intent to plant or significantly renew 100 churches within the diocese by 2020.  Even in a Diocese the numeric size of London (500+ churches) this is a seriously ambitious goal, and a fair chunk of the time I had to visit was spent exploring how they’re going about the task.

I would start by observing that they’re well organised, and they’re clear and unashamed about the target.  There are a bunch of other elements to the Vision (to do with leadership development, faith sharing, doubling the number of young people engaged and so on) and all seem equally ambitious.  Have a quick look here at the elements of their vision.

Part of the strategy is to create and recognise what they describe as City Centre Resource Churches – the kind of larger churches that will be actively planting new churches (coincidentally a very similar description to one we’ve been starting to use in conversation at Queensland Synod this year).  Other elements include fresh expressions (as an aside, this wasn’t the first or last time I heard fresh expressions talked of as part of a wider church planting strategy while I’ve been here…sometimes I think we separate the two…), training church planting teams, work on local government estates, revitalising struggling churches, partnering with area Bishops and one fascinating story about a purpose built boat that will be moored on the river adjacent to an urban renewal project that doesn’t have room for a church building, and from which the church will operate.

4 years into the project, and there have been just under 50 new or significantly revitalised churches launched. With 3 years to go, there is a sense of confidence that they’re on track.  Interesting when the conversation turned to ‘failure’ rates, the statement came back that there had been a close to zero failure rates (I think it was actually zero, but my notes and memory have let me down on this…so I’ll say “close to zero” to be safe), and that this was a minor cause for concern…because it might mean that the church hasn’t taken enough risks.  I found that a pretty refreshing attitude for an organisation as structured and generally careful as I assume the Church of England to be.

Development for church planting teams included bespoke training, coaching, financial support (at one of three established ‘levels’) and assistance with matters such as strategy, financials, personal leadership, structures, buildings and so on.

Additionally, the team have been operating what I heard described as a “Church Growth Learning Community” – a community of leaders from congregations who are committed to growing, and who meet together regularly over two years to explore strategies to do so.

It’s not all sweetness and light of course, and when learning from an experience like this we have to take seriously the differences in both context (the UK is still quite different from Australia in terms of the place of the Church…particularly so for the Church of England…in broader society) and the capacity to deploy significant resources (people and otherwise) in support of agreed strategies.

Still, I saw a church willing to set very clear goals, a church quite committed to learning again how to proclaim the gospel in a way suited to their context, and a church willing to make decisions and bring its people and resources to bear on the challenges of our day.

I walked out with a little smile on my face, pleased for the Diocese of London that they’re on the path they’re on.

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